Tag Archives: Totalitarianism

77 by Guillermo Saccomanno. Translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger

77 by Guillermo Saccomanno Title: 77
Author: Guillermo Saccomanno
Translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
Publisher: Open Letter
ISBN: 978-1940953892
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 220
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Books written to defy, to present various points of view, and above all to show us that we can and should raise voices against powers are books that I love to read. It makes me feel stronger, it makes me want to protest, and more than anything else it makes me feel that I have companions and not alone in the world when it comes to issues close to my heart. 77 is one such book that held me by my throat and being and I just had to finish it in almost three sittings or so. The book still lingers in my memory, and I know that it will for a long time to come.

 So, what is the book about?

 The book is set in Buenos Aires, 1977. A time that is considered to be a part of the darkest days of the Videla dictatorship, from the time he seized power in 1976. At the heart of the book is Gómez, a gay high-school literature teacher, trying very hard to keep a low profile as his friends and students begin to disappear. This is the time when questioning is forbidden, and people aren’t allowed to live the way they wish to.

 Things also start spiralling when he gives shelter to two dissidents in his house, and to make things worst he is having an affair with a homophobic cop who is loyal to the government and no one else. The book is told in flashbacks – from 2007 to 1977 – jumping back and forth.

 I was stunned reading this novel. I didn’t know what to feel for some time and then I realized that I was scared. Scared of such a regime being thrust upon us (though it seems that day isn’t very far) and how we would react or live in that case. Living under a dictatorship isn’t easy. At the same time, it isn’t very hard for people to get used to it, which is most fearful.

Saccomanno’s writing is fluid and clear. In most parts, I thought of it to be autobiographical and I don’t think I was far from the truth. The moral, social, and intellectual dilemmas that present themselves make the book so haunting and real. Is literature dead? Is sexual preference dead? Is raising your voice dead? What is alive anymore?

 77 is a book not just about a year – about people, their opinions, the regime that wants a mental shutdown of its people, a state that will have nothing but totalitarianism at the helm of things. 77, to me was more than just a book. It is about a literary soul that is trapped and is the story of one man trying to make sense in a world of madness and inhumanity, lurking in almost every corner. It is a book that shows you what shouldn’t be repeated. We can only hope and pray.


Book Review: The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

Title: The Palace of Dreams
Author: Ismail Kadare
Publisher: Vintage Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 978-0099518273
Pages: 192
Price: £7.99
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

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.