Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams is an Orwellian journey inside a vast bureaucracy at the heart of an empire. Banned when first published in 1981, it remains relevant in our current age of Assange, Snowden, Manning and WikiLeaks.
Mark-Alem is a young man without any particular ambition in life. Somewhat insecure and anxious, he lives at home with his mother and nurse and seems to desire little more than a comfortable existence away from any intrigue, controversy or responsibility.
The simple life, though, is not destined for Mark-Alem as he was born, on his mother’s side, into the Quprilis family. The Quprilis are an ancient, illustrious, aristocratic family. One of the pillars of the empire they now live under. Many of Mark-Alem’s ancestors have held powerful positions within the empire. But there is a dark side to their position in society. Along with glory there has been much misfortune. Various ancestors have been imprisoned, executed or simply disappeared as a result of various plots and intrigues, both real and imagined, in battles for power between the family and the state. The Quprilis are to be respected, feared and not altogether trusted.
Through his family connections Mark-Alem has been granted a new job, one that has made his mother very proud, but only filled him with anxiety. Today he is to begin his new job within the Tabir Sarrail – the mysterious Palace of Dreams.
The Palace of Dreams is the core institution of the empire. A behemoth bureaucracy. Throughout the vast empire, its citizens must report the dreams they had the night before. These dreams are dispatched to the Palace of Dreams in the capital where they are sorted and analysed, in the hopes of uncovering Master Dreams, portents of the future of the empire, which are reported to the Sultan.
Due to his family connections, Mark-Alem begins his new career not at the lower levels of the Palace such as Reception or as a copyist, but in Selection. Here the dreams are read and either rejected and sent to the Archives or forwarded on to Interpretation for further analysis.
The anxious Mark-Alem feels that this experience itself is like some surreal dream. He sits at his desk unsure what to make of the dreams he is given to read. He tries in vain to make sense of thoughts and images that are vague and impenetrable, that blur the barrier between the real and the unreal. In frustration he wants to treat them all as absurd rubbish, but his anxiety forces him to be more cautious, fearful of making mistakes and being found out.
Mark-Alem also has to come to terms with the bewildering interior of the Palace of Dreams. A complex network of dark corridors, unmarked doors, and passages that lead you in circles. Mark-Alem is constantly lost and afraid. Though often helpful, Mark-Alem is apprehensive about talking to other workers who seem as dark, dull and incomprehensible as the Palace. The Palace and those within it reminded me of those extraterrestrial bureaucrats, the Vogons, from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
As well as being unambitious, unassuming and in a constant nervous state, Mark-Alem is also a bit innocent and unsuspecting of darker forces at work. But as he learns more of the Palace he begins to wonder. “Whoever controls the Palace of Dreams possesses the keys to the state”, as his powerful uncle, the Vizier, tells him. Mark-Alem wonders if his job is part of some deliberate attempt to plant a family member within the Palace. He wonders who else his powerful family have working within these walls. He wonders if any of these dreams have been fabricated, in a deliberate attempt to influence the Sultan and the state. How can you really tell the difference between a fake dream and a real one? Could it be true that dreamers are being imprisoned, tortured and interrogated, over dreams they don’t even remember having? And he fears the repercussions of his actions if one of these dreams should happen to land on his desk.
Author Ismail Kadare has been compared to Orwell and Kafka and by now you can probably see why. An Albanian, he started his career in politics before turning to poetry and fiction. His writing has landed him in trouble with the state as he is often accused of using traditional stories and legends to mask political statements. This novel, The Palace of Dreams, was banned on publication in Albania. Although he denies that he is a dissident he acknowledges that literary freedom is incompatible with dictatorship and totalitarianism and has lived in exile in France since 1990. In 2005 he became the inaugural winner of the Man Booker International Prize and is often mentioned as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize.
If you read Kadare in English, you are probably reading a translation from the French version, which in turn was translated from the Albanian. You can’t help but wonder how much has been lost in translation. Especially since this was not as elegant or poetic as you may wish an allegorical novel to be. Hopefully an annotated version will one day be produced to help enlighten international readers and grace them with an appreciation of the symbolism involved.
Nevertheless, the material alone makes this novel an enjoyable read. Recent events that have exposed the intelligence gathering tactics of government agencies, often directed at their own citizens, and subject to flawed interpretation with the potential to be manipulated to serve specific interests, have ensured this novel’s enduring relevance. Are modern intelligence methods really any more effective than the interpretation of dreams? Is not every intelligence agency, in part or in whole, a Palace of Dreams?
See also my review of Kadare’s The General of the Dead Army.