This Week’s Column:


Criticism of Ismail Kadare's claims to dissidence arent' exactly wrong. They aren't exactly right, either . . .

a MobyLives guest column

by Wayne Miller

8 AUGUST 2005 — Renata Dumitrascu, in her column and subsequent letter on Ismail Kadare, asserts that, ". . . action and activism are what distinguish a dissident from the pack," and then describes (to contrast with Kadare) "a certain young man who . . . stopped a line of tanks . . . ." She also calls Kadare a "slick" "power honcho" "ass–kissing" "protégé of a murderous dictator." Unfortunately, her depiction of the choices faced by Eastern Bloc writers is a black–and–white one, when in reality such writers, in the process of trying to make honest art and at the same time survive, often were forced to choose between various grays.

As a threshold matter, if we were to dismiss all writers who were sympathetic to Marxist thought during the first half of the 20th century (as Kadare was), we'd severely limit the authors we read—from virtually any country. Moreover, if we were to doubt the legitimacy of all Eastern European writers who found readership and/or friendship among Party officials, were connected to writers unions, were well published in their own countries, were allowed to travel to the West, escaped imprisonment, and generally were "no Solzhenitsyns," I think we'd quickly write off much of Eastern Europe's 20th century literature.

For instance, what would we make of Mikhail Bulgakov, who though much of his work was banned, wrote a play lauded by Stalin and received a post at the Moscow Arts Theater thanks directly to Stalin? Or Wislawa Szymborska, who though she later renounced them, published two books during the heavily censorial period before 1956 and held an important editing post from 1953 to 1981. Or Zbigniew Herbert, whose poems were well published in Poland after 1956, despite their ironic, allegorical attacks on Polish communism? Or Anna Akhmatova, who though her "Requiem" is perhaps the finest poem to date addressing Stalin's purges, became head of the Writers Union the same year Joseph Brodsky was tried as a "parasite"? Or Miroslav Holub, who though several of his books were banned, traveled freely to the West in the 1980's, while many other Czech authors were imprisoned. Or the Romanian poet, Marin Sorescu, who taught in the West between 1971 and 1974 and received the Writers Union Prize three times before the ouster of Ceausescu? Don't all of these writers' careers "scream careerism and conformity," just like Kadare's?

It seems to me there are two ways to approach the issue of dissidence: (1) We can talk about writers who lived dissident lives (meaning "stood in front of tanks"), in which case Kadare's dissidence can be questioned, as can that of many other revered Russian and Eastern European writers. Or else (2) we can talk about authors who produced dissident work (meaning work that challenged a system's aesthetic and political dogmatism), in which case, Kadare clearly qualifies. (Of course, the two are not entirely discrete, as producing dissident work was often a potential life risk, since the ire of a dictator such as Hoxha tended to be dangerously unpredictable.) The core difference between these approaches is that the second focuses first and foremost on the art itself, while the first emphasizes biography over art.

Yet, as I understand it, even from a biographical standpoint, Ismail Kadare's relationship to Albanian communism was conflicted—he was a Marxist, but not a Stalinist, he cultivated political connections and then used them at key moments to push for reform. Like so many of his contemporaries, Kadare initially supported communism, which is not surprising, as Albania's pre–communist history is pretty bleak. (The country was an Ottoman colony from the fifteenth century until 1912; Italy then invaded in 1939. When Enver Hoxha took power at the end of WWII, approximately 80% of Albanians were illiterate, and the country had a literary history of about 40 years.) At its outset, communism offered the possibility of modernization and a national literature. And as one of the brightest college–age writers in a tiny country (Albania's population is about that of the Seattle metropolitan area), Kadare was sent to study at Moscow's Gorky Institute, where socialist realism was inculcated.

Yet, despite his study in Moscow, Kadare was one of the first Albanian writers to oppose socialist realism, beginning with the book of poems, My Century, published in 1961. When the Union of Writers and Artists attacked the work, Hoxha atypically sided with Kadare. It turns out Hoxha was planning on prohibiting all religions (as he did in 1967) and using art to "fill the void." Thus, Kadare's initial act of dissention occurred in the right place at the right time, so to speak.

By the 1980's, Kadare was beloved not only by many Albanian writers and intellectuals, but by lots of regular folks as well. He had written numerous books, some of which had been banned in Albania, though published in France, earning Kadare international notoriety and thus a measure of impunity. All of this, combined with his political connections, gave Kadare real power.

When Ramiz Alia succeeded Hoxha in 1985, he began to relax Albania's communism. According to Edwin Jacques, in his book, The Albanians, "For years [Kadare] had collaborated with the Hoxha regime, thinking that he might influence it toward a more sympathetic attitude toward the human rights position. But his opposition to the heavy–handed tactics of the Sigurimi [the secret police] had earned him a prominent position on their black list. So . . . Kadare requested an interview with Alia . . . [where he] outlined a number of reforms . . . [such as] improving Albania's dismal human rights record, allowing peasants to own livestock and private plots of land, renewing ties with the West, renouncing Stalin and reopening the mosques and churches."

When Alia was unmoved, Kadare defected to France. Just a few months thereafter, Alia allowed for free elections and the establishment of a political opposition party. Sali Berisha, one of Kadare's friends and the head of that party (though in his own ways a problematic character), claimed Kadare's defection helped precipitate those major reforms.

Of course, I agree that there is a difference between someone who tries to reform a system internally and someone who stands in front of a tank in protest of that system. But it is simplistic to see only one of these reformers as legitimate, when in fact both are important to political change. Thus, I take exception when Kadare is bashed as a simple Stalinist collaborator, and—worse—that his writing, which addresses oppression both powerfully and uniquely, is attacked on purely political grounds.

Wayne Miller is the author of a book of poems, Only the Senses Sleep (forthcoming from New Issues), and a chapbook, What Night Says to the Empty Boat (Notes for a Film in Verse) (GreenTower Press). He teaches at Central Missouri State University and co–edits Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.

©2005 Wayne Miller

Previous columns:

AT THE FAMOUS WRITERS' CONFERENCE . . In a guest column, Marie Myung–Ok Lee describes being feted as an ethnic writer at a famous writers conference — when she isn't that ethnicity after all.

WHY ROBBER BARONS SELF–PUBLISH . . In a guest column, historian Edward J. Renehan, Jr. discusses why one of American history's leading financiers, Jay Gould, advised smart people to stay out of the publishing business.

KADARE IS NO SOLZHENITSYN . . The winner of the first Booker International Prize trashed "untrue" dissident writers for keeping silent. Guest columnist Renata Dumitrascu asks if he was really part of their suppression.<

GOOGLIZATION AND YOU . . Librarian Christopher Allen Waldrop says in a guest column that Google Print does more than break copyright laws — it opens the records of patrons up to more widespread scrutiny than the PATRIOT Act.

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!"


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