Review of “Twilight of the Eastern Gods” by Ismail Kadare

Anni Liu

It is Summer 1958, in the resort town of Dubulti, Latvia. The young attendees of a Soviet Bloc writer’s retreat are gathered on the beach for table tennis. Many of them, our narrator included, are on vacation from the Gorky Institute of Moscow, where they were in the process of being indoctrinated in the practices of Socialist Realism, to write books where it is always Sunday and everyone is blond and cheerfully invigorated. Our narrator is Albanian, and his foreign status colors his experiences in Moscow and elsewhere, severing him from his surroundings and encapsulating him as a frame does a picture.

The keyword here is boredom. The young writers pass long evenings playing table tennis on the beach, while their older counterparts drift through the vacation homes like listless ghosts. The white nights are past, we are told, but it still never got very dark, and the hollow plastic ball pinged back and forth metallically well past midnight.

Our narrator–never named–and his companions set up cameras in hopes of fixing each striking Baltic sunset on film. Sometimes couples walking along the beach passed through the frame, leaving “meaningless smudges in the endless vista.”

The days are as endless and unchanging as the view, offering nothing but what it had been “rehearsing since the dawn of time: silhouettes of couples walking slowly by.” Our narrator experiences an unbearable recurrence of conversations, faces, and names, all too familiar and sterile. “I was aware of leading a hybrid existence, where life and death were mixed up and overlapping…”

Back at school, a sense of dread mingles with his dream-like detachment from his environs. For reasons unknown, the police are looking for him; a case of small-pox shuts down the entire city in quarantine; he falls out with his girlfriend and fakes his own death; the “Pasternak affair” poisons the airwaves and hangs, he notes, like a cloud over one-sixth of the world. Kadare renders these meandering plot-points deftly, but for better or worse the picture that emerges is disjointed and off-balance. There is a sense of directionlessness that perfectly fits our narrator’s own sense of ennui. To say it is dreamlike is not enough: at times it conveys the atmosphere and inevitable logic of nightmare, at others the greyness of a soul in purgatory. As the narrator tells us late in the book: “I was neither happy nor sad. I had resumed my state of chronic instability, beyond sadness and gaiety, in this glaucous universe, with is slanted, harsh and twisted light.”

The Ballad of Kostandin and Doruntine

This ancient Albanian legend haunts our narrator, following him from Albania, to Moscow, to Dubulti. In Dubulti, he finally tells it to a woman resembling his Russian girlfriend Lida. In place of his shimmering account, I offer a roughshod version: Long ago in Albania, a hesitant mother must decide if she can give away her only daughter Doruntine in marriage to a foreign prince. She is worried she will never see her daughter again, especially in times of death or illness. Her youngest son Kostandin, for the sake of his mother and sister’s happiness, makes a promise–or besa— to bring Doruntine home should the need arise. Soon after the marriage, the mother’s worst fears are confirmed when all her sons are killed in a war. Standing at Kostandin’s grave, she curses him for failing to bring his sister home as promised. Upon hearing his mother invoke his besa, he rises from the grave and brings his beloved sister home on horseback, never letting on that his pallor and grime are those of the grave. Here, too, is a hybrid existence: death and life riding on the same horse to honor the sacred spoken word.

The story underscores the all-trumping power of the besa and its place in the hearts of Albanians. The legend also symbolizes everything that our narrator finds lacking in Soviet culture. Reflecting upon the Kremlin’s “rust-coloured bastions,” he notes it “gave off a ruddy cheerfulness that sterilised the imagination. No Dashing horseman with moonlight glinting on his steel visor would bring any message to the gates of this castle.” As it is with Soviet architecture, he seems to say, so it is with their literature.

One could read the entirety of Twilight in light of this ancient legend. Here, instead of Kostandin we have our unnamed narrator, and instead of a physical death we have a death of the imagination (our narrator describes the floors of the Gorky Institute as if they were the circles of hell), and in lieu of a cherished only daughter we have Real Literature, Albanian and otherwise. Those who are familiar with Kadare’s other works and concerns will find many resonances here to its counterparts, and despite his pro-democratic beliefs, chief among his concerns is a sense of filial duty and Albanianness. This is due in part to the censorship all works of art underwent during this time; Kadare knew that in order to evade punishment, a certain line had to be toed. The profoundly isolating effect of being foreign seen in the book may help explain why Kadare was so hesitant to leave his homeland, however strange and suffocating it might have been. In an attempt to explain to Lida why he had kept his word and returned to say goodbye–even after faking his own death–he wants to say, “You can’t understand, your people have other ballads, other gods…”

To read Kadare is to enter his world. A world gloomy, brooding, and disaffected, sure, but  needfully so. As his translator David Bellos notes helpfully in his introduction, “Kadare’s later fictions can be read as a formal rejection of the obligatory optimism laid down by the doctrines of Socialist Realism.” Though Twilight is an earlier work, the same rejection is powerfully felt here, and perhaps more personally so.

Despite its dusky atmosphere of sour greyness and rain, Twilight shines with a blue hour radiance. Its light emanates from both the pale midnights of the Steppes and a classical imagination rooted in times and lands far far away.

Translated by David Bellos from the French, first published in Albanian in 1978. For those interested in the thoughts of the translator and the idea of double translating Kadare’s works, Bellos published an essay on just that.

Review of Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare, published by Grove Press