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.
Kadare’s novel is an appealingly plainspoken lament, and Hodgson’s translation captures a somber mood. The run-through of variations leaves the story without an arc, but delivers a strong case against dictatorial meddling in art. An interior, prismatic tale of writerly defiance.
This multifaceted examination amounts to a fascinating consideration of the relationship between totalitarianism and freedom of expression. Admirers of Kadare’s previous meldings of fact and fiction will be mesmerized.