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 relentless examination of the anecdote makes it oddly less resolved by the end of A Dictator Calls than it seemed at the outset, like a literary Rubik’s Cube he has turned over and over without making much progress. If anything, I suspect the reader’s sympathies will migrate to Pasternak.
The book is also not really a novel. It’s more like a cross between memoir, dream diary and historical investigation, in which Kadare trawls through reported versions of what was said during the phone call, with meditations on truth, creativity and tyranny ... Not an easy read ... At some point you start to ask yourself what the point is of this seemingly infernal game of Chinese whispers. But the climate of uncertainty that Kadare constructs with this many-versioned phone call reflects the uncertainty of life under authoritarian rule.
A house of mirrors in which the significance of the Stalin-Pasternak call is both amplified and distorted and a reminder of Kadare’s unparalleled talent for conveying the cruel ironies forced upon artists under a dictatorship.