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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Twilight of the Eastern Gods

by
Ismail Kadare


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Twilight of the Eastern Gods



Title: Twilight of the Eastern Gods
Author: Ismail Kadare
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978, (Fr. 1981, rev. 1998; Eng. 2014)
Length: 193 pages
Original in: Albanian
Availability: Twilight of the Eastern Gods - US
Twilight of the Eastern Gods - UK
Twilight of the Eastern Gods - Canada
Twilight of the Eastern Gods - India
Le crépuscule des dieux de la steppe - France
Il crepuscolo degli dei della steppa - Italia
El ocaso de los dioses de la estepa - España
  • Albanian title: Muzgu i perëndive të stepës
  • Translated and with an Introduction by David Bellos
  • Bellos' translation is of Jusuf Vrioni's French translation, Le crépuscule des dieux de la steppe

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting glimpse of the Soviet Union in the late-1950s

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 3/8/2014 Jonathan Gibbs
The National . 31/7/2014 Malcolm Forbes
New Statesman . 19/8/2014 Robert Macquarie
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/11/2014 Christian Lorentzen
The Spectator . 9/8/2014 Ranjit Bolt
The Times . 2/8/2014 Oliver Moody
TLS . 12/9/2014 George Walden


  From the Reviews:
  • "What is most affecting is the sense of Kadare's situation as foreigner, and the camaraderie that existed among the denaturalised writers called to Moscow from the furthest corners of the Soviet empire. (...) It's not too hard to see this novel as Kadare's reminder to himself to keep his own promise, and not end up like the compromised mediocrities around him." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent

  • "This enigmatic and beguiling novel is a fictionalised account of Kadareís time as a student at the illustrious Gorky Institute for World Literature in Moscow in 1958. (...) Kadareís novel is excellently translated from a 1998 French edition by David Bellos, and so mercifully doesnít feel like a Chinese whisper. Kadareís self-effacing wit, despair and caustic digs at the lickspittle writers remain intact. (...) The main draw of Kadareís novel is his refusal to play the game he has been selected for and his snapping at the authoritative hand that feeds him." - Malcolm Forbes, The National

  • "The plot remains under-developed and secondary characters drift in and out of focus without any significant time devoted to their description or clarification. Perhaps this is a weakness. But Twilight of the Eastern Gods presents an absorbing microcosm of Kadareís psychological resistance against communism. The keenness, and universality, of Kadareís troubles lend the book its strengths." - Robert Macquarie, New Statesman

  • "Twilight of the Eastern Gods, like everything he writes, is gloomy and death-obsessed, but also frequently hilarious." - Christian Lorentzen, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Itís doubtless good writing to evoke pessimism and totalitarian greyness so vividly, but it has its disadvantages, and at times we get bogged down. For this reader, the women are the highlight." - Ranjit Bolt, The Spectator

  • "Whatever else it isnít, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a highly atmospheric evocation of the writerís fate in the mid-Khrushchevian era that includes real-life authors, period political detail, legendary motifs, romantic interludes and comic touches. (...) At times the air of unreality reflects Kadareís incredulity that such an era could ever have existed, as though the Soviet literati of the day were living a kind of poisoned Russian fairy tale. (...) David Bellosís translation (from the French version) is imaginatively done, and his introduction excellent." - George Walden, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Twilight of the Eastern Gods is an autobiographical novel, based on Ismail Kadare's time as a student at the Gorky Institute for World Literature in Moscow in the late 1950s.
       The Gorky Institute was the grand Soviet writing academy, a Soviet version of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and the Iowa Writers' Workshop (or whatever MFA program you want to substitute) rolled into one. Many of the leading Soviet authors attended -- Yevgeny Yevtushenko is among the narrator's prominent classmates in the novel -- and there was a particular effort to bring authors from the Soviet Union's many diverse regions, as well as, of course, from friendly foreign countries into the Gorky fold. Hence Chinghiz Aitmatov and Fazil Iskander are among the prominent alumni, and hence also some foreign writers who would achieve renown abroad: Kadare has had the greatest success, but, for example, leading Arabic-writing author Ibrahim al-Koni was also a student there. (The Institute continues to operate, as Russia's big MFA factory, and still also with an international perspective; Yuri Andrukhovych's The Moscoviad is another fictional account of life at the Institute, in a different era.)
       The narrator at one points sums up the student-body, neatly compartmentalized in the official residence hall:

