Two years ago, I read and loved Ismail Kadare’s 1970 work The Siege, a historical novel centred on 15th century Ottoman attacks on the Albanian city of Skhodër. Kadare is Albania’s foremost living author and, in rendering the episode, he absorbed me completely. Before reading The Siege, I knew nothing about the conflict to which it bore witness; having read it, I felt I had been entertained and educated in thorough measure. The Siege, I submit in ominous mitigation, is evidence of Ismail Kadare’s capacity for brilliance: part skilfully wrought insight into the mentalities of besiegers and besieged, part philosophical reverie, part blissful excuse to indulge the guilty pleasures of reading about knights and battles.
But this review is not about The Siege, so time to stop stalling and cut to the chase. This review is about Twilight of the Eastern Gods, and it, unfortunately, is not The Siege. To be sure, these are novels of comparable length, both focused on episodes in Albania’s history, and both translated by the acclaimed translator David Bellos (at two removes – they come from French translations of the original Albanian texts). That, however, is where the similarities end, because Twilight of the Eastern Gods is really quite a bad novel indeed. At points, I was so frustrated by this book that I felt like hurling it across the room; at others, I felt that it was less offensively bad than just plain mediocre. That, however, is as good as it got.
The problems start with the fact that Twilight is semi-autobiographical: it charts Kadare’s time as a 22-year-old aspiring writer at the Gorky institute in Soviet Moscow. The Siege was able to telescope in and out of concisely rendered historical events in the third person, and, moreover, give a complete sense of why these events mattered; Twilight, in contrast, is ponderously ‘first person’, and its background events (Khrushchev’s reign, Stalin’s political shadow, the frosting over of Albanian/USSR relations) feel obscured as a result. This is not a fault of the first person per se (witness how Kafka’s short stories juxtapose it with uncannily reverberating world historical events); rather, it is an indictment of the fact that Kadare’s treatment of the first-person all-too-often slides towards the clichés of ‘angsty young man consciousness’, in a novel where he is clearly trying to say significant things about the situation of the USSR and its satellite states in the 1950s.
The paradox is that Kadare’s first person is all-consumingly heavy, yet can’t seem to settle on anything. There is a clumsily rendered love affair in chapter 1, a fleeting account of smallpox in chapter 5, and a veritable blizzard of characters throughout (only one of whom, Anteus the Greek, made any lasting impression on me). In the whole novel, there is but one event that threatens to escape the black sun of the narrator’s consciousness and to take on a life of its own – the furore surrounding the 1958 award of the Nobel-prize to Boris Pasternak. I read these passages with much greater attention than any other part of the book, and found myself hoping (bizarrely) that I was about to be transported into a detective novel riff on Dr. Zhivago, if only for pace and dramatic impetus.
This novel took me an age to read, and too long to write about: because I was procrastinating in the first case, and because I felt bad about filleting an author for whom I have genuine affection in the second. I note, however, that there may be parallels between my review process and Kadare’s writing process: without being written in extreme political or personal circumstances, how many genuinely good five chapter books take the 14 years (1962-1976) it took Kadare to write Twilight of the Eastern Gods?