A Dictator Calls by Ismail Kadare - Hindustan Times
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A Dictator Calls by Ismail Kadare

BySharmistha Jha
Apr 17, 2024 09:00 PM IST

The laws of tragedy bring together the author Boris Pasternak and Josef Stalin, head of the Soviet Union, in the Albanian author’s latest novel

Boris Pasternak, celebrated Russian poet and author of Doctor Zhivago, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, is the protagonist of Ismail Kadare’s A Dictator Calls. Incidentally, Pasternak’s tale of an individual’s struggle between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and World War II was shunned in the USSR for being anti-Soviet and the novelist was compelled by the Communist Party to decline the prize. His son finally accepted it in 1989, close to three decades after Pasternak’s death and when the USSR itself was crumbling. Pasternak and poet Osip Mandelstam, who wrote the widely circulated satirical poem, Stalin Epigram, in 1933, were friends. In June 1934, Joseph Stalin reportedly telephoned Pasternak to discuss the arrest of Mandelstam. Albanian author Ismail Kadare’s genre-bending novel, that was longlisted for the Booker this year, presents an analysis of 13 versions of that three-minute telephone conversation between the tyrant and the novelist.

Boris Pasternak on a Russian postage stamp from 2019. (Mirt Alexander /Shutterstock)
Boris Pasternak on a Russian postage stamp from 2019. (Mirt Alexander /Shutterstock)

224pp, Rs799; Harvill Secker
224pp, Rs799; Harvill Secker

In an interview with the Booker Prize organisation, the English translator of the book, John Hodgson cited Nadezhda Mandestam’s memoirs as an inspiration for A Dictator Calls. “Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs were published in English as Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. Nadezhda, the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam, preserved her husband’s poetry after his death in the Gulag by learning it by heart, and eked out a precarious survival on the fringes of Soviet society. There is no finer testimony to the resilience of the creative spirit under totalitarianism,” he said.

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Translator John Hodgson (Courtesy thebookerprizes.com)
Translator John Hodgson (Courtesy thebookerprizes.com)

Kadare’s novel raises questions about the impact of literature in times of war and censorship: “The only remaining route to Moscow which even the most terrifying tanks couldn’t reach, was the novel.” What is the nature of the relationship between political tyranny and literature? Under totalitarianism, what are the bonds between two artists? Up against authoritarian forces, what do they owe each other, if anything? At a time when political leaders worldwide have weaponised misinformation and censorship to serve their agendas, these are the questions the reader ponders over as she reads A Dictator Calls.

The doomed poet Osip Mandelstam. (Dylanhatfield / Shutterstock)
The doomed poet Osip Mandelstam. (Dylanhatfield / Shutterstock)

The telephonic conversation between Stalin and Pasternak represents the clash of political and literary power. The 13 versions of the phone call provide an understanding of how intimidating Stalin was and the abject fear that grips artists under totalitarianism. The atmosphere of suspense and terror within the novel rises as the many versions of the conversation unfold in that era of uncertainty.

As the reader proceeds, the novel grows in mystery, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell which version is real. Each one has its merits. Perhaps, Stalin had both the poets in the palm of his hand; perhaps he wanted to ask Pasternak if he had been too harsh on Mandelstam; did he actually desire some advice? Did he wish to be more lenient? If that were the case, Pasternak may have fared poorly and failed Mandelstam. In some versions of the call, Pasternak abandons any loyalty to Mandelstam. Others believe Stalin thought him a poor comrade who had turned his back on his fellow poet. Perhaps, Pasternak had disappointed Stalin.

Author Ismail Kadare (Courtesy thebookerprizes.com)
Author Ismail Kadare (Courtesy thebookerprizes.com)

But what does it matter when “In this world, poets are always similar, whether in the bright light of fame or in the darkness of grief”. What do artists owe each other in difficult times, asks the novel. The arrest of Mandelstam in 1934 did not come as a surprise. So the question remains, what did both the parties expect of each other during this call? Why did the dictator call? Mandelstam died in the Gulag and Pasternak lived the rest of his life wondering if he could have saved him.

In this book of great Russian writers and political leaders – it also explores Lenin’s favouritism towards Maxim Gorky and Marx’s warning about human conscience – Kadare makes the reader think also about the burden of truth in the contemporary world when history and reality itself is being rewritten. A book of a time when the laws of tragedy brought together a poet and a tyrant, A Dictator Calls is an entirely relevant read.

Sharmistha Jha is an independent writer and editor.

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