In his last novel, the Albanian literary giant draws parallels between Boris Pasternak’s fateful phone call with Joseph Stalin and his own experiences under the tyranny of Enver Hoxha

“Exegi monumentum aere perennius/Non omnis moriar (I have made me a monument more lasting than bronze/I shall not wholly die,” wrote Roman poet Horace, putting down in words his belief that the world of his work would be immortal, evergreen. Ismail Kadare (1936-2024), Albania’s éminence grise, who lived in exile in Paris since 1990 and died earlier this week in Tirana at 88, did something similar in his storied writing career spanning six decades.

Kadare spent 30 years of an active life under dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania from 1946 until his death in 1985 — writing in the dark times of the dark times, when his own destiny depended on the dictates of the regime. Often compared to the two other staunch critics of totalitarianism, George Orwell and Franz Kafka, Kadare cloaked his subversive writing in allegory, myth, fable, and other devices. The stratagem to imbue his books with subtle critiques of power helped him evade the authorities’ scrutiny in the isolated Balkan nation, which relied on the Soviet Union between 1948 and 1960.

In his writing — novels, poetry and essays — Kadare explores the long battles between the writer and the dictator, between freedom and oppression. His swan song, A Dictator Calls (Counterpoint), a novel translated by John Hodgson and longlisted for the 2024 International Booker Prize, is centred on a similar theme: writers living in the shadow of tyranny. A multi-layered exploration of power, art, and memory, it foregrounds an inscrutable, fabled three-minute phone call between Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and Nobel Prize-winning poet and novelist Boris Pasternak on June 23, 1934.

The conversation revolved around the arrest of fellow poet Osip Mandelstam, whose poem criticizing Stalin led to his arrest and eventual death. About a year ago, he had composed and recited a doggerel, now known as ‘The Stalin Epigram,’ in which he had termed Stalin as ‘the Kremlin mountaineer’ with ‘ten thick worms his fingers,’ and ‘the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,’ who dug a pit for the poet. In the concluding four lines, Mandelstam writes: ‘He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes/One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye/ He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries./ He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.’

‘Art, unlike a tyrant, receives no mercy, but only gives it’

When Stalin had called Pasternak, he had asked him about Mandelstam, and according to the KGB archives, Pasternak had denied knowing his friend, adding, “So I can’t say anything about Mandelstam.” Stalin had replied, “Whereas I can say you’re a very poor comrade, Comrade Pasternak,” and then hung up. Most accounts (a majority of them from women) of the call agree on these key points: the fact that Stalin had called, and that Pasternak had refused to share anything about his friend; and Stalin had been sharp in his retort, and subsequently disconnected. The exchange becomes the focal point of Kadare’s exploration into the complex relationship between writers and tyranny. He weaves together historical facts, personal dreams, and memories to reconstruct this encounter.

Told in the first-person voice of the writer-narrator, the novel draws from a wide range of sources, including witness accounts, press reports, KGB records, and the perspectives of contemporary writers, and provides a multi-layered and nuanced perspective on the event. Seemingly innocuous, the interaction’s implications go far beyond this single slice of history. Kadare examines 13 different versions of the conversation to drive home the elusive nature of truth under whimsical dictators hell-bent on controlling the narrative by telling their own stories, and the power dynamics between dictators and artists: “The conversation was beyond improbable, beyond impossible, an evil omen come from another world. The poet and the tyrant should never have been put together. But an authoritative voice ensured that it happened. Whether they wished it or not, they were together, two manifest­ations of the same thing: power. Slaves of each other in the same circle of Dante. Torturing each other, each the other’s downfall, whether for three minutes or for as many centuries or millennia was of no importance.”