First floor: there's where the first-year students stay; they've not yet committed many literary sins. Second floor: critics, conformist playwrights, white-washers. Third ... circle: dogmatics, arse-lickers and Russian nationalists. Fourth circle: women, liberals, and people disenchanted with socialism. Fifth circle: slanderers and snitches. Sixth circle: denaturalised writers who have abandoned their own language to write in Russian ...
       Still, Kadare's novel isn't solely a campus-novel: it doesn't even begin at the Gorky Institute, but rather with the students on vacation, the narrator spending some time in the Baltics, in Latvia, at a writers' retreat. Here, as elsewhere, there's a girl -- a new relationship he strikes up -- and reminders of Albania, as he's annoyed to learn that King Zog apparently used to have a nice house in the neighborhood.
       The narrator also left a girlfriend back in Moscow -- Lida, a girl who loves literature, "but mostly the work of dead authors", and doesn't like (living) authors, leading to the narrator passing himself off as someone only peripherally involved with this whole writing-business. She really doesn't like writers, leading also to the melodramatic point where she discovers the truth:
Hoarsely, as if she'd said, 'From now on you are a diminished man in my eyes, you are a murderer, a member of the Mafia, of the Zionist International, of the Ku Klux Klan, she whispered, 'I'm beginning to believe that you ... you too ... you are a writer !'
       This is, in part, certainly also a projection of the self-loathing the narrator feels, his MFA-student-like uncertainty about what he's doing. The place he finds himself in, this institutionalized writing-center, isn't exactly inspiring -- not if it leads to the kind of writing the narrator finds himself surrounded by. In particular, the narrator is disturbed how little of (Soviet and Moscow) reality can be found in the fiction of his colleagues or indeed any Russian writers. So, for example, he's baffled that: "Not a single novel contained anything like an exact description of Moscow", and:
I knew of not a single work of Soviet literature that gave even a fragmentary description of how the machinery of state actually functioned: no insights into meetings of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, or the Politburo, or other more occult authorities.
       This despite the fact that many of the students were or had been politically very active:
Some were members of the Supreme Soviet of their respective republics and others were prominent figures. One day, in an economics seminar when we were discussing inflation, Shogentsukov had cooly remarked, 'When I was prime minister I had to deal with a similar problem.'
       (Yes, apparently even the writers were not spared economics-seminars at the Gorky Institute -- though come to think of it, that might not be the worst thing for MFA students to spend their time on .....)
       But the narrator is disappointed when he reads Shogentsukov's novel: thinking he: "must surely deal with the problems of the state somewhere or other. Yes, he must !" but finding that the former prime minister's pastoral idyll offers nothing of the sort:
Not only did it contain no mention of the institutions of the state, it did not admit of a single construction in brick or stone. Nothing but gurgling streams, fidelity and flowers, and a few hymns sung of an evening to the glory of the Communist Party of the USSR.
       No wonder the narrator is feeling disillusioned, and questioning what he's doing. But hints of Kadare's (future) work pop up, in suggestion that he while he doesn't yet have his footing -- he's unable, for example to fully recount the story of Kostandin and Doruntine that he would later mine for his own work -- he has a firmer grasp of what can be done with literature. So, too, the seed of The General of the Dead Army emerges here, and there are hints of other future works.
       The major events of the time also figure prominently in the book, most obviously the awarding of the 1958 Nobel Prize to Boris Pasternak -- and the campaign against him that quickly and loudly ensued in the Soviet Union; the narrator even comes across some pages from Doctor Zhivago. Overshadowing the narrator's own situation is the rapidly worsening Soviet-Albanian relationship, with few tangible consequences yet, but nevertheless making his outsider-position in Moscow even more tenuous. The citywide-quarantine in Moscow (because of smallpox) conveniently complicates matters, too.
       Twilight of the Eastern Gods offers an interesting glimpse of parts of the Soviet Union and Moscow in the late 1950s, and is both a good introduction to Kadare's work and one that is rewarding retrospectively, showing readers more familiar with his work where some of it comes from. There's disappointingly little about any actual literary instruction (indoctrination ?) at the Gorky Institute -- though perhaps, as with MFA programs everywhere, it's the more casual interactions among the writers, as well as the party-scene and heavy drinking (which Kadare does describe at a bit greater length) that is more illuminating. While not gossipy, the book is also manna for anyone fascinated by the Soviet literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s (okay, maybe that's just me ...), as many real-life figures appear (under their real names) -- though most too fleetingly.
       There's a lot of material here: Pasternak's Nobel, a smallpox outbreak, Albanian-Soviet relations, in addition to all the writing-related material, from the narrator taking his first steps in the writing-life to the various Soviet examples (few of which he sees as exemplary), to the narrator's involvement with the women he meets in the Soviet Union. Arguably, Kadare could have done a lot more with this -- but Twilight of the Eastern Gods is surprisingly effective on this small scale, too.
       A fascinating document of the times (and place), and an interesting young-(would-be-)writer's (and stranger-in-a-strange-land) story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 August 2014

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Links:

Twilight of the Eastern Gods: Reviews: Gorky Institute for World Literature: Ismail Kadare: Other books by Ismail Kadare under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Albanian author Ismail Kadare was born in 1936. He was the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize (2005).

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© 2014 the complete review

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