Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

Anyone who ruled over the dark zones
of men's lives wielded enormous power.
In the heart of the Empire stands the Tabir Sarrail, terrifying and enigmatic, a threat, a curse, a blessing, a shadow, its only purpose to analyse the dreams of the millions of people living dispersed across the length and breadth of the land–The Palace of Dreams. Faceless, labyrinthian, shrouded in mystery, its veil is nonetheless pierced momentarily by young Mark-Alem, a member of a pugnacious and powerful old Albanian family by marriage, whose countenance and comportment 'suits' the ministry, and as a result he is offered a job in Selection. Thus begins his initiation into the art of reading the dreams of an Empire.

It's hard to miss the symbolism, given the long prominently placed quote on the front from Richard Eder, book critic for Newsday proudly noting the assertion that this is an allegory of power, and the unsettlingly, threateningly dark reproduction of Arnold Böcklin's Die Toteninsel on the cover. Yes, this is a book that deals with the state's desire to police the minds of its citizens, to weed out potential unrest and deal with insidious threats, to oppress and control those it should protect and serve. It is none too subtle either. But at the heart of the allegory is a young man whose days of drifting and day-dreaming must finally come to an end, that he must put away his childish things and hunker down in a proper job, one that is selected for him by the patriarchal elders of his family in an act that smacks of hidden agendas. As he joins the faceless ranks of the desk-jockeys, unsure of his role, ill-prepared for the mental strain and endless boredom of cold offices, hard chairs, long hours, short breaks, his life changes shape, his mind shifts to accept his fate and his old life loses the colours of happy freedom to be replaced by the intoxicating fogginess of routine, fumes from coal braziers and narrow, blinkered focus bordering on the myopic, literally, as he pores over page after page of recorded dreams. In that respect, it's an allegory of the futility of the pursuit of a career which leaves one no time for anything but work and sleep. It's modern life with a disturbing and Orwellian veneer, defamiliarized as only the Europeans like Ferenc Karinthy (Metropole) know how. Even as Mark-Alem works his way up the hierarchy, his colleagues and superiors, soon to be subordinates, are stricken with fear, paranoia and impotence, all of which find comfortable perches in Mark-Alem himself, particularly as the cultural philanthropy of his uncle Kurt backfires on the family and Kurt himself is arrested and summarily executed, all for having the temerity to bring in Albanian rhapsodists to sing an Albanian version of an oral epic that mentions the family name.

What I find Kadare does particularly well, compared to some others, is in the clothing of his characters, essentially mere allegorical devices, or rather receptacles of the arbitrariness of injustice, in the cloak of humanity. Mark-Alee, who considers the pride and problems he might face in adopting a name more in keeping with his great Albanian ancestry, is a pawn, and he suspects as much. He is tortured by his inability to know what to do, is one moment burning with shame and another crying with relief as he oscillates between extremes of indecision, and even in his final lofty position as Director of the Ministry, his powerlessness leaves him tearful as he rides through the city in his carriage imagining the day when men will come to arrest, imprison and execute him too. It is a masterfully crafted novel.


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