Art Receives No Mercy but Only Gives It: On Ismail Kadare’s “A Dictator Calls”

By Cory OldweilerOctober 10, 2023

Art Receives No Mercy but Only Gives It: On Ismail Kadare’s “A Dictator Calls”

A Dictator Calls by Ismail Kadare

ART IS NEVER FINISHED, as Paul Valéry observed, only abandoned. In the digital age, musicians and movie directors have most consistently validated the French poet’s assertion via remixes, remasters, and (often lamentable) rereleases. But it is much less common for authors (pace Walt Whitman) to significantly revise or emend work that has been abandoned to the publisher, though some questionable reassessments have occurred recently due to public pressure and editorial imprudence. Writers do regularly revisit their work in subsequent installments, however, transporting a story or character to a different time or place. In 2019, Margaret Atwood, compelled by real-world events (and possibly TV contracts), went back to Gilead in The Testaments, a sequel to her 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale. And more recently, in March 2023, Mary Gaitskill’s “Minority Report” revived the protagonist of her 1988 short story “Secretary,” recontextualizing the events of that earlier work in light of our evolving cultural norms. (Gaitskill thoughtfully explored her reasoning in both The New Yorker, where the new story was published, and in her personal Substack).

Albania’s éminence grise Ismail Kadare first returned to his early work with 2003’s The Successor, a sequel to Agamemnon’s Daughter, which was written in 1985, though it would not be published until 2003. The earlier novella, depicting the chillingly banal dehumanization of life after nearly four decades of Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime, was one of several unpublished manuscripts that Kadare disguised as translations of German novels and smuggled out of Albania in the mid-1980s with the help of French publisher Claude Durand, who stashed them in a Parisian bank. In 1990, five years after the death of Hoxha and just prior to the ouster of Albania’s communist government, Kadare sought and was granted asylum in France. From there, in 2002, he turned the innuendo and mythological metaphors of Agamemnon’s Daughter into scandalous gossip and savage satire in The Successor. The English translations of both novels were done by David Bellos, who worked from the French versions, a pattern repeated with several of Kadare’s novels. The brilliant sequel reconsiders the inciting event of the first novel from a perspective closely tied to Hoxha’s government, while directly targeting the leader himself as a paranoiac, mumbling behind “the inscrutable opacity of blind eyes” as he vanquishes perceived enemies in his inner circle.

Now in his late eighties, Kadare has written A Dictator Calls, another novel that revisits his past work and his actual past. While not a proper sequel, this latest work is in direct conversation with his early novel Twilight of the Eastern Gods (1978), based on his time in Moscow from 1958 to 1960. The new book, in John Hodgson’s exceptional English translation, also considers Kadare’s legacy and the legacies of anyone forced to toil in the shadow of a political system that seeks to dictate their voice and determine their fate. There are moments of real brilliance in Dictator, but overall it lacks the sustained highs and dramatic pacing of Kadare’s best later work, such as The Successor and A Girl in Exile: Requiem for Linda B. (2009). Part of this inconsistency is due to the fact that the novel seems unable to fully settle on what it is trying to be, slewing between intense introspection, literary theory, fictionalized autobiography, and historical sleuthing. Most of the novel’s literary examples are drawn from the pantheon of Great Russian Writers that has come in for a good deal of renewed scrutiny since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. And while Dictator is apropos of the current moment in appraising these writers and speaking out about the importance of controlling one’s narrative in the face of tyranny, it is decidedly not a contemporary critique, paying no particular heed to current attitudes. It is, however, a fitting (possible) coda to a remarkable career, and considering its subject matter, it just might win Kadare the Nobel Prize for Literature, the one major award that he has never received.

Dictator relies on a number of specific moving parts to discuss much larger ideas, making it a bit difficult to discuss due to several cart-before-the-horse problems. On its face, the novel’s titular dictator is Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, and the person he calls is Boris Pasternak, author of, most relevantly, Doctor Zhivago, which was published in Italy in 1957. More than half of A Dictator Calls is spent parsing 13 different accounts of a three-minute phone call between Stalin and Pasternak that took place on June 23, 1934. These versions are drawn from (ostensible) primary sources like KGB tapes, as well as memoirs of those who might have overheard the conversation or who were told of it after the fact. Some of these witnesses heard about the call from Pasternak himself; others were simply repeating the gossip around town. Kadare is fully aware that this undertaking is perhaps foolish, pointing out that “two [versions] would be enough to create confusion.” After the fourth is presented, he even playfully channels his readers by writing, “You’re driving us crazy with all these versions! There’s a limit to everything! Enough! Nevertheless …”

At one point, Kadare writes that he has “often thought that Pasternak’s three minutes were one of my overworked obsessions,” but he doesn’t really believe it. Soon after, in a passage that showcases Hodgson’s deft translation skills, we get the proof:

[W]e 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.

