Toward the end of Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare’s recreation of his student year in Moscow, as a kind of comic exclamation point following Boris Pasternak’s awarding of the Nobel Prize and the Communist hysterics that ensued, comes the sardonic line: “Once upon a time there used to be a giant state called the Soviet Union.” Once upon a time indeed, since the pompous and comically self-involved literary world Kadare describes — 1958 spent in a Moscow writer’s dormitory (the Maxim Gorky Literary Institute) — often tilts toward adolescent farce.
But Kadare’s shrewd lampooning requires context. Albania’s edgy relationship with Moscow (soon to dissolve) gave Kadare greater latitude to travel, publish and write — so long as he stuck to elliptical satire that insulted while not protesting too much. This Cheshire grin memoir, released in Moscow-loathing Albania of 1978, shows Kadare at his subversive best, caricaturing his writer-student colleagues to make heavier fun of the faux-literary culture to which they kowtowed (“The stunted Gods of the Soviet camp!”)
His work is bitter lemon-style civil disobedience at odds with the cinderblock resistance put up by the likes of Vaclav Havel or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, both imprisoned. Kadare, uninterested in jail time, instead formulated a gently scornful approach that allowed him to poke fun at Nikita Khrushchev, whom Albanian leader Enver Hoxha, a diehard Stalinist, disliked, while also making light of local girl-crazy shenanigans (as Moscow-Tirana relations cool, Albanian students are summoned to their embassy and told not to date Russian girls, lest they impregnate one).
As a study in Soviet-era mores and thinking, this is a vital bit of memory that frames Communist bluster as just that. Published in French as “La Commission des fêtes” in 1981, including the sexual adventures excised from the Albanian version.