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To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
This review is from: The Palace Of Dreams (Paperback)
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.
Ismail Kadare's "The Palace of Dreams" is a book that reads like Kafka as influenced by the painter M.C. Escher with a bit of "1001 Arabian Nights" thrown in for good measure.
Ismail Kadare is an Albanian poet and writer. He is also the winner of the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005 and was selected from a list of nominees that included Saul Bellow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Naguib Mahfouz, Milan Kundera, and Gunter Grass. The Palace of Dreams is one of his best known, many say best, work.
"Palace of Dreams" is set some time in the 19th-century in an Islamic-ruled Ottoman Empire that includes the Balkans (including Kadare's native Albania). The Palace of the title is a mammoth office building where the dreams of everyone in the kingdom are submitted for analysis. It is a Byzantine bureaucracy whose complexity is matched only by the dark, complex hallways and byways of the building itself. The Sultanate considers the dreams of his subjects to contain clues to the future. Like an oracle of Delphi, dreams are interpreted to predict plots against the Sultan or threat to the Empire generally. The interpretation of dreams is a powerful tool used to run the Empire and control its citizens and as a result the Palace of Dreams is the most feared agency in existence.
Into the Palace of Dreams steps a young new employee, Mark-Alem. Mark-Alem is a member of the Quprili family. The Quprilis are a powerful family of Albanian origin. For generations the family has produced high-ranking Viziers, the approximate equivalent of Cabinet Ministers, to the Sultan. Although a powerful family the Quprili's relationship over the years with various Sultans has been rocky and has been marked by purges and bitter in-fighting. The tenuous relationship between the Quprilis and the Sultan forms the backdrop of the story.
After Mark-Alem makes his way through a maze of corridors he is taken on as an apprentice. He quickly moves from a clerical position, sorting dreams, to interpreting them. Kadare's writing is very powerful as he traces Mark-Alem's path as an employee on the fast-track. One can feel the job beginning to overwhelm Mark-Alem's thoughts and actions. What seemed as unreal to Mark-Alem as an apprentice now seems commonplace. In a certain sense Kadare portrays vividly one person's descent into a claustrophobic, mystical hell where dreams are more real than reality.
At the same time renewed tensions between the Sultan and the Quprilis emerge. One specific dream involving a bridge in Albania built by the Quprilis hundreds of years ago quickly becomes the centerpiece of the plot. This same bridge played a critical role in an earlier Kadare novel, "The Three-Arched Bridge". Mark-Alem finds himself faced with analyzing this dream and the consequences of that interpretation drives the last third of the novel.
Palace of Dreams has been doubly-translated, first from Albanian to French and then from French to English. Despite that it felt as if I were reading the book in its original language. Entering Palace of Dreams was like entering a dream itself, one that quickly turns into a nightmare. As I read the description of Mark-Alem wandering, lost, through the hallways of a dimly lit Palace of Dreams I could feel the increasing despair welling up in Mark-Alem. The credit for that must be attributed to Kadare but with a significant nod to the translators who kept the writing both fresh and as disturbing as it appears to have been intended.
Kadare's The Palace of Dreams is well worth reading.