Laughter in the Dark
Woe betide the artist who finds himself at what Lionel Trilling called the "bloody crossroads" where literature and politics meet, for a gallows stands there. Art is notoriously solipsistic, and the greater the artist the deeper will be the self-absorption. Stravinsky, in exile in America, hearing news of the attack on Pearl Harbor and fearing war on the American mainland, cried out, But where shall I go now to work? In his heart every true artist knows that what matters most is precisely that: the work. All else is mere prattle. As Kafka remarked, the artist is the man who has nothing to say.
Yet what to do when the crossroads is choked with refugees fleeing from tyrants and their death squads? Does not even the most disengaged of artists have a duty then to speak out? It is the artist, after all, who is supposed to have an inkling of what a character in one of the stories in Roberto Bolaño's Last Evenings on Earth calls "the secret story," which is
the one we'll never know, although we're living it from day to day, thinking we're alive, thinking we've got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn't matter. But every single damn thing matters! Only we don't realize. We just tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, and we don't realize that's a lie.
The architect who may or may not have had a bloodstained hand in the death that is at the heart of Ismail Kadare's The Successor speaks in similar tones of having "stifled my own talent" and betrayed his art, using as an excuse "the times we lived in":
It was our collective alibi, our smokescreen, our wickedness. There was socialist realism, indisputably; there were laws, actually not so much law as a reign of terror, but in spite of all that, we could have drawn at least a few harmonious lines, even if only haphazardly, as in a dream. But our fingers were all thumbs, because our souls were bound.
It is instructive to compare the very different and yet startlingly similar work of these two writers. The Chilean Roberto Bolaño, a supporter of the democratically elected Marxist President Salvador Allende, was arrested and imprisoned after the CIA-inspired coup in which Allende died on September 11, 1973--we easily forget that Chile had its own 9/11--and subsequently went into exile in Mexico, Spain and France. Although he died in 2003 at the tragically early age of 50, Bolaño is regarded as one of the most respected and influential writers of the generation that followed immediately after the great wave of Latin Americans such as García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes, whose work Bolaño held in some contempt--magic realism, he declared, "stinks."
Ismail Kadare was born in Gjirokastër, near the Albanian border with Greece, and grew up on the same street, the wonderfully named Street of Madmen, where Enver Hoxha, the Albanian dictator, had spent his childhood a generation before. The Kadare elders were grandees in the Communist Party, and young Ismail was nurtured in privilege. After studying at Tirana University he went on to the exclusive Gorky Institute in Moscow. Although a number of his books were suppressed by the regime, and he eventually went into exile in France, the Man Booker International Prize that he won last year upon the publication of his most recent novel, The Successor, revived some mutters of disapproval, with one critic even accusing him of having been a police spy.
In his acceptance speech Kadare told of what it is like to be a writer in a totalitarian society. "We propped each other up," he said, "as we tried to write literature as if that regime did not exist. Now and again, we pulled it off. At other times we didn't. The idea that we could create a few mouthfuls of spiritual nourishment for our imprisoned nation filled us with joy." But the main characteristic of his writing is not joy but a kind of numbed yet comic desperation. The laughter that rises from the dimmest depths of his work is similar to that which sounds throughout Roberto Bolaño's fiction. It is the laughter of someone who is not sardonic, exactly, not entirely cynical, not despairing, but close to the end of his emotional and artistic tether. Both writers are echoing Shakespeare's heartfelt question in the sonnets, "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,/Whose action is no stronger than a flower?"