Shiny Prize Season – A Dictator Calls by Ismail Kadare – International Booker Prize

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Translated by John Hodgson

Review by Karen Langley

The International Booker Prize is one of the more high profile literary awards, and its stated aim is to introduce readers to “the best novels and short story collections from around the world that have been translated into English and published in the UK and/or Ireland.” The prize was introduced in 2005 and the inaugural winner, Ismail Kadare, is once again on the longlist this year. A highly respected Albanian author, he’s been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature a staggering 15 times, and many of his works are available in English. As well as fiction, he’s also known for poetry, essays, screenwriting, and plays; and the theme running through his work is recognised as a stand against totalitarianism. Therefore, it’s perhaps not a surprise to find his latest book taking on the ultimate tyrant – Joseph Stalin.

The focus of A Dictator Calls is a short telephone conversation which apparently took place in June 1934 between Stalin and the great Russian author, Boris Pasternak. 1930s Soviet Russia was not a happy place for writers, as Stalin was in the midst of major purges, and lives were on the line. The poet Osip Mandelstam had incurred Stalin’s wrath by composing a critical poem about the dictator, known as the Stalin Epigram. Although this had not been committed to paper, Mandelstam had repeated the verse to people he knew. One must have betrayed him, because Mandelstam was arrested; and Stalin’s phone call to Pasternak was to ask the latter what he thought of his fellow poet…

Pasternak appears to have fluffed his answer through nerves, confusion, fear or who knows what; and Stalin was apparently dismissive of his response, and of Pasternak not sticking up for his writer comrade. This phone call passed into legend, and would come back to haunt Pasternak in 1958 when he was nominated for the Nobel Prize. The furore which erupted in Russia, and the Soviet propaganda offensive, forced Pasternak to reject the prize. At the time, Kadare was studying in Moscow, and these events seem to have marked him considerably, as he appears to have developed something of an obsession with Pasternak. The incidents informed his earlier novel, Twilight of the Eastern Gods, which is set during the 1958 events. In A Dictator Calls, however, Kadare revisits the 1934 conversation and its aftermath, exploring the numerous retellings and variations on what actually happened; and there are many!

To be precise, Kadare explores thirteen versions of the conversation; these come from those close to Pasternak, those who heard it from others, and even from Kremlin records themselves. Everyone from Pasternak’s mistress through Anna Akhmatova to the historian Isaiah Berlin has their own re-telling of the phone call. And each one varies, which is fascinating but not perhaps unexpected. We don’t actually hear directly from Pasternak himself, understandably, as he seems to be haunted by the guilt of not having spoken up more for Mandelstam. And the variations between the different versions of the call just go to show the unreliability of history and of human memory. 

This central exploration is surrounded by Kadare’s meditations on life in a totalitarian regime (and he’s lived through this himself). In conversations with his publisher, there are always hints of those in the background who will censor or judge his work. Perhaps it is the constant conflict between art and totalitarian rule which fascinates him so much; and the Stalin/Pasternak clash could be considered the perfect example of this. Stalin was notorious for playing cat and mouse with authors such as Bulgakov and Platonov, basically ensuring that it was impossible for them to publish during their lifetime; and we can just be glad that their writing survived and is available now. Pasternak, of course, managed to issue some works while he was alive, but it seems that his life was one full of tensions and conflicts; it’s clear that writing whilst living in a dictatorship is not easy.

As for Mandelstam, as Kadare discusses, his life was hard and his end tragic; although as he points out, Mandelstam’s final arrest and death did not come until 1938, and so even though he was seized in 1934, he was released. According to Kadare, the two arrests are often conflated, as if people want to believe his Stalin poem caused arrest in 1934, then came the Pasternak phone call, then exile and death. Another example, perhaps, of history giving the wrong picture.

A Dictator Calls is a fascinating read from start to finish, but I did find myself querying quite why it was included in the longlist for a prize for fiction. The book reads to me like narrative non-fiction; I know that Kadare has fictionalised his experiences in the past (for example, with Twilight…) but this particular book seems to move further away from fiction of any kind, and there’s no indication on the cover that I can see of any kind of category. I did find it really hard to consider the book as fiction, if I’m honest.

However, whatever genre you want to put it into, Kadare’s narrative is a gripping one, using the supposed conversation between Pasternak and Stalin as a springboard to explore the complex relationship between dictatorship and art. I think it would probably help a reader to know a little of the background to Pasternak’s issues with Stalin, and the Nobel Prize controversy; even, perhaps, to have read Twilight of the Eastern Gods. Nevertheless, Kadare’s book makes fascinating reading, and it will be interesting to see whether it makes the shortlist this year. 

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and believes in the power of poetry.

Ismail Kadare, A Dictator Calls (Harvill Secker, 2024). 978-1787303638. 217pp., hardback.

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4 comments

  1. This is really interesting! The phone call itself is a fascinating context for the book, and there’s a lot of historical significance too. You have a good point, though, that it doesn’t seem to be a novel – a fiction piece. Still, very interesting!

    1. It’s quite fascinating, Margot. The telephone call has become legendary, yet every version differs. Kadare does take his explorations wider to look at the whole relationship between tyrants and poets, but I still struggle to read it as fiction!

  2. Wow, 15 times: that’s nearly incredible! This sounds like a fascinating premise; I can see the appeal.

  3. It’s quite fascinating, and I did enjoy it though I’m still stuggling with the category!

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