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Ismail Kadare: Twilight Of The Eastern Gods (Canongate)

Ismail Kadare, the Albanian novelist and Nobel laureate-in-waiting, has long divided opinion, and not just for his work.

Some western commentators have not been slow to voice suspicions of someone who managed to live, relatively comfortably, in the Albania of Enver Hoxha, one of the most brutal (and bonkers) of the socialist dictators.

There were few greater enthusiasts of the death penalty and Hoxha's repressive regime extended its writ into all aspects of Albanians' lives. To eliminate dissent, he imprisoned thousands in forced labour camps, while many more were tortured and executed. Western culture, moreover, was regarded as inimical; even more ludicrously, beards were banned as unhygienic. As far as Hoxha was concerned, Albania's future was clean-shaven and - at least for a while - allied to the Soviet Union.

Kadare, in the opinion of the respected Balkans expert Noel Malcolm, was a privileged member of Albania's ruling class who was careful to avoid compromising himself. Viewed from the outside, he was regarded as a stooge of a cruel regime, and only mentioned in the same breath as Vaclav Havel or Alexander Solzhenitsyn to his detriment. Certainly, few were inclined to defend him but the tide began to turn as more detail emerged around the turn of the millennium about what life was really like for artists working behind the Iron Curtain.

Of late, Kadare's reputation has soared, and awards and honours and appearances at book festivals have elevated him to a status that would have been unimaginable previously. Now, as the puffs accompanying this new translation of Twilight Of The Eastern Gods (which first appeared in 1978) demonstrate, he is routinely mentioned in the same breath as Kafka and lauded by the likes of the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. It is a remarkable turnaround.

For this much of the credit must go to David Bellos, Kadare's respected translator, whose introductions provide valuable context to readers unfamiliar with life in the post-war Eastern Bloc in general and Albania in particular. As he notes here, Albania had, since 1949, been "a virtual dependency" of the USSR and had provided a berth for the only Soviet submarine base in the Mediterranean.

By the end of the 1950s, however, Hoxha had grown alarmed by Nikita Krushchev's apparent liberalisation of Soviet society and tension had risen between Moscow and Tirana.

Twilight Of The Eastern Gods is reflective, therefore, of a culture of paranoia and suspicion, in which anyone who made a wrong move or uttered anything that might be deemed subversive could expect reprisals. At its core is the award in 1958 of the Nobel Prize For Literature to Boris Pasternak, which in the Soviet Union caused an almighty ruckus. Readers interested in learning more about this should seek out The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, which was published earlier this year.

Kadare's take on it is both personal and inventive and only lightly fictionalised. Its narrator is a young Albanian writer who is a student at the Gorky Institute For World Literature, which was set up to generate a cadre of writers who would celebrate Socialist Realism. It is not, it must be acknowledged, the easiest of reads, and one must keep track of many characters, many of whom are real people.

Where it scores, however, is in its portrait of Moscow at a time when readers on this side of the ideological battlefield were more interested in From Russia With Love and Dr No than anything emerging from the east. As Kadare himself did, the narrator comes by chance across a few pages of Dr Zhivago. Later, after Pasternak has been given the Nobel, he mentions this to a friend who tells him: "Don't breathe a word of it to anybody. You could get into serious trouble over nothing."

At the Institute, the narrator encounters other writers from satellites of the USSR who have abandoned their own languages to write to a Soviet Marxist-Leninist prescription. This is not a course he wishes to follow. For him, his culture and myths, and language and history are intrinsic to his art, and part of this novel is given over to the paraphrasing of ballads similar to those in Greek mythology.

But fascinating as these are, they are overshadowed by the campaign against Pasternak, which was conducted with the vindictive thoroughness and poisonous reporting which is the hallmark of such regimes. "A sixth of the globe was awash once more under a tidal wave of invective," writes Kadare. Condemnation of Pasternak came from every quarter, including almost all his fellow writers.

The narrator is as much in love as he is in torment. Like Hoxha, he has become disillusioned with the Soviet Union but for quite different reasons. He must go home to Albania, notwithstanding what he can expect to find there. It was a road Kadare himself chose to take, his innate patriotism triumphing over the temptation of exiledom. Was there ever a writer caught more securely between a rock and a hard place?

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