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?”
Bolaño is not a natural writer–he was born dyslexic–and the surface of his work, in translation at least, has a scratchily rebarbative quality that makes it at once funny and vaguely, pervasively, frightening. Although his novels, and the stories in Last Evenings on Earth, teem with incident, somehow nothing much seems to happen in them–no magic-realist revenants or clouds of butterflies here–or perhaps it is that what happens is not really the point, that the point is elsewhere, in the violence and sorrow of Latin America’s recent past. Bolaño’s narrators, called variously “B” or “Arturo Belano,” if they are named at all, chafe at the defeats they have suffered and the exile into which they have been forced, yet they sound not so much angry as impatient, rueful, at times even indifferent. The past with all its horrors has become blurred for them, possibly by their own intention; in one of Last Evenings‘s stories, the muted yet curiously affecting “Anne Moore’s Life,” the narrator, recalling a passage in his dealings with the eponymous Anne, whose sometime lover he was, remarks irritably, “I was too busy working and dealing with my own problems to do anything about Anne Moore. I think I even got married.”
Last Evenings is the third of Bolaño’s books to be translated–the admirable New Directions is planning to bring out seven more, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux will soon be publishing translations of his major novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666–and is probably as good a place as any for a new reader to begin. The novels By Night in Chile, a deathbed confession by a priest-cum-literary critic who is a cross between one of Graham Greene’s whiskey priests and Beckett’s dying Malone, and Distant Star, centering on Carlos Wieder, poet, aviator and one of Pinochet’s secret assassins, are suffused with a sense of heaving, perspiring discomfort. By Night in Chile‘s Father Urrutia, squirming on his deathbed in the toils of his own bad faith and overburdened conscience, is a representative Bolaño figure, the counterpart to the equally uncomfortable narrators of the stories who are in their own way as tormented by the past as is the dying priest.
In Last Evenings the emblematic character is Henri Simon Leprince, a failed writer in wartime Paris who joins the Resistance not out of patriotic zeal or anti-fascist conviction but because he “happened to choose the right side, as unconsciously as bacteria infect a host.” Leprince, “modest and repellent,” whom everyone despises yet whom everyone mysteriously needs, embodies all of Bolaño’s ambiguous attitudes toward the artist, that quintessence of opportunism, secretiveness, sad yearning and mauvaise foi.
Kadare’s laughter too is dark but not quite so bitter as Bolaño’s. In his novel The File on H., two Irish-American scholars arrive in Albania in the 1930s to study the still-surviving oral epic poetry tradition, which they are convinced goes all the way back to Homer. Since their only encounter with the Albanian language has been through the epics, their conversation is hilariously antiquated: “Fair lady, to thee I bow, thy servant Bill Norton.” This is splendid knockabout stuff, as is the portrait of the small-town society of petty government officials and their frisky wives, and the squadron of dimwitted spies who burrow like termites through the body politic. Albanian readers in the early 1980s, when the book was published, would have had no trouble translating the prewar setting to their own time.
The Successor, Kadare’s latest novel–translated by David Bellos into English from the French translation by Tedi Papavrami–deals with the death on the night of December 13, 1981, of Mehmet Shehu, the man who had been expected to succeed Enver Hoxha, known as the Guide, as Albania’s leader. Was the Successor murdered, or did he shoot himself? And why, in either case? The book, then, is a sort of existential whodunit, a cross between Dostoyevsky and Georges Simenon at his most bleakly enigmatic. If a murder was committed, there are plenty of suspects: Adrian Hasobeu, Shehu’s chief rival; the architect who renovated the Guide’s family home and knew of a secret passage; even the Guide himself, ever jealous of his position and gnawing constantly on his suspicions of those around him. The tone of the novel is by turns lofty in a faintly dingy sort of way–“I was convinced I was putting up a temple that would be crowned by mourning”–and cruelly comic, as in this passage when the Successor’s daughter has just finished making love with her fiancé:
Still panting for breath, she covered him in kisses and smothered him in endearments. “Shall we do it again? We’ll do it again in the evening, in the afternoon, at dawn, won’t we?” “Absolutely,” he said, as he fumbled around for a cigarette.
The work of Kadare and Bolaño merge in that gesture, that indifferent fumbling for another cigarette, as the world itself goes up in smoke.