Twilight of the Eastern Gods

Moscow, 1958. A young and talented Albanian author is sent to the centre of the Communist world in order to complete his literary education at the renowned Gorky Institute. The bustling atmosphere of the Soviet capital with all its interesting opportunities in the cultural sphere (despite the limitations that the communist ideology imposes), the chance to meet with fellow writers from diverse backgrounds, the less puritan lifestyle in Moscow compared to the more and more paranoid atmosphere in Enver Hoxha’s Albania, and its (then) backwater capital Tirana, and the elevated feeling to belong visibly to the chosen intellectual elite of the future in the communist world – all this should make this stay a pleasant experience for someone who aspires to be a professional writer.

And indeed we see our hero/narrator (who shares many experiences and characteristics with the book’s author) at a writer’s holiday retreat on the Baltic sea – a previous one at the Crimea is mentioned -, enjoying romantic infatuations with several young women, indulging in “typical” student’s activities in Moscow at that time, like getting terribly drunk on several occasions, and so on. In between, we follow our hero to lessons at the Gorky Institute, which are moderately interesting, or we read his talks, discussions or overheard rumors that usually centre around the Russian literary elite; Yevtushenko asks the hero on one occasion in the corridor of the student’s building, if he has seen Bella (Akhmadulina) – that’s the kind of every day experience the narrator has. And yet, for the main character Moscow and particularly the Gorky Institute and the literary circles become a serious disappointment, for various reasons.

When Lida Snegina, the hero’s love interest for most of the book mentions to him that she doesn’t like living but only dead authors, it sounds a bit provoking first. But somehow this casual remark is a kind of trigger for some soul-searching and analysis of the authors and would-be authors that surround the hero at the Gorky Institute: the majority of them mediocre figures, willing to sell their souls and to change their convictions immediately if a new party line requires it. And their works: books that have got almost nothing to do with the real life of the people in the Soviet Union or their respective homeland, most of them idyllic descriptions of a non-existing communist paradise without any literary value.

There is of course another literature in Russia at that time, but it’s a literature that is banned, and circulated only in Samizdat, copied secretly and handed over clandestinely from friend to friend. In an abandoned tract of the student’s building, the narrator finds an incomplete manuscript of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, the famous banned novel for which Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Once the news regarding this award is public, a ferocious, well-orchestrated, nation-wide campaign against Pasternak is let loose, a campaign that is so vicious that the narrator asks himself how it must feel when one is at the receiving end of so much hate propaganda, venom, and even threats against one’s own life. No wonder, that his opinion about most of his colleagues at the Gorky Institute becomes free of any illusions:

“At long last, after overcoming their adversaries, having accused them of Stalinism, liberalism, bourgeois nationalism, Russophobia, petty nationalism, Zionism, modernism, folklorism, etc., having crushed their literary careers and banned the publication of their works, having hounded them into alcoholism or suicide, or, more simply, having had them deported, that is to say, after having done what had to be done, they had been inspired to come to the Gorky Institute to complete their literary education.”

While this evaluation may be true for the big majority of students, there are a few of his colleagues with whom the narrator develops a distanced friendship. One of them, the Greek Antaeus, a veteran of the Greek Civil War, and by coincidence a one-time patient of a hospital in Gjirokaster, the narrator’s home town, reminds the narrator of the besa, this Albanian obsession about the keeping of a once given word under all circumstances, and even when it means to rise again from the dead, as it happens in the old Albanian legend of Kostandin and Dorutine; this legend that plays a certain role in this novel was later made the theme of The Ghost Rider, another Kadare novel. There are more references to Kadare novels that obviously are brain-childs of his stay in Moscow: The General of the Dead Army, The Niche of Shame, and The Three-Arched Bridge. The world of the Kadare novels is full of cross-references, and The Twilight of the Eastern Gods is no exception.

I mentioned it in another review of a Kadare book: it rains a lot in Kadare’s novels – as much as it does in the movies of Andrey Tarkovsky. Twilight of the Eastern Gods is no exception, but it gives a hint why this is a recurring theme in all of Kadare’s books. In the books that were typical for the Socialist Realism of the 1950s it would hardly ever rain, the sun was always shining over the Worker’s Fatherland. The insistence on rain is also an act to distance himself from this kind of fantasy literature that was expected from writers who had graduated from the Gorky Institute; at least this is how I understand Kadare.

In the end, Albania and the Soviet Union start to distance themselves; everybody seems to realize it before the narrator does it. We know what will happen: the narrator will have to return home, and experience his own, even worse dictatorship again.

Maybe Twilight of the Eastern Gods is not exactly on the same literary level as some of his masterpieces (Broken April, The Pyramid, Palace of Dreams, The General of the Dead Army, Chronicle in Stone, The Winter of our Discontent), some of the characters are a bit flat, but still it is a good novel that gives valuable insights in the world of this giant of contemporary world literature. It is his most autobiographical book and I can recommend it to anyone with an interest in Kadare’s works.

One word about the translation, and about the translations of Kadare’s books in general. The reviewed edition in English is translated by David Bellos from the French translation by Jusuf Vrioni – similarly to The Siege that I reviewed here previously. Overall not a bad effort, although I am in principle opposed to this kind of translations that are for me only acceptable when there are no translators at all for a given combination of languages; so for this edition there is no excuse based on availability of translators. There are excellent translators from Albanian to English. But the case of Kadare is a bit more complicated, and – very typical for this author – even a bit ambiguous.  

All books of Kadare that were published in Albania before 1992 were subject to censorship. Some of his books were even banned after publication in Albania, despite having undergone careful reading by the censors. At the same time, Kadare could publish some of his novels abroad or in Albania in translations. His translator in French was Jusuf Vrioni, also an author and close friend of Kadare. Kadare speaks French and worked usually closely together with Vrioni in the process of translation to French. After the fall of communism in Albania, Kadare started to review his books and included in new editions also banned paragraphs and pages. Therefore, the updated French language editions of Vrioni would contain more authentic versions of Kadare’s novels than the originally published Albanian versions. At a later stage the expanded, uncensored French versions were then published in Albanian, in Kadare’s favourite publishing house Onufri. The German translations of Kadare novels on the other hand are exclusively translated directly from Albanian, based on the versions that Kadare authorized.

There is another reason why Kadare (or his agent, Mr Andrew Wiley) usually favors a translation of his older novels from the French translation, and not from the Albanian originals, I suppose. Albania has become very late a member of the relevant international agreements on authors’ rights and copyright. As a result, authors of Albanian works that were published prior to the ratification of these agreements by Albania, have no copyright protection. Kadare wouldn’t see a penny of royalties for a translation of any of his earlier novels, unless a publisher would – for ethic, not for legal reasons – decide to compensate him. The French translation is considered according to these agreements as a new work (because it includes many changes compared to the original Albanian text), and is therefore subject to royalties. Not that it affects in any way the literary value of Kadare’s works, but this background is important to know, if one wants to understand the strange translation practice of his work in the Anglophone world.

Ismail Kadare: Twilight of the Eastern Gods, tr. David Bellos, from the French translation by Jusuf Vrioni, Canongate Edinburgh London 2015

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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