‘What must it be like to be the target, to be the eye of that whirlwind’ – Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare

totegikTwilight of the Eastern Godsis Ismail Kadare’s student novel. It is based on his time as a student of Moscow’s Gorky Institute (Communism’s UEA) in the late 1950’s when young writers from across the Communist bloc were gathered together to be taught to become the next generation of Socialist writers. Constantly aware that he is a ‘foreigner’, “I came from an ancient Balkan land with grandiose legends”, the unnamed narrator lives a typically student life (one drunken adventure involves attempting to find King Zog of Albania’s old holiday home) but this is a frustrating period and place for an apprentice writer to find himself.

Aside from the routine tedium of lectures the students must ignore (or blind themselves to) the reality that surrounds them. Soviet novels “did not admit of a single construction in brick or stone. Nothing but gurgling streams, fidelity and flowers”. In the Soviet Union so much of reality is unspoken, while the citizen must interpret the silence of the government on the issues of the day with all the accuracy of the Delphic oracles, the fictionalised autobiography of this novel captures the, frequently, fictional nature of life when silence is necessary for survival.

It is a novel that displays a young man’s dismay at the idiocy of the older generation, the teachers at the Gorky Institute are eminent writers who “had been publishing trilogies for forty years”. Throughout the novel are flashes of wit that bring to mind Kingsley Amis and Lucky Jim, it shares Jim Dixon’s silent resistance of frustrated creativity against the staid conformism of his elders. Evoking the tedium experienced by students as they wait for their life to begin. Kadare captures their ambition and fear of the future in the drunken sport of ‘plot-spew’ where the students “tell each other the plots of books they’ll never write” (the narrator outlines Kadare’s later novel The General of the Dead Army).

In this “soggy, soporific season of winter” the narrator wakes one morning to discover a national uproar when Boris Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize for Doctor Zhivago (a novel none of his fellow students have read though they line up to denounce it). For days Pasternak is vilified in the media, and then just as quickly (and with no explanation) the subject is dropped. The narrator suddenly understands his future as a writer, “what must it be like to be the target, to be the eye of that whirlwind.” He can now see his career ahead of him, he must be faithful to the source of literature by returning to the folklore that the Gorky Institute teaches is irrelevant.

Any Cop?: A fascinating novel about an apprentice writer that can be read without having read Kadare’s greater novels. Though if you’re looking for an introduction to Kadare, try The Three-Arched Bridge.

 

James Doyle

 


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