”Mark-Alem pressed on, his mouth dry despite his attempts to reassure himself. After all, what did it really matter if he did get lost? He wasn’t on some vast plain or in a forest. He was merely inside the Palace. But still the thought of getting lost terrified him. How would he get through the night amid all these walls, these rooms, these cellars full of dreams and wild imaginings? He’d rather be on a frozen plain or in a forest infested with wolves. Yes, a thousand times rather!
He hurried on faster. How long had he been walking now? Suddenly he thought he hear a noise in the distance. Perhaps it’s only an illusion, he told himself. Then, after a little while, the sound of voices burst out again, more clearly this time, though he still couldn’t tell what direction it came from.
He went down another two or three steps and found himself in another corridor, which he deduced must be on the ground floor. The sound of voices faded for a few moments, then returned, nearer...Mark-Alem was practically running by now, his eyes fixed on the end of the corridor, where a faint square of light came in from outside. Please, God. let it be the back door!An empty, seemingly endless hallway can give a person a sense of disassociation.
There are no signs directing people in the proper directions at the Palace of Dreams. Mark-Alem finds himself lost not only in the corridors of the Palace, but also in the hour upon hour day to day work of selecting and interpreting dreams. He is descended from a prominent family called the Quprilis. They have contributed generations of powerful men to the Balkan Empire.”For nearly four hundred years the Quprilis had seemed fated equally to glory and to misfortune. If its chronicles included great dignitaries, secretaries of state, governors, and prime ministers, they also told how just as many members of the family had been imprisoned or decapitated or had simply vanished.”
There are very few powerful families in the history of humanity that have not found themselves on the losing side of a power struggle at one point or at several points in history. After a few messy decapitations or quarterings these families eventually rise from the ashes (sometimes those ashes are relatives) and find that eventually the state has need of their services again. Now Mark-Alem’s mother is a Quprilis which means it is not evident immediately to the people he meets that he is related to that family. He is timid enough that he does not offer that information readily. Of course when he is summoned to the Palace of Dreams to be offered a position they are very aware of who he is.
He is assured he is the right sort of man.
Instead of starting at the bottom he starts in the middle of the hierarchy.
He moves up so quickly he barely has time to settle into one job before he is sent on to the next one.
Given the nature of the job which is to select dreams and interpret those dreams with the most important ones being sent to the Sultan to help him make decisions about the course of action he will take in running the empire you would think there would be a long and arduous training regime. There is not, at least not for Mark-Alem, but as the plot advances we start to get inklings that he is a pawn in a much bigger, much more dangerous game.
He is absolutely oblivious.
He is paranoid and nervous, but doesn’t know exactly what he should be paranoid and nervous about.
He is too worried about his workload and whether his interpretations of these dreams are correct. He wears out erasures writing what he thinks and then becoming paralyzed with doubt as to how his superiors would interpret his thoughts. Like any good bureaucrat he finds it is much safer to stifle any creativity and pass along the most bland, safest interpretations of the dreams he finds in his folder. Not that they need a reason to separate your head from your body, but certainly try not to hand it to them on a silver platter.
The empire is ruled by dreams. Every dream, no matter how mundane, is required to be written down by every citizen in the realm. I think it only seems reasonable that if I were to have a steamy dream say about my neighbor’s wife that I would make a few changes like say make it two horses in a pasture or really spice it up and have a pig with a goat. My luck somehow that would mean I was secretly plotting the downfall of the empire. These dreams are collected and hauled to the Palace of Dreams where they start the cycle of elimination of those dreams that are deemed worthless or fabricated (mine)and those that are thought to be important are pushed up the chain for further interpretation. As Mark-Alem wanders around his work, usually trying to find a door and usually on the wrong floor to find it, he discovers that sometimes the dreamers are brought in for further questioning about a dream they submitted. The questioning must be rigorous because sometimes those dreamers leave in a black coffin. You're not paranoid if actually there are reasons to be paranoid.
There is no sex in this book, barely a hint of desire. There is one moment where he passes a house where he knows two pretty sisters live and Mark-Alem might have felt a twitch or tingle, but other than that it seems as if the terror of his daily life is all consuming. There is talk at the end of the book of an arranged married, but Mark-Alem is about as interested in the details as he is in catalogued Elephant stool samples.
Ismail Kadare was in Albanian politics during the communist rule in the 1970s. He wrote a satirical poem in 1975 that came to the attention of the government and he was punished by not being able to publish for three years. In 1977 he publishes a book called The Great Winter
that is flattering to Enver Hoxha, the Communist leader of Albania. Kadare later said that the book was the price of his freedom. In 1980 when the Palace of Dreams
is published the book is immediately banned. Not a big surprise, dictatorships tend to not appreciate books that are Orwellian or Kafkaesque in nature. It seems to me that Kadare was fairly politically astute. He managed to be critical without getting himself killed. It also helps to be Albania’s most celebrated writer. In 1990 he applied for asylum in France. Ismail Kadare: dissident against a dictatorship or did he collude to survive? Both I do believe and brilliantly in my opinion.
This book is the English translation of the French translation of the Albanian version. Yeah, I know, scary isn’t it? I don’t read Albanian and I unfortunately do not read French so I have no clue how much this story has been sifted and strained and blended and fluffed. I will say after I got over my initial shock at what the publishers had done to me, (I mean seriously the publisher couldn’t find an Albanian intellectual that has a solid command of English?)I found myself as nervous, paranoid, and as frustrated as Mark-Alem in trying to figure out what really was going on. This book is certainly a blatant condemnation of the Albanian government trying to control everything, granted they couldn’t figure out how to control their subject’s dreams, but if they could have they would. This is must read for those fans of Franz Kafka and George Orwell.