The powerful words encapsulate not just the course of the novel and the arc of Kadare’s career, but also the purpose, as he sees it, of art in general.

In Albanian, the new novel is called Kur sunduesit grinden, which literally means “when rulers argue.” In the novel’s first few pages, before the Stalin/Pasternak call is introduced, Kadare details another phone call, which is almost certainly apocryphal, between himself and Hoxha, during which the Albanian leader compliments Kadare about a poem he had published in the newspaper. Hodgson’s use of the indefinite article in the English title certainly leaves open the prospect of more than one dictator being relevant, but I prefer the open-ended question proposed by the Albanian title, which prepares readers to consider what happens when any head of state contends with their subjects, asserts their—generally unpopular—opinions, or argues with those inclined to disagree with them. During Kadare and Hoxha’s brief call, all Kadare manages to say is “thank you,” which he repeats on three occasions. An editor who overhears the call tells Kadare it’s a shame that he didn’t respond properly and wonders why he didn’t say anything worthwhile. Kadare did manage to get several things published in Albania during Hoxha’s rule, but his work always walked right up to the edge of what was politically acceptable. Since the poem at issue is not specified, it’s impossible to determine whether this call actually happened, but it feels extremely unlikely. Rather, it is simply one of the many ways in which Kadare links himself with Pasternak, who also was unable to respond to his—and Stalin’s—satisfaction.

While it is not clear why Stalin called Pasternak, he definitely did not call to compliment him. Some weeks earlier, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam had been arrested and taken to the Lubyanka, where he was tortured and interrogated about a bit of doggerel that he composed the year before. Though it was never written down, Mandelstam reportedly recited the verse to several friends. The poem, in W. S. Merwin and Clarence Brown’s translation, refers to Stalin as “the Kremlin mountaineer” with “ten thick worms his fingers, […] the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,” before mocking his lackeys and his peevish governance. Stalin felt that the poem, known today as “The Stalin Epigram,” had to be erased from history; “these were words that should never have been thought or said,” as Kadare writes. When Stalin calls Pasternak, he asks about Mandelstam, and according to the KGB archives, Pasternak denies knowing his friend, before adding, “So I can’t say anything about Mandelstam.” Stalin replies, “Whereas I can say you’re a very poor comrade, Comrade Pasternak,” then hangs up. Most versions of the call agree on these main points—namely, that Stalin called; that Pasternak, like Judas, denied his friend; and that Stalin roasted him.

Why did Stalin seek Pasternak’s opinion in the first place, though? What did he hope to gain by calling? Was he simply trying to trap Pasternak? And, by extension, what is the relationship between dictators and artists, the latter of which are usually feared by the former? These are some of the issues that consume Kadare for much of Dictator, but his interest in Pasternak originated with the events covered in Twilight of the Eastern Gods, published in Albanian in 1978, in French in 1981, and in Bellos’s English translation, from the French, in 2014. Kadare was 22 years old in 1958 when he was sent to the Gorky Institute in Moscow to learn, alongside the luminaries of Soviet literature, how to write according to the dictates of socialist realism. His stay, and his fascination with Moscow’s young women, was cut short in 1960 after Hoxha, a dogmatic Stalinist to his dying day, began to sever ties with the Soviet Union because Nikita Khrushchev was straying, as Hoxha saw it, too far from Stalin’s precepts. (Hoxha would complete the process of isolating Albania from the rest of the world when he withdrew from the Warsaw Pact in 1968, after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, and cut ties with China in the early 1970s, after its post-Mao leadership left the true path of communism.)

During Kadare’s first year in Moscow, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The honor was viewed as “a poisoned gift of the international bourgeoisie,” as one character in Twilight puts it, prompting the entire weight of the Soviet system to crash down upon him with frightening force. The backlash was so intense that Pasternak eventually declined the prize. In Dictator, Kadare explains that, as far as Albania is concerned, the problem wasn’t that the Soviets had attacked Pasternak but that they hadn’t done it fiercely enough. The “obvious” solution, he imagines Hoxha’s government proposing, was “a bullet in the head.” It’s a sentiment that would have been unimaginable to assert, even in jest (if there were such a concept under Hoxha), in the 1970s. Kadare exhibits deep empathy with Pasternak in Dictator, something also impossible in Twilight, writing that the uproar he had witnessed in Moscow included “a strange and entirely different element. As if it were not only about [Pasternak] but about someone else, perhaps even myself.” He conjures the atmosphere: “Imagine standing alone in front of your country, which insults you and yells in your face with hatred and love at the same time.” It is a line that echoes his neutral sentiments from 45 years earlier in Twilight: “What must it be like to be the target, to be the eye of that whirlwind? I imagined the legendary Slav head puffing out its cheeks in the middle of the steppe. Soviet propaganda was just like it.” It was okay to criticize the Soviets at the time but not to empathize with the targets of their attacks. In Dictator, Kadare is free to write what he wants, and in case the parallels between his past and the attack on Pasternak still aren’t clear enough, he adds: “It’s the same incessant noise in Moscow as one hears in Tirana.”

