A Dictator Calls

Translated by John Hodgson
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$16.95 US
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On sale Sep 19, 2023 | 240 Pages | 978-1-64009-608-0
Longlisted for the International Booker Prize
The Wall Street Journal, A Best Book of the Year

Using a sophisticated and literary version of the ever-popular game of telephone to examine the relationship of writers with tyranny, Ismail Kadare reflects on three particular minutes in a long moment of time when the dark shadow of Joseph Stalin passed over the world


In June 1934, Stalin allegedly called Boris Pasternak and they spoke about the arrest of Osip Mandelstam. A telephone call from the dictator was not something necessarily relished, and in the complicated world of literary politics it would have provided opportunities for potential misunderstanding and profound trouble. But this was a call one could not ignore. Stalin wanted to know what Pasternak thought of the idea that Mandelstam had been arrested.

Ismail Kadare explores the afterlife of this phone call using accounts of witnesses, reporters, writers such as Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova, wives, mistresses, biographers, and even archivists of the KGB. The results offer a meditation on power and political structure, and how literature and authoritarianism construct themselves in plain sight of one another. Kadare’s reconstruction becomes a gripping mystery, as if true crime is being presented in mosaic.

A little time ago the poet Mandelstam was arrested. What have you to say to that, Comrade Pasternak?
Longlisted for the International Booker Prize
The Wall Street Journal, A Best Book of the Year


"A brilliantly probing novel about the power play between art and politics . . . Both personal and philosophical, A Dictator Calls is, finally, about the inescapable 'mutual dependency' between literature and the state. Of the two, however, it’s only the artist who is bound to try to make meaning from the relationship, 'because art, unlike a tyrant,' writes Mr. Kadare, 'receives no mercy, but only gives it.'" —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

"[This] exceptional English translation also considers Kadare’s legacy and the legacies of anyone forced to toil in the shadow of a political system that seeks to dictate their voice and determine their fate. There are moments of real brilliance . . . The powerful words encapsulate not just the course of the novel and the arc of Kadare’s career, but also the purpose, as he sees it, of art in general." —Cory Oldweiler, Los Angeles Review of Books

"A Dictator Calls is, then, an expression of the existential anxieties of an ageing literary titan, a work that seeks to contextualise, albeit indirectly, his artistic and political legacy." —Bronwyn Scott-McCharen, Review31

"An interior, prismatic tale of writerly defiance." —Kirkus Reviews

"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." —Publishers Weekly
ISMAIL KADARE is Albania’s best-known novelist and poet. Translations of his novels have appeared in more than forty countries. He was awarded the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005, the Jerusalem Prize in 2015, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2020.

JOHN HODGSON studied at Cambridge and Newcastle and has taught at the universities of Prishtina and Tirana. This is the seventh book by Ismail Kadare that he has translated.

About

Longlisted for the International Booker Prize
The Wall Street Journal, A Best Book of the Year

Using a sophisticated and literary version of the ever-popular game of telephone to examine the relationship of writers with tyranny, Ismail Kadare reflects on three particular minutes in a long moment of time when the dark shadow of Joseph Stalin passed over the world


In June 1934, Stalin allegedly called Boris Pasternak and they spoke about the arrest of Osip Mandelstam. A telephone call from the dictator was not something necessarily relished, and in the complicated world of literary politics it would have provided opportunities for potential misunderstanding and profound trouble. But this was a call one could not ignore. Stalin wanted to know what Pasternak thought of the idea that Mandelstam had been arrested.

Ismail Kadare explores the afterlife of this phone call using accounts of witnesses, reporters, writers such as Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova, wives, mistresses, biographers, and even archivists of the KGB. The results offer a meditation on power and political structure, and how literature and authoritarianism construct themselves in plain sight of one another. Kadare’s reconstruction becomes a gripping mystery, as if true crime is being presented in mosaic.

A little time ago the poet Mandelstam was arrested. What have you to say to that, Comrade Pasternak?

Reviews

Longlisted for the International Booker Prize
The Wall Street Journal, A Best Book of the Year


"A brilliantly probing novel about the power play between art and politics . . . Both personal and philosophical, A Dictator Calls is, finally, about the inescapable 'mutual dependency' between literature and the state. Of the two, however, it’s only the artist who is bound to try to make meaning from the relationship, 'because art, unlike a tyrant,' writes Mr. Kadare, 'receives no mercy, but only gives it.'" —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

"[This] exceptional English translation also considers Kadare’s legacy and the legacies of anyone forced to toil in the shadow of a political system that seeks to dictate their voice and determine their fate. There are moments of real brilliance . . . The powerful words encapsulate not just the course of the novel and the arc of Kadare’s career, but also the purpose, as he sees it, of art in general." —Cory Oldweiler, Los Angeles Review of Books

"A Dictator Calls is, then, an expression of the existential anxieties of an ageing literary titan, a work that seeks to contextualise, albeit indirectly, his artistic and political legacy." —Bronwyn Scott-McCharen, Review31

"An interior, prismatic tale of writerly defiance." —Kirkus Reviews

"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." —Publishers Weekly

Author

ISMAIL KADARE is Albania’s best-known novelist and poet. Translations of his novels have appeared in more than forty countries. He was awarded the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005, the Jerusalem Prize in 2015, and the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2020.

JOHN HODGSON studied at Cambridge and Newcastle and has taught at the universities of Prishtina and Tirana. This is the seventh book by Ismail Kadare that he has translated.