cover image A Dictator Calls

A Dictator Calls

Ismail Kadare, trans. from the Albanian by John Hodgson. Counterpoint, $16.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-64009-608-0

Why did Joseph Stalin call novelist Boris Pasternak in 1934 to ask him about Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam’s recent arrest? That obscure historical mystery animates this enigmatic outing from Kadare (The Doll: A Portrait of My Mother), who presents 13 different versions of the three-minute conversation between Stalin and Pasternak, including the official account of the phone call from the KGB archives. According to those records, after being asked about the incarceration of his fellow writer, Pasternak attempted to distance himself from the situation by claiming he “knew [Mandelstam] only slightly,” a response that led Stalin to label Pasternak “a very poor comrade.” Other sections imagine different versions of the conversation, most of them rooted in historical research: for example, philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote that, in 1945, Pasternak told him that Stalin pressed him on whether he’d been present when Mandelstam recited his anti-Stalin verses, and whether Mandelstam was “a fine poet.” While Kadare doesn’t presume to know what truly happened, 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. Agent: Jacqueline Ko, Wylie Agency. (Sept.)