A Dictator Calls

Read A Dictator Calls by Ismail Kadare
In June 1934, Stalin allegedly called Boris Pasternak and they spoke about the arrest of Osip Mandelstam. A telephone call from the dictator was not something necessarily relished, and in the complicated world of literary politics it would have provided opportunities for potential misunderstanding and profound trouble. But this was a call one could not ignore. Stalin wanted to know what Pasternak thought of the idea that Mandelstam had been arrested. Ismail Kadare explores the afterlife of this phone call using accounts of witnesses, reporters, writers such as Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova, wives, mistresses, biographers, and even archivists of the KGB. The results offer a meditation on power and political structure, and how literature and authoritarianism construct themselves in plain sight of one another. Kadare’s reconstruction becomes a gripping mystery, as if true crime is being presented in mosaic.

In this book that, given its ratings on The Storygraph, was only appreciated by myself and the jury of the Booker Prize, Ismail Kadare takes a single story of a single, less than 3-minutes long, phone call between dictator Joseph Stalin and poet Boris Pasternak.

What was said during this call?

For all accounts, something along the lines of:

− Hi
− omg comrade stalin!! ur so cool pls don’t murder me!!!! no offense but like, why are you calling
− i’m sending your friend Osip Mandelstam to a gulag, wanna talk about him?
− ummmm no thanks lol do you want to talk about poetry and philosophy instead
− u coward. don’t even try to call me again

(Ismail Kadare’s the writer, not me.)

The problem is that there were actually a dozen accounts, and they all vary slightly in the details, the things that were said, the tone that was used, when and where it happened. Ismail Kadare dissects every single one of these accounts, compares them and commentates them. They go from the wife to the secretary to the general, someone who was there (or claims so), someone who holds the story from a friend who heard that their own friend was there… there will probably never be a definitive account of the content of the call, and all that’s left is for Kadare to speculate about it.

I had wanted to read Ismail Kadare for a long time, and while this doesn’t seem representative of his work, I still loved how he could say so much, hint at so many things, in a book that’s ultimately so devoid of matter. I’ll have to read more, now!


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