Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare
I guess most readers will have had that thing where a book or an author keeps floating into your line of vision, until you just think that you better get on and read it so it stops bothering you! I had that last year with this book, which turned up regularly on my Big River recommendations, as well as on a number of blogs I was following. So when I stumbled on a nice hardback copy for £2 in an Oxfam shop just off the King’s Road, picking it up was a no-brainer.
Ismail Kadare is an Albanian poet and author, and “Twilight” is based on his experiences in Moscow in the 1950s. He spent time at the prestigious Gorky Institute for World Literature and was there at the time of the “Dr. Zhivago” scandal – when Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, while his novel could not even be published in the Soviet Union! So, ideal reading material for me, really…
The book opens with our unnamed narrator having a holiday at a writer’s retreat in Riga, on the Baltic. As he’s a young man, naturally much of his time is taken up with thoughts of girls – his beloved Lida Snegina, whom he’d been seeing in Moscow, plus a local beauty who reminds him of Lida. He befriends the local girl, telling her of the Albanian legend of Constantin and Doruntine, whereby a dead boy returns to bring his sister home for a celebration, fulfilling his promise to his mother. The legend informs the rest of the story and recurs throughout, in strange ways.
On the narrator’s return to Moscow, we are pitched into an unsettling and unstable world. Soviet Russia in the 1950s place was not an easy place to be, with its shifting loyalties, and the narrator soon comes to suspect that Albania may not be a favourite country with the authorities for much longer. He drinks and parties; fails to reconnect with Lida and tells his friend to have her instead, telling her he’s dead; and in a deserted part of the dormitory building he lives in, he stumbles across some samizdat pages of a book called “Dr. Zhivago”…
Shortly after this, Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize and a media storm erupts (not unlike a modern Twitter-storm, except this is in the form of radio and newspapers). The narrator is already disillusioned with the factory-like methods at the institute, where all the books turned out are Socialist Realist pap portraying idyllic peasants; therefore, he’s not really surprised at the reaction of the authorities. As the anti-Pasternak campaign howls through Russia like a Siberian wind, the young man lives a kind of precarious half-life, waiting to see whether he will have to leave Moscow and whether he can resolve the situation with Lida.
If I’m honest, I’m finding hard to decide what to say about this book; I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but I ended up thinking that it was too fragmented, not coherent enough. The mix of the Albanian legends and the narrator’s odd relationship with Lida didn’t sit that well alongside the narrative about Soviet literature, and the Pasternak element was actually quite minor; almost something of an aside. I did enjoy reading “Twilight” but I didn’t really feel any link with the characters, and in many ways where this book worked best for me was in its portrait of the Moscow students and literati of the time. Many of the characters are based on people who were really at the Institute with Kadare, and many were real Russians like Yevtuschenko. It might be that this story would have worked better as a simple memoir of Kadare’s student years, but as it was things didn’t quite gel for me.
Nevertheless there was plenty that was enjoyable in the book (excellently translated, as usual, by David Bellos who also provides an essential foreword). The writing is lovely and Kadare is really good at catching the atmosphere of a place or time. He also captures the uncertainty of 1950s Moscow quite brilliantly, with the narrator’s insecurity, the never quite knowing what’s going to happen next. I’m glad I’ve read Kadare and I do have another of his works on the TBR – so maybe a further volume will change my mind!