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The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare
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Jul 02, 10

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The Palace of Dream, by Ismail Kadare

If Kafka's The Castle and Orwell's 1984 got freaky with it and had a baby the result would be Kadare's The Palace of Dreams. Karade is an Albanian and I would argue that the Palace of Dreams belongs to the long and productive tradition of subversive communist literature that cleverly disguises its critique in a novel about the fantastic. Karade's subversion isn't so disguised; it kind of hits in the face, but he's Albanian and not a Russian and he lives in France, but the novel is of this type. The Palace of Dreams is a monolithic government agency that feels like it comes out of Orwell or the movie Brazil. The agency's mission is to gather and interpret the dreams of all the citizens. The protagonist, Mark-Alem, gets assigned to a mid-level position in Selection. The job of Selection is to to choose the dreams that are worthy of Interpretation from those that are garbage. Mark-Alem starts at a mid-level position because his family is second in the land only to the Sultan (the book is set in the Ottoman Empire, but this time period is of little consequence). The Palace itself feels like Kafka's The Castle. It is a labyrinth in which Mark-Alem is constantly lost and he winds up turning corners to find himself face to face with busy bureaucrats and big desks. As he spends his time in Selection more of the Palace is revealed. It is by design mysterious. Everyone works at their position but few know to what end. It is revealed to him that there is a Master Dream that is of interest to the Sultan. The Master Dream has something to do with major political events, such as assassinations and wars and has existed and interpreted for hundreds of years. After more of the Palace is revealed, Mark-Alem goes to work one day and finds himself promoted into the division of Interpretation. In Interpretation he reads several dreams and in particular one he choose earlier from Selection to be interpreted. Little of the dream is discussed, but it has to do with a bridge, a raging bull, and a fire. In a nut shell, the story follows the life of Mark-Alem as a bureaucrat in the Palace. He works, he has coffee breaks, he files papers, and he discusses his work with his family (despite the fact that he is supposed to be secretive). Underlying the Palace and the prose is a tension. Everyone works, but because they do not know to what end and because they are forced to be secretive, everyone is paranoid and second guesses their selections and interpretations. Then one day it all changes. His family is raided by the secret Police. Their servants are killed and his Uncle is arrested. Mark-Alem feels his family may know why, but he is left in the dark. He goes to work the next day and the Palace is a buzz in whispered gossip. The bureaucrats all talk of what happened to Mark-Alem's family. The next day there is retaliation. Mark-Alem's family, second in the nation, has retaliated in assignations and political moves. Mark-Alem finds him again promoted, but his time into a directors position. As a director he has the access to research what has happened. He discovers that the dream he Selected and Interpreted was a part of the Master Dream and predicted a power struggle between his family and the Sultan. His family would gain power at the cost of his Uncle's life. Mark-Alem wonders if he were planted by his family to Select and Interpret the Master Dream. He wonders if it was a coincidence that he is now a man in power or that if he were set up to be handed the Master Dream and raised to Interpret it as such. He wonders and he waits, for he knows one day the secret police will come and take him. Until that time he continues to work.

Ismail Karade said that he wanted to create “vision of hell.” I would say that he succeeded. Mark-Alem's life is directionless, mundane, and worst all he waits in ignorance of a when horrible future will catch up to him. I think that having the knowledge that the future will be 'bad' but not knowing when or how is one of the worst feelings of all time. It creates anticipation and expectation and these feelings are often more powerful than the reality itself. At the same time, Mark-Alem's life is mundane and pointless. He is not waiting for death by living an exciting fun life, he is waiting for death by barely getting by in isolation and paranoia. It is a hell, a very modern and distinct vision. The only critique I could offer is that this reality of hell is present, but that the emotion behind those feelings isn't well captured. The book is not character driven, but setting driven. But I don't consider this a bad thing, but a good choice. The setting, The Palace of Dreams is ultra cool. The prose is quick and fun. Together those elements make this a fun book to read. The result is that Karade captures a modern hell in a fun way, and that makes this a really great book.
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