ALBANIA, over the course of its unique history, has found itself, or perhaps even willed itself into being the patria sacra of Europe. Like Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer, condemned to be both cursed and sacred, set apart from society, this Balkan country just across the sea from the heel of Italy’s boot embodies a literal state of exception, cutting a unique and often isolated path through the 20th century. Its oral tradition, focused on the binding duty of the besa, or one’s word of honor, its history of epic balladeering, and the Albanian language itself, notoriously difficult and intriguingly riddled with X’s and Q’s, constituting its own solitary branch in the Indo-European language tree, all suggest an anomalous, autochthonous culture.

The Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare (born 1936) has canvassed this historical and linguistic territory in his poetry, essays, and more than 40 novels. The French edition of his complete works already comprises 13 volumes and most of the English-language versions of Kadare’s novels were translated from the French, a fact that echoes the theme of exceptional remoteness (and points to the secondhand nature of the translations we have). Kadare writes in his native tongue of Albanian, and the language itself is central to the plots of some his best-known novels, from the unimpeachable oath of the blood feud in Broken April (1978) to the linguists on a quest to find the Balkan connection to Homer in The File on H. (1981). As a writer living and working most of his life under Enver Hoxha’s rogue Stalinist regime, however, Kadare analyzes the rocky political history of his country from a distance, or refracted through different lenses: a child’s eyes, an Egyptian allegory, a Kafkaesque Ottoman bureaucracy, or Albanian legend. In his first and best-known novel, The General of the Dead Army (1963), Kadare tells the story in the voice of the enemy, an Italian general on a mission to recover the remains of the fascist Italian soldiers who died and were buried in Albania during Mussolini’s invasion and occupation. Seen through the foreign general’s eyes, the Albanian characters in this haunting novel remain distant and remote until the present and past, the living and the dead all collide in a catharsis of chthonic redemption.

Kadare’s mid-career novel Twilight of the Eastern Gods (1978) has now been translated into English for the first time by David Bellos from a revised French version. Through this autobiographical bildungsroman, Kadare weaves the threads of his own Albanian personal history, his ardent but stygian poetic spirit, the lure of legend, and the procrustean warp of a Soviet communism that is international, polyglot, industrialized, but artistically inert. For a novel set in the late 1950s in a foreign milieu with an inscrutable assortment of rules and values that have historically been distorted by propaganda and disinformation, the action begins at an even more riddling location: a Latvian summer retreat for writers (“it used to be the estate of a Latvian baron”) where a fictionalized version of the author vacations with the aging mandarins of Soviet literature. A “sense of constant déjà vu” pervades the atmosphere as he observes the well-known authors and muses about who inspired their famous verses. The life he leads “had something sterile about it, like an extract in an anthology,” but this ennui is not solely that of a young author bored with his elderly comrades; it is his frustration with the state of the art as it is allowed to exist under the strict dictates of officially sanctioned Socialist realism:

In recent times so many important events had taken place — there had been so many tragic reversals: whole central committees had been thrown out, factions had fought implacably to gain or retain power, there’d been plots and backstage deals. But none of that, or almost none, showed up on the pages of novels or in the speeches of characters on stage. All you got was the rustling of birch trees — ah! my beloved silver birch! — and in all that literature it was always Sunday […]

The bucolic is a poetic mode that conveniently eschews the difficult terrain of contemporary political transformations. As Kadare’s novel transitions from the Latvian beaches to the metropolis of Moscow, the author-character is bothered by this aesthetic disjuncture:

I realized that most contemporary Soviet writers virtually never talked about money in their works. It was like a sign. Now, in Riga, I was learning that alongside money there were many other things they did not mention, and reciprocally, many of the topics that filled whole chapters or acts of their works barely impinged on their real lives. The contrast made me uneasy.

What is art, and what do we choose to write about? Or, what is chosen for us to write about? Because every fictionalized day is Sunday, every day a holiday, the summer stay with the greybeards on the beach of the Baltic Sea where the novel begins is a “rather odd world” of artistic frustration “where life and death were mixed up and overlapping, as in the ancient Balkan legend.” This is the legend of Kostandin and Doruntine, a ghost story that will provide the metaphorical framework for a novel obsessed with the coexistence of the living and the dead. The narrator tells the tale to a Latvian woman he meets late one night as they flirtatiously walk together on the beach, communicating awkwardly in Russian while trying to find a place to dance. The legend begins with a mother of nine sons who regretfully married her only daughter to a man who lived far across the mountains, sadly knowing her daughter would not ever be able to return for family weddings or funerals. Placating his distraught mother,

her youngest son, Kostandin, made a promise that, whatever came to pass, he would set out and bring his sister home, however far he had to go […] Alas, a harsh winter soon came, with a bloody war; all nine sons fell in battle and the mother was left alone with her grief […] Kostandin’s grave was nothing but mud […] because he had broken the besa. In our land a promise is sacred, and breaking it is the deepest shame that can befall anyone.