The first chapter of Dictator lays out Kadare’s return to Albania from Moscow and the lead-up to the attempt at publishing Twilight. As I read it, I could imagine the two novels being interwoven into a single volume, like something written by Milan Kundera, wherein Kadare would interrupt the narrative of Twilight with the first-person commentary of Dictator. I would have liked to see this approach particularly in Dictator’s brief second section, which begins with the arrival to Paris in 2015 of Irina Emelyanova, the daughter of Pasternak’s lover and a critical character from Twilight (where her name is transliterated as Ira Emelianova). Kadare writes that Irina is with his wife waiting to have lunch, but then he starts drawing parallels between the lives of Mandelstam and Pasternak and never returns to her. Much better use is made of Stulpans, a Latvian who is Kadare’s closest friend in Twilight (where his name is transliterated as Stulpanc). His storyline in Dictator is one of the few plot points that should not be spoiled, but suffice to say that he utterly eviscerates the actions of Vladimir Lenin while simultaneously highlighting the tendency of tyrannical men to fall prey to petty fears and slights (something that, incidentally, those of us in the United States would have absolutely no frame of reference for over the past seven years, none whatsoever).

Part of the reason I wish for Irina to have more of a voice in Dictator is because Kadare points out how women, “the sweetest and the most ruthless explainers of the inexplicable,” have remained “almost totally silent” since the time of Helen of Troy. The majority of the accounts of Stalin and Pasternak’s phone call come from women, but they are not, Kadare asserts, reliable as witnesses because of the clichés associated with the lover/wife character. I’ll confess that, after several readings, I’m still not entirely clear what point Kadare is trying to develop about women as observers of history. The other note that rings false in Dictator comes during an examination of the double standard that governs the behavior of artists and politicians:

The obverse side of glory, notoriety, brings down political idols, but has no power against artists. Indeed, instead of damaging them, it often makes them more attractive. […]

He is dissipated, chases women and likes a drink. That’s his business. But does he write well? That’s the main thing.

While this was unquestionably true in the past, I don’t think many, at least in the United States, would assert that it remains so today.

While Dictator often alludes to specifics in Twilight, only one sentence appears in both novels, a critical postscript from a letter that Kadare’s Moscow girlfriend sends him after they break up. In Twilight, it reads: “All day yesterday the radio went on and on about a writer who committed betrayal and I thought of you.” In Dictator, Hodgson renders this: “They were talking on the radio all day yesterday about a writer who had turned traitor and it reminded me of you.” When Kadare, reflecting in Dictator, recalls the line, it stops his heart. It is only one word—traitor—but that is the kind of allusion that gets writers killed. It is also the kind of fear he never could have discussed in the earlier work. Dictator goes on to highlight several attempts at censorship, including some that focused on a single word—in Albania, the word “miss,” used by schoolchildren because it connotes the word “mother”; and in 19th-century Russia, the name of Czar Alexander that appears once in a poem by Pushkin. The latter resulted in a raid of Pushkin’s apartment, yet another example of the petty fears so often felt by the powerful.

Kadare wonders how he would have responded if Hoxha, in their purported phone call, had asked him about a fellow Albanian writer. Or about himself. Does he wish he had gotten the chance to prove his mettle? Or does he feel as if he did enough through his work? Perhaps the answer, his answer, to the latter question and to history comes in Dictator’s 13th version of the call between Stalin and Pasternak. Unlike every other version in the novel, this one is not attributed to a specific source and does not recount the call. Instead, Kadare states that those other “[a]rchive sources have not helped to establish a reliable version of the conversation.” In this 13th version, the final word comes only from Kadare himself, and it is definitive: Mandelstam and others like him who are obliged to bear witness to history are not alone, and their memory and their voices will endure.


Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.

LARB Contributor

Cory Oldweiler writes about translated fiction and nonfiction for several publications, including Words Without Borders and the Southwest Review. His criticism also appears in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Star Tribune, among other outlets. He wrote the 2015 novel Testimony of the Senses, inspired by the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.


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