A phone call not every writer wants

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times October 5, 2023 20:19

A phone call not every writer wants

Story Highlights

  • For Boris Pasternak, the Nobel Prize in 1958 meant almost a death sentence, and when Ismail Kadare was first reached by the rumor that he had been nominated, he was scared more than anything. The vulnerability, and power, of free speech is actualized in Kadare's new book about another famous phone call - from Stalin.

Related Articles

By Kristoffer Leandoer

Every year he waits in vain by the phone on this very day, and a whole nation waits with him. Every year the Albanian people are equally surprised that Ismail Kadare has been passed over once again. The recently published "A dictator calls" (Counterpoint LLC), makes full use of literature's opportunity to change the conditions and seek out the perspective where loss is most like a victory. A perspective where, on the contrary, the phone call from Stockholm in October is a life-threatening threat that should ideally be avoided.

Therefore, Kadare tells the story of another phone call, which actually took place: a call that lasted only three minutes but which, almost 90 years later, still occupies people's imaginations: what was actually said, and what did it mean?

On Saturday, June 23, 1934, the phone rings at Boris Pasternak's home on Volkonskaya Street in Moscow. It is Stalin's secretary calling: "Comrade Stalin wants to speak to you." This conversation is recorded by the KGB and has been recorded in several different versions: there is no doubt that it actually took place. Stalin goes straight to the point:

"The poet Mandelstam was recently arrested. What can you say about him, Comrade Pasternak?”

Everyone knows that Osip Mandelstam wrote a poem about Stalin the year before and although only 14 people actually read it, everyone knows that it is dangerous to know. What does Pasternak answer? "We are different, Comrade Stalin", is what he manages to get across, according to his own statement. Stalin tried to press Pasternak to give an opinion, but the latter cannot get out more than that they are different from each other as poets.

“Can't you defend him better than that? You are a lousy comrade, Comrade Pasternak,” says Stalin and hangs up.

This telephone conversation was the general topic of conversation in Moscow, and is now documented in 13 different versions, which "A dictator calls" goes through rigorously: strikingly many of these versions are based on Pasternak's own words, he seems to have told each and every person what smooth figure he made. Those who judge him do so with the help of himself: he seems never to have forgiven himself for not being able to make better use of the opportunity to help Mandelstam.

When Pasternak has recovered from the shock, he wants to resume the conversation, make a better impression, make a better effort for his fellow poet. But he gets no answer, Stalin has lost interest, the telephone line no longer exists: it was created just for this call. Mandelstam was exiled, released, arrested again and died in a prison camp in Voronezh in 1938.

A quarter of a century later, in 1958, the young Ismail Kadare is in Moscow, where he is studying at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute when the Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded to Pasternak, who the year before published his life's work "Doctor Zhivago". The young Albanian literature student gets to witness the well-orchestrated Soviet campaign against Pasternak on the floor: imagine making an entire country an enemy, a single man with a sixth of the earth against him!

Pasternak has been seen as the survivor, the survivor, but the price is too much, even though he ultimately refuses to accept it: a little over a decade later, in May 1960, he lies dying in his narrow tent bed at the Peredelkino country estate just outside Moscow, in Kadare's harsh words "killed by the Nobel Prize".

Two decades later, in 1978, Kadare submits a newly written novel about his time in Moscow to his Albanian publisher, "Twilight of the Steppe Gods", where a chapter describes the campaign against Pasternak. He notes the pre-trial situation at the publisher: an employee has ended up in prison, the publisher is unusually careful. Being lax is dangerous, but censoring is also dangerous: to censor a covert allusion to a leader's Achilles' heel is, after all, the same as admitting that you yourself know this Achilles' heel, almost the same as alluding to it yourself...

Kadare has every reason to think about Pasternak. It has spread that he himself is on the list of nominees: it is now that he begins to wait for phone calls from Stockholm, with equal parts anticipation and concern. It is never said outright, but it is still clear that a Nobel Prize could have been as devastating in Kadare's life as it was in Pasternak's: Hoxha's communist regime could have reacted with jealous paranoia and harsh reprisals.

Kadare's own relationship with Albania's dictator Enver Hoxha is constantly present as a counterweight and comparison to the relationship between Pasternak and Stalin: Kadare too was surprisingly called by his country's dictator - Kadare too had difficulty getting a word out on this occasion - Kadare too lived on his existence in uncertainty: was his life in danger or not? What did Hoxha really think?

