Saturday's papers, notably the Guardian and the FT, carried detailed and broadly favourable reviews of The Successor, a novel by Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare. The Guardian review begins thus:
An émigré from a former dictatorship is awarded a prestigious international literary prize. Upon accepting it he is promptly denounced by another émigré from another dictatorship for flying under false dissident colours, having in fact spent his life toadying to a brutal regime. In his defence it is stated that a) he never claimed to be any kind of heroic dissident; b) in his particular dictatorship, where there had never been such a thing as glasnost or Solidarity or Freikauf, the only provision for outright opposition to the state was the firing squad; and c) plenty of highly respected writers have been forced to make accommodations with nasty regimes in order to survive, including Bulgakov, Akhmatova, and several contemporaries much more famous than the writer in question. His denouncer, a self-published Romanian poet living in Wisconsin, has previously focused her righteous ire on the burning subject of corruption in the world of small press poetry competitions. (She tried to sue for the return of her $20 entry fee to the Iowa Writing Program's poetry competition after losing to a poet who had once taught a workshop there.) But lest she be accused of compulsive grandstanding, further examination reveals that her present target did indeed enjoy surprising privileges under his country's dictatorship (such as unimpeded travel to Paris). On the other hand . . . et cetera.
The Romanian poet, Renata Dumatrascu, first set out her criticisms in a guest column on the Mobylives website last July after Kadare won the Man Booker International Prize. Entitled KADARE IS NO SOLZHENITSYN, the column argues that far from being a dissident during the rule of Enver Hoxha, Kadare's resume "screams careerism and conformity."
A response on the same website by Wayne Miller, THE VARIETIES OF WRITERLY DISSIDENCE, describes the choices facing writers in Eastern Europe under communist party rule as not quite so black and white. Writers 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?
Miller outlines two approaches to 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, 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.
In an interview with the New Yorker's fiction editor Deborah Treisman in December, Kadare himself addresses his pre-exile working environment and his compromises with power.
English readers of Kadare's work approach it at a double linguistic remove, since the English versions of his works are by and large translated from French translations rather than direcly from Albanian. Here's a link to an article by his English translator David Bellos (who has also translated George Perec) about that particular challenge.
For anyone wanting to try Kadare in English, I'd recommend Palace of Dreams (mainly because it's the only one of his novels I've read). With shades of Kafka and Orwell, it is nevertheless distinctively powerful and, to mind, cannot possibly be read as soft on freedom-crushing.