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A Dictator Calls Book Review: When history is shaped by rumours...

This autobiographical novel brilliantly showcases the effect of totalitarianism on the mental make-up of the artist, writes Rutba Iqbal.
Last Updated : 15 June 2024, 19:17 IST

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The year is 1934. The poet Osip Mandelstam has been arrested because his poem is said to be insulting to the dictator. Stalin calls his friend, Russian writer Boris Pasternak, to enquire about the arrested poet. What does Pasternak say? “We are different, Comrade Stalin.” A few hours later, rumours spread across Moscow that Pasternak abandoned his friend.

In his novel A Dictator Calls, Ismail Kadare examines 12 accounts of this phone call, even unearthing KGB archives to reconstruct those three minutes. Kadare questions the authenticity of the accounts and motivations of the witnesses. Did Pasternak really betray Mandelstam? Pasternak’s integrity is questioned, and his complicity with the regime is touted around, even when he is seen as someone who is saving his skin.

Kadare takes the role of an investigator tearing apart the accounts; he shows us that behind a singular vision of things hides a malicious intent to obscure the truth. Since the unreliability of these accounts is meticulously proven by Kadare, was it then pertinent to persecute Pasternak? Make one-sixth of the world hate him? At one point, Kadare even finds contradictions in the account of the most mythologised writer of Pasternak’s time, Anna Akhmatova. He is attempting a contrapuntal reading of that grotesque time where “things believable only in books and never in real life were giving way to things in real life that would not be believed in books.”

The autobiographical novel (I hesitantly use the label ‘novel’ as all the conventionality of form and fiction are blatantly shifted by the writer in a way only Kadare can do) brilliantly showcases the effect of totalitarianism on the mental make-up of the artist. The artist’s motivations are questioned at multiple checkpoints, and his creativity bounded. The greater insult: his subject matter is dissected not to determine its artistic value but to see if his work shows any signs of decadence or dares to offend the regime. Casually and with utmost disregard, the literature is expected to narrate only one story, the class struggle, and reflect only one mood, the sunny optimism of Albanian socialist realism.

Kadare compares himself with Pasternak in the novel, a comparison not far-fetched by any means. Kadare, like Pasternak, also received a call of his own from the dictator Enver Hoxha. He is often criticised for surviving the dictatorship. In an interview with the Paris Review, he says, “From 1967 to 1970, I was under the direct surveillance of the dictator himself… In such a situation I had three choices: to conform to my own beliefs, which meant death; complete silence, which meant another kind of death; or to pay a tribute, a bribe. I chose the third solution by writing”. He wrote the book The Long Winter in which he is accused of praising the dictator.

But the writer doesn’t just see this fight for survival as a chase between cat and mouse. In a disturbing vision that only Kadare can accomplish, he subverts the dynamics of power. “The tyrant and the poet, however much they seem opposites, both held power”.

Kadare, while subverting our understanding of binary opposition, is also interested in decoding the incomprehensible. The obscurity surrounding the phone call fuelled rumours that further villainised Pasternak.

But it is impressed upon the reader that all methods of inquiry ought to be exhausted, all testimonies need to be questioned to dismantle the shaky edifice of truth. The relationship between writers and tyrants is not a narrative of the past. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin are dying a new death in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Literature is constantly being reread, and new ways of consuming historical literature are being invented every day, courtesy modern discursive practices. In all this chaos, Kadare’s approach promises a shot at exposing falsehoods masquerading as truths.

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Published 15 June 2024, 19:17 IST

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