As he did in his Man Booker International Prize-winning novel THE SUCCESSOR, Ismail Kadare portrays in THE PALACE OF DREAMS an autocratic, vaguely Islamic, East European state controlled by rumor, innuendo, superstition, and irrationality. The instrument of power this time, however, is not the whim of an all-powerful dictator who induces a constant state of fear and uncertainty in his subordinates, rivals, and subjects. Rather, it is a post-Freudian dream factory, a monolithic and opaque institution that serves the state by interpreting the nightly brain-ramblings of its citizenry. The purpose of the Tabir Sarrail, the Palace of Dreams, is simple: to sift through the thousands of sparsely remembered dream descriptions in search each week of a Master Dream, the one and only dream that will be presented as meaningful to the Sovereign. Presumably, that dream and its accompanying interpretation convey important information for running the state – for making key decisions, warning of impending crises or revolts, or just predicting the future. Of course, no one can say for sure how that Master Dream gets selected by the Palace’s director, how its particular interpretation is chosen, or whether the presented dream in fact ever took place or was simply fabricated for political purposes.
Kadare centers his tale around a most unlikely hero, Mark-Alem Quprili, the ineffectual scion of a long-powerful clan of ministers, viziers, and businessmen. As his given name suggests, Mark-Alem lives in a world half-Western and half-Islamic, with a last name of Albanian origin that translates as bridge. Not just any bridge, it seems, but an Albanian bridge of three arches (another of Kadare’s books is titled THE THREE-ARCHED BRIDGE) in which a murdered man was walled up inside its foundations. A family meeting decides Mark-Alem’s future – he will take a position at the Palace of Dreams. The young man enters his job naively, completely unaware that he is being positioned in the Tabir Sarrail to protect his family from the inscrutable machinations of government. He begins with a job in the Selection department, one of dozens if not hundreds who sift through the week’s collected dreams to choose those worth further consideration. In surprisingly short order, he is promoted to the Interpretation section, which analyzes those sent from Selection for meaning, including culling out the relatively small group that might become the week’s Master Dream.
The Palace of Dreams is an immense and forbidding structure, filled with endless corridors and locked doors. Each new experience there is for Mark-Alem a waking nightmare – wandering lost through empty and unmarked hallways, hearing faraway footsteps, seeing the dead bodies of citizen-dreamers who were brought in for interrogation being spirited away. Over time, however, the dreams whose readings fill Mark-Alem’s days become more real than life outside the Palace. How, after all, can real life possible compete with the wild imaginings, the sheer magic and impossibility, of dreams? Mark-Alem finds that he has even stopped having dreams of his own. As his responsibilities increase and his hours lengthen, his life becomes a dream state within a dream world in a dream-processing factory. It is not until he attends a dinner at his Vizier uncle’s home that reality, and the machine of State, impinge murderously on Mark-Alem and shock him awake. He discovers the truth of his situation in the Tabir Sarrail and how he failed to protect his family. Yet almost simultaneously, the attack on the Quprili’s is answered with a political counterattack that will forever change Mark-Alem’s life. This benign butterfly of a man becomes a powerful instrument of the State and its evil affairs, and he even dares to dream his own dreams again.
Ismail Kadare’s prose is powerful in its very sparseness. His setting is Balkan, but the time period is deliberately unspecific, vaguely 19th Century in feeling. THE PALACE OF DREAMS progresses easily and quietly, but the story feels like a dream itself, a nightmare world of uncertainty, unnamable fears, and evil portents. We experience through Mark-Alem a ceaseless sense of confusion, of being constantly lost and unable to find our way out. Various newspaper reviewers likened this novel to Kafka’s THE TRIAL and THE CASTLE (the obvious choices), Borges’s labyrinth, Canetti’s AUTO DA FE, or Auster’s THE MUSIC OF CHANCE. For me, the analogues were Plato’s cave, Saramago’s THE CAVE, and Solzhenitsyn’s THE FIRST CIRCLE. Regardless, THE PALACE OF DREAMS is a chilling, almost nightmarish story of a world where reality is governed by irrational belief in the quasi-religious predictive power of dreams. It is a forbidding world in which government is run by superstitious faith, where decisions of life and death are divorced from the reality-based world. THE PALACE OF DREAMS is a first-rate tale, an unsettling horror story that mirrors modern life too closely for comfort. Ismail Kadare deserves a wider audience. His work in eminently readable, and he has much to tell us.