A new year, a new list of books to read. What better way to start with another novel from an author I discovered only last year, and instantly loved. That’s right, it’s everyone’s favourite Albanian author – Ismail Kadare. And, this is a pretty Vintage Classic. A killer combination for my wallet.
Mark-Alem belongs to one of the most influential families in the Ottoman Empire – the Quprilis. When he is offered a job at the Empire’s most imporant organisation, the Tabir Sarrail – the Palace of Dreams – he is initially confused as to what he is doing there. Once his job begins, however, strange things begin to happen that he feels can’t just be put down to coincidence. Of course, once his powerful uncles begin to talk of revolution and change, the penny bgeins to drop. And by the end, everything will change.
I do wonder if I would have got more out of this book if I were Albanian. Certainly there’s something that is uniquely Albanian about this novel – it was banned when it was first published in 1981 in Albania. There’s a lot of stuff going on about the Albanian roots of the Quprili family being hidden because of their position in the Ottoman Empire – and I just don’t have a cultural reference for any of that kind of stuff. As such, I’m probably inclined to notice it, and then move swiftly on to what I think is the main point of the novel.
Mark-Alem is a pawn. Simple as that. Right from the beginning, he has no idea why he has been recruited to the Palace of Dreams, or why he might “suit” the people who run it. He’s so insanely thick that when his powerful uncle, the Vizier of a country province, is talking about revolution and change, and the history of misfortune in their family, he doesn’t make the connection until much, much later. As such, he’s a bit of a wimpy main character. Sure, he’s there just to present this world, and the politics that control and change his surroundings, but it would have been nice perhaps to see a little life injected into him. This is perhaps most evident in his final status – while his role as pawn has been carried out to completion, I’m not totally sure he ever knew that where he ended up is not some coincidence, but rather, as part of the political dealings of the Quprili family.
What fascinated me most about this world created by Kadare was the Palace of Dreams itself. It is a truly disturbing thought that there’s a government department out there designed exclusively to monitor the dreams of their population. For that is what the Tabir Sarrail does – with an outpost in every village, town and city, you must report your dreams to these people, so they can be sent to the head office, and determined if they will have an effect on the Empire, because it is believed that dreams are messages from God. An interesting, and frankly horrifying thought, considering dreams themselves can metaphorically be linked to ideas of freedom, of hope and desire, of revolution. People who dream ‘Master-Dreams’, that is, dreams that might affect the State, are tortured, and eventually killed, in the hope of further understanding any possible threat to the stability of the Empire. As such, the question of who controls the Tabir Sarrail becomes of vital importance, and eventually becomes the most important question of the novel – do the dreams control the Empire, or are the dreams fabrications – does the Empire control the dreams?
I don’t think that this is perhaps as tight or pointed novel as it perhaps could be. There are certainly some important points that are raised throughout – and the dream police idea is truly terrifying – but somehow, it seems to be a bit less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps Mark-Alem is the problem. Maybe I just need some time to let it all sink in – already, it remains in my head as a disturbing possibility.