‘The alter ego, and the nemesis of the dictator’

To Kadare, the novel became a way to exorcise one of his ‘overworked obsessions’: Pasternak’s three minutes — buried beneath the layers of official narratives, obfuscated by history. “Whether by accident or not, this phone call was so close to me, and I was compelled to analyse each moment of those fatal 200 seconds, when the laws of tragedy had brought the poet and the tyrant together. It was a grim collision, which should not have taken place, and yet it did, to our fellow artist’s misfortune. And so, we who know something about this matter are obliged to bear witness to it, even those aspects that are impossible to confirm. Moment by moment, second by second ... Just as he and all our brothers-in-art bore witness to it, without anybody knowing and without taking anyone’s side. Because art, unlike a tyrant, receives no mercy, but only gives it,” writes Kadare for whom this act of bearing witness was not merely an intellectual exercise, but a moral imperative.

Those familiar with Kadare’s outstanding oeuvre will notice A Dictator Calls’ connection with his earlier novel, Twilight of the Eastern Gods (2014). The latter, based on his experiences in Moscow during his years as a student at Gorky Institute between 1958 and 1960, offers a glimpse into the oppressive atmosphere of the Soviet Union and the challenges faced by artists under Stalin’s rule. A Dictator Calls revisits this period, diving deeper into the personal and political ramifications of Pasternak’s Nobel Prize win and the subsequent persecution he had to endure. Like his previous novels — The City without Signs (1959), The Shadow (1986) and The Pyramid (1992) — it boasts of a single-minded defiance of dictatorship. The truth of Kadare’s existence as a writer lies in the contradictions, as Peter Morgan writes in Ismail Kadare: The Writer and the Dictatorship, 1957–1990: “He is the voice of Albania’s modernity and the singer of its ancient identity. He is the alter ego and the nemesis of the dictator. In this ambiguity lies the key to his life, his reputation, and his works.”

The cursed Nobel that he never got, and Pasternak couldn’t have

Early in A Dictator Calls, Kadare, a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize in Literature for many years, imagines his connections with Pasternak, whose novel, Doctor Zhivago — the story of Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, during the tumultuous years of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, it had captured the hearts and minds of readers around the world — had helped him win the Nobel Prize, but the announcement was met with hostility due to its perceived criticism of the Soviet system, and he was forced to decline the honour. Kadare writes, with a touch of poetic flourish, that Pasternak ‘died from the Nobel Prize.’ He imagines how he himself was tongue-tied when Hoxha called him to congratulate for one of his poems.

The Nobel prize also oddly united him with Pasternak. “Should I say that the Nobel Prize had never crossed my mind? Of course not. I’d thought of it often, but especially years later when it was whispered that I myself . . . might be on that list. So to me this uproar against Pasternak included a strange and entirely different element. As if it were not only about him but about someone else, perhaps even myself. This produced in me a severe but intoxicating anxiety. Imagine standing alone in front of your country, which insults you and yells in your face with hatred and love at the same time. Give back that cursed prize, scream the students, pregnant women, the miners of Tepelenë. But you, a capricious waverer, like Hamlet in his dilemma, can’t decide whether to take it or not to take it,” he writes.

Kadare shot to global acclaim after the publication of his debut novel, The General of the Dead Army (1963), a visceral and unflinching portrait of the aftermath of war that revolves around a General — burdened by the weight of history and futility of war — tasked with exhuming the remains of his fallen soldiers in the ravaged Albanian countryside. His other novels —The File on H, The Palace of Dreams, The Pyramid, The Accident, and A Girl in Exile — all dissect the mechanism of power. In The Palace of Dreams (1981), an oppressive bureaucratic entity in a dystopian empire collects and analyses the dreams of its citizens, identifying and reporting those deemed dangerous to the Sultan.

Writing about Mandelstam and Pasternak, he writes that though the circumstances of their death — Pasternak died of lung cancer in his dacha in Peredelkino, and Mandelstam in an exile’s shack (a transit camp near Vladivostok after his arrest) — were different, they were similar after all. “In this world, poets are always similar, whether in the bright light of fame or in the darkness of grief. Mandelstam and Pasternak were similar without knowing it, or wishing it.” We can perhaps say the same of Pasternak and Kadare, who lived to tell the tale.

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