The mother curses her dead son: “Oh you who have failed to keep your word, may the earth disgorge you!”

So when the night was deep and the graveyard lit by the moon, the lid of Kostandin’s tomb rose, and from the grave, his face quite white and his hair a muddy tangle, the Dead Man cursed by his mother came […] I told her then about Kostandin’s moonlit ride to the far country where his sister had married. The young man found Doruntine in the middle of a feast and hoisted her onto his horse to take her back to her mother. On the way she kept asking, “Brother, why are you so pale? Why do you have mud in your hair?” […] They rode on together on the horse, the Dead Man and the Living Girl, until they got to the village where their mother lived. Kostandin brought the horse to a standstill outside the church […] Kostandin said to his sister, “You go on. I have something to do here.” He pushed open the iron gate and went into the graveyard, never to emerge from it again.

Kostandin’s oath, his commitment to the bonds of family and ancient law take place in the company of his death. Not only is the word immortal and death no obstacle, but history itself is lived in the present. No voyage to a distant land can allow one to escape the ghosts of the past; any night they may interrupt the feast. While the legend has been translated into more familiar adaptations, this original Albanian version is a source of pride for our narrator, who can’t shake off the albatross of his ancestry. Confounding this nationalism, however, is his Latvian interlocutor’s recollection that King Zog (who briefly ruled Albania in the interwar period) once lived in a villa nearby, on the Baltic Sea. As the couple that night meets Latvian veterans of the Russian Revolution, the heroism of history collides with the embarrassment of King Zog’s counterrevolutionary mansion.

The young storyteller who indulges in his Balkan tale of the supernatural cannot abide this reminder of the deposed king’s profligacy. Socialist storytelling collides with both its sublime proletarian ideal and its monarchical enemy, while the ghost story reminds us that the living are only passengers on Death’s horse. The Latvian woman upbraids this young Albanian writer’s patriotic self-consciousness, showing it to be an insecurity that belies the greater artistic problems at stake:

You know what? Maybe you’re right where kings are concerned, but you still have to let your imagination roam sometimes … Indulge in a bit of fantasy. Most books nowadays are so boring, with their permanently smiling and always rugged heroes. Don’t you think?

The female characters in the novel provide a steady critique of contemporary Soviet fiction, and as the action shifts to the Gorky Institute for World Literature in Moscow it will be our narrator’s relationship with a Moscow woman and its intersection with the vertiginous problems of identity and Soviet politics that will drive the plot. While a few of the students and teachers at the Institute are female, it is mostly populated by an eclectic group of male students drawn from the different Soviet Republics, China, and of course Albania, all summoned to study their craft. The diversity of personal history pulls against the codifications and officialdom of the educational experience, a friction that can only be resolved through a periodic ritual of mass drunkenness, a collective exorcism of the unnamable:

I turned my back on him and found myself once again in the sixth-floor corridor where the denaturalised group was now thoroughly mixed up and speaking all its dead and dying languages simultaneously. It was a dreadful nightmare. Their greasy faces distorted by drink and sweat, and streaked with dried tears, they were hoarsely espousing the languages they had rejected, beating their breasts, sobbing and swearing they would never forget them, they would speak them in their dreams […] “I can see my language before me, like a ghost!” one kept screaming, as if he had just woken up in fright.

The bureaucratic Institute foisting its artistic vision on the students is hardly a static background. Its dynamics are those of the USSR of the late 1950s, a time of many contradictions and undocumented “tragic reversals,” and one of the strengths of Kadare’s novel is its ability to deftly convey the complexity of this historical conjuncture.

After the death of Stalin in 1953, the so-called Khrushchev Thaw of the following years allowed for a relaxation of censorship laws and easing of political repression as well as the release of thousands of prisoners. But this liberalization of the Soviet regime would only progress so far. By 1956, Khrushchev would denounce the cult and crimes of Stalin and Stalinism in his “Secret Speech,” but he also ordered the brutal repression of the nascent Hungarian revolution. This was the era of Sputnik, the acceleration of the Cold War and the Cuban Revolution, and growing tensions between the Chinese and USSR, Mao’s criticisms of Khrushchev’s liberal “revisionism” eventually growing into the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s. The debates about and within “Communism” were global and defined the political terrain. A dramatic era, and yet our narrator can easily complain:

I knew of not a single work of Soviet literature that gave even a fragmentary description of how the machinery of state actually functioned: no insight into meetings of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, or the Politburo, or other more occult authorities.

