This Week’s Column:


The winner of the first Booker International Prize trashed "untrue" dissident writers for keeping silent—but was he part of their suppression?

a MobyLives guest column

by Renata Dumitrascu

18 JULY 2005 — In accepting this year's Man Booker International Prize, Albanian writer Ismail Kadare criticized people from ex–communist countries who claim they were not allowed to be writers by the repressive system. He contemptuously declared "The people entitled to speak about that period are the people who did something and not the people who kept silent and have retrospective nostalgia."

There is a lot of similarity between Kadare's rhetoric and that of other self–styled "dissident" writers from the communist period in Eastern European countries: a need to cast themselves into false roles of national anti–totalitarian heroes, when in fact, most of them led lives of privilege during the worst repression and continue to do so. Kadare's rant about distinguishing "true dissenters" from the impostors is grimly ironic once one becomes acquainted with his background. Kadare self righteously issues a verdict on who may and may not speak about the period of communist rule in Albania, seemingly anointing chiefly himself as the voice of that period for his country.

A look at Kadare's career offers insight into the roots of this conceited outlook and shakes the very foundation of his claim that he was even a dissident at all.

Kadare studied in Moscow in the 50's at a time communist oppression of average citizens was at an all time high in the entire Eastern block. That meant a full scholarship in the USSR at a time when only the most purebred, unblemished party clones were invited to study in the capital of the great empire, to better indoctrinate them for future positions of power in their home countries. To even be considered for such a scholarship was a feat that required a thorough background investigation of him and his entire family no ordinary citizen could pass successfully. Certainly not one with dissident tendencies.

Next, he predictably became head of the Albanian Union of Writers, again, a powerful Orwellian post which required yet more thorough investigations. No one gets to the top accidentally. No one stumbles to the head of the pile inadvertently. Kadare had to successfully lobby for himself among the powerful Soviet hyenas that called the shots with a fist of fury. Not a job for the fainthearted or the free–spirited. How many "dissident" writers, beside himself, did he protect and propel into the public eye? If he was anything like other heads of Unions of Writers in other communist countries, he did very well for himself, held active party membership, participated enthusiastically in expelling true political critics from the Union damning them to publishing oblivion, and knew all the right people up top intimately.

In the 70's we find him serving as a delegate to the People's Assembly, Albania's version of the Politburo, and being allowed the astonishing privilege of traveling abroad freely and even publishing there. Quite a staggering resume for a dissident. This was at a time behind the Iron Curtain when to even walk on the sidewalk on which a foreign embassy was situated got one detained and roughed up. Kadare "smuggled" his manuscripts to France where they were published and hailed as creations of a heroic opposer crushed by a monolithic communistic juggernaut. But besides having a book and a poem here and there banned (many writers of that period did, in an atmosphere of rabid censorship), we always find Kadare firmly ensconced in the bosom of power.

I don't think it would be out of line to speculate that the People's Assembly gig likely came with a generous salary, a black Mercedes and fine dining at the best restaurants in Tirana. Around the same time, Kadare's ordinary contemporaries in Albania ate boiled fish tails and could disappear into the night if they so much as looked askance at the party insignia.

Like most of his homologues in other communist countries, Kadare was an astute chameleon, adroitly playing the rebel here and there to excite the nave Westerners who were scouting for voices of dissent from the East. But there is absolutely no question about what kind of animal he was and what pack he ran with; in fact, his resume screams careerism and conformity. All this present day chest–pounding is like Condoleeza Rice claiming twenty years from now that she was a dissident of the Bush regime because she got a tattoo of a crescent moon on her left butt cheek.

Kadare is irritated that people are claiming they could have been writers but were prevented by the communist system, precisely because he worked that system so brilliantly to his own personal advantage. After all, the "moral victory" of his publication abroad was infinitely more important to him than some other Albanian bastard's "moral victory" through publication abroad. And of course, was it possible in those times to wield such power and not have victims, other people whose careers he systematically thwarted? Perhaps it is their haunting complaints he is trying to silence when he pronounces them unfit to speak of that period.

Kadare is no Solzhenitsyn and never has been. If the head of the Union of Writers and the delegate to the People's Assembly who studied in Moscow was the dissident, who in God's name supported communism? His secretary? The janitor? His dissident credentials are rubbish, as are those of many Eastern European writers and poets who published and thrived during communism, mixing their literary career with commanding political posts.

Kadare left Albania shortly before the fall of communism and settled comfortably in France where he has basked in his "dissident" status, winning acclaim and honors. He is yet again at the right place at the right time: Europe needs to honor men named Ismail who don't want to kill us, and it needs to pretend to pay more attention to miscellaneous future EU countries to the East; Kadare provides for the easy killing of two birds with one stone. Quite an auspicious turn of events for this man on whose career Lady Fortune always seems to smile no matter what the political system or historical circumstance.

This is one of many literary careers built on a dubious premise. One wonders about those voices Kadare is so eager to silence. His expressed contempt for "untrue" dissenters is set to backfire in the long run. After the dust settles and the oppression of communism is relegated to the pages of history past, the real dissenters, the ones without high offices and international travel privileges, will hopefully emerge to tell their story, distinct, with the quiet dignity of truth.

Renata Dumitrascu was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. in 1985 with her mother in order to be with her father, who had defected from Romania. She currently resides in Middleton, Wisconsin. She self–published a poetry book called Pizza Poems.

©2005 Renata Dumitrascu

Previous columns:

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BOOKSELLER AT LARGE . . Guest commentator Dan Bloom says he moved to Taiwan and wrote a book that sold thousands of copies — after he took to the streets yelling, "Buy my book!"

ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THE MFA BASHING . . . Regular contributor Steve Almond, an MFA grad who also teaches creative writing, responds to Elizabeth Clementson's column about the influence of MFA programs.

DOWN WITH MFAs . . . In a guest column, MFA dropout and publisher Elizabeth Clementson say MFA programs are ruining literature and the publishing buisness.

TELEVISION WITHOUT PITY . . . Tired of the short story writer's life, guest columnist Steve Almond explains why he's now writing television shows such as "Blog and Order."


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 – 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.