This reminiscence of the author’s time in Moscow in 1958, told under the thinnest glaze of fiction, is a slight but strangely captivating capsule of Soviet literary manners. The setting is the Gorky Institute for World Literature, an ideological factory where socialist realist writers were churned out like so many automatons, ready to champion the communist state in prose that had all the life of those stone statues of Lenin that stood over every town square.
Our unnamed protagonist is a foreign student from Albania, but we can safely identify him as Ismail Kadare, the author, who spent two years at the writers workshop. It is hard for some to remember now, but Moscow was once the capital of a great idea, drawing acolytes from around the world. Often, however, these visitors to the cold north found the Soviet Union drab and mendacious, and that is the animating theme of Kadare’s tale, in which even the Kremlin walls are “unfinished, apathetic and undramatic.”
“Twilight of the Eastern Gods” is arriving late to the English-speaking world. It appeared in Albanian in 1978 and in French three years later. It’s being published in English only now, drawn from the French edition in a fine translation by David Bellos, who also provides a useful introduction.
The vilification of Boris Pasternak after he was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize in literature, an award that the Kremlin treated as an anti-Soviet provocation, forms the centerpiece of Kadare’s story. The Gorky Institute rouses itself to condemn the elderly Pasternak as a Western stooge and traitor, part of a nationwide campaign in which the “renegade writer was being spattered with venom.” The outraged critics, as Kadare notes with an eye for the ham-fisted excesses of Soviet propaganda, came from the ranks of “oil drillers, drama students, Orthodox priests, Bolshoi ballerinas, mountain climbers, atomic physicists, beekeepers, Caspian Sea salt-rakers, reformed mystics, the mute, and so forth” who worked themselves into a froth over the shocking “Doctor Zhivago,” which, of course, none had read.
The Gorky Institute is peopled by “conformist playwrights, white-washers . . . dogmatics, arse-lickers and Russian nationalists . . . slanderers and snitches.” Fueled by copious amounts of vodka, and literally between bouts of vomiting, these writers, at least the more honest among them, wander the halls telling one another the plots of books they will never write. “Plot-spew! That’s what they call it,” and these invisible stories emerge in “fragments of scenes and synopses . . . limping party secretaries who stole piglets from the collective farm, fake ministers, decrepit and dim-witted generals, and Politburo members who spied on each other . . . top officials’ luxurious dachas, their drinking parties and bribes.” In full sobriety, all will be “metamorphosed” into selfless party activists, upturning the virgin soil and heralding world revolution.
The irony of Kadare’s disdain is that he was once accused by some critics of being among the lickspittles who accommodated themselves to the kooky, brutal Albanian regime of Enver Hoxha. And particularly when Kadare won the first Man Booker International prize in 2005, there were unkind words about his alleged servility. This was unfair. “Open opposition to Hoxha’s regime,” Kadare said at the time, “was simply impossible. Dissidence was a position no one could occupy, even for a few days, without facing the firing squad. On the other hand, my books themselves constitute a very obvious form of resistance.”
“Twilight of the Eastern Gods” is comic and waspish, and Kadare, unlike his comrades at the institute, is a true and unforgiving writer, with a nice penchant for simile. The cupoloas of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square become “like the turbans of our own Bektashi preachers or like coloured soap bubbles blown by some gigantic mouth.”
What is lacking in this short novel is much in the way of plot. Bellos, in his introduction, says “Twilight of the Eastern Gods” was written in fragments over 15 years, and it does read like some loose, skipping recollections. There are flings with Russian girls, meanderings through the city, the campaign against Pasternak, bouts of drinking, a smallpox outbreak, forebodings of the disintegrating relationship between the Soviet Union and Albania, and — poof — we’re done.
But the novel is a fascinating document, a fuguelike trip to a bizarre, nearly forgotten place. “Once upon a time,” Kadare writes, “there used to be a giant state whose name was Soviet Union.”
Finn is The Washington Post’s national security editor and the co-author of “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.”
TWILIGHT OF THE EASTERN GODS
By Ismail Kadare
Translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by David Bellos
Grove Atlantic. 192 pp. $25