“Occult” authorities enforced the dictates of Socialist realism, and the strictures and censorship as to what constituted acceptable art were rigidly enforced. When Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in 1958 for a career that included his novel Doctor Zhivago, the Soviet system underwent a kind of apoplectic seizure. Pasternak, already a renowned poet who narrowly survived Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, at first attempted to publish his novel in the USSR but it was rejected and censored because of its dim view of the Russian Revolution. Because of recently published books like The Zhivago Affair (2014), we now know the history of the clandestine smuggling of this novel out of Russia into Italy where it was published, translated, and then circulated back into the USSR as samizdat, a process that the CIA had no small part in accelerating. The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Pasternak was a public relations disaster for the Soviet propaganda machine (and a coup for the United States on the cultural front) as most Soviet citizens were unaware the novel even existed when the Nobel was announced. Publication of the novel in the West was kept secret in the USSR and the circulation of the illicit Russian copies was limited to the very few who happened to come across a copy.

This privileged group includes the narrator of Twilight of the Eastern Gods, who haphazardly encounters a pile of typewritten pages in a vacant residential wing. He does not think much of his discovery until the affair blows up and forces the Institute to undergo several days of meetings, followed by dutiful reinforcement of the nonstop media campaign launched against the reactionary novel’s hapless author. A chorus of criticism swells from all corners of society despite the fact that it would have been impossible and illegal for most Russians to have obtained a copy; nobody had read the novel that was the target of their patriotic vitriol.

Poor Pasternak, he eventually refuses the award and the affair simmers down, but the propaganda machinery has been briefly exposed as a stage-managed sham, while the war-torn peregrinations of the Doctor and Lara rest unexamined, ignored. The narrator of Twilight spends the majority of Kadare’s novel under the cloud of a police summons, but only at the end of the novel, when the political problems between Albania and Russia grow more problematic, do we understand the gravity of the situation. As Khrushchev’s thaw opened a space for limited liberalizations, countries such as China and Albania, both driven by a domestic necessity to keep the Stalinist legacy intact, began to disassociate from the USSR and eventually sever their relationships completely, a decision with global implications as different satellite states were forced into picking sides in the disagreement. The Soviet Union’s rapprochement with Tito’s Yugoslavia after a decade of tensions would also contribute to Albania’s rejection of the USSR, as it was Yugoslavia’s postwar territorial designs on its small Balkan neighbor that originally led Albania to take shelter with the Russians. Albania’s new alliance with China would create a unique situation for a country bordering Tito’s Communist regime, but only a few years later, with Nixon in China and Mao’s turn to the United States, Albania eventually severed alliances with them as well, and briefly led an autarkic path until the regime finally collapsed in the early 1990s.

Like all serious novels Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a novel of history, one in which the characters must not only grapple with contemporary conundrums, but also with the psychological mapping of the historical process itself. There is much to unpack here and the constellation of historical forces is as complicated as it is fascinating. There is the Greek Communist militant Antaeus — a fitting nom de guerre for a materialist — who is the source of the novel’s most trenchant political analysis. There is also the narrator’s snowy suburban excursion with a new girlfriend to a neighborhood that houses families of airmen who perished in the Great Patriotic War, and where Stalin also supposedly had a dacha. The necessary superficiality of our narrator’s romantic relationships, which are overdetermined by his precarious “foreign” status, the inertia of the classroom setting, and the portraits of the more bureaucratically minded students, also deepens his crisis, in parallel to the eventual rupture between Albania and the Moscow regime.

In such an atmosphere, populated as it is with mostly dubious types, we keep wondering how the narrator views himself. There are glimpses — in the self-flagellation over romantic failures, in the hints of novels to come — but he never really explains or examines the steps that have led him to where he is, to cavorting with the cognoscenti in Latvia or mingling with the Moscow mandarins. One must assume that Kadare’s own talent and poetic output are meant to stand as evidence enough. It is a body of work that presents a historic-artistic riddle that, once cracked, illuminates some of the more heavily shadowed sectors of the 20th century, a dark history that rides on a moonlit night, driven by a mud-caked cadaver while the living hang on for dear life.

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David Hancock Turner is a writer and musician living in New York City.