As always with Kadare, the association between individual and politics is lightning fast: the break between Albania and the Soviet Union is imminent and soon little Albania finds itself in the same position as Zhivago's author, with a sixth of the earth against it. David vs. Goliath. The depiction of this rupture and Hoxha's appearance in Moscow in "The Hard Winter" flattered the dictator to such an extent that Kadare later used to claim that this novel saved his life: whatever he wrote, Hoxha could never get rid of him, because he was then had to get rid of the author's work as well, including the flattering portrait.

It is my own lifelong experience of the complicated game between power and literature that is condensed in this book. Kadare knows all about bad moods, half-baked songs and the futile attempts to predict the next step in power. Power is at its worst when it is exercised capriciously and unpredictably, because the uncertainty it spreads is total. The three-minute phone call is a prime example: why did Stalin call? "Comrade Stalin is enjoying himself", was the comment of a colleague - the dictator simply enjoyed playing cat and mouse with his subjects. (Probably he also had a concrete business, namely to find out if Pasternak was part of the circle that read Mandelstam's poem about "Mountain dwellers in the Kremlin" who "suck on the death penalty like raspberries".)

The worst part of the conversation is that Stalin mocks Pasternak because he does not stand up for his fellow poet, in other words because he is afraid: it is an ingenious form of bullying to give someone a guilty conscience for a reaction that he himself is the cause of.

How do you make yourself inaccessible to bullying? Kadare studies other survivors, Anna Achmatova, the Albanian poet Lasgush Poradeci, and finds that the answer is very simple: you don't want anything, you live so withdrawn and unassuming that you have, in a sense, already moved into your death. Achmatova even claimed that she wrote several of her 40s poems while dead.

With "A dictator calls", Kadare takes control of the conversation to move it into the gray zone where he is king. The story of the Nobel Prize and the writer from the former dictatorship in the East becomes his own. The performers, Mandelstam and Pasternak, and Akhmatova, Dante and Tolstoy, are his lifelong confidants. The comparison between poets and tyrants may seem far-fetched, but it has developed into a personal obsession, says Kadare. They torment and need each other, they become each other's downfall and are "each other's slaves in the same circle with Dante". He meticulously goes through the 13 versions of the telephone conversation in a singularly intelligent meditation on the power and the word that we today have every reason to read attentively. What kind of forces are we inviting when we start with censorship and societal restrictions on free speech? If there is one thing that Kadare makes clear, it is how oppression disfigures everyone, both victims and practitioners.

He also offers an important reminder: we don't have to be powerless subjects. We have unlimited control over the worlds we ourselves create when we write. Putting yourself on the same level as the ruler and taking full responsibility for his power is the best thing a writer can do, even from a survival point of view, and this is perhaps the book's most important lesson: take control of the story.

The English-language title "A dictator calls" is a direct translation from the French edition, but the original Albanian title is different: "Kur Sunduesit Grinden", When tyrants step. Kadare's own title shows that he really sees the exchange of words between the autocrat and the author as a meeting between equals, tyrants in their respective domains; a match on equal terms. So we don't do that in the West: we shift the center of gravity in the power relationship and assume that the dictator has the initiative while the artist is at a disadvantage where he can only receive.

In the past, he has even described the balance of power in the dilemma as unequal the other way: the dictator does not stand a chance, the only real autocrat is the author, who rules over his creation unrestricted. (This is nuanced by the ever-recurring fever scenes in Kadare's work, a trance-like state between waking and dreaming, alive and dead—sheer abdication of responsibility over fiction, as if control wasn't all that important.)

I met Kadare several times during my years in Albania and got the impression that he was someone who had left the table and stopped being interested in the game. "A dictator calls" is, however, written by an author who possesses the virtuoso's full and passionate interest in his own literary game, that is, the game of power over the narrative: the important thing is not who survives the dilemma but whose story it is that survives .

Kadare's strategy to win that fight is worth remembering. Not to claim the only truth, not to pretend to be infallible. Without, on the contrary, complicating the truth as much as possible. To also openly question oneself, one's own motives and one's memory. To point to alternative interpretations, self-contradictions and crossroads. Democracy is never one truth but several.


Kristoffer Leandoer

Author and critic in SvD

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times October 5, 2023 20:19