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Ismail Kadare: Nënpunësi i pallatit të ëndrrave (The Palace of Dreams)

Every time you read Kadare, you have to wonder how he comes up with these ideas. This one is a sort of Kafka meets Borges but all done in Kadare’s brilliant, idiosyncratic style and, of course, with a good dose of Albanian culture thrown in.
The story concerns the Quprili family. The word comes from the Albanian for bridge and, as Kadare tells us, refers to the family’s involvement in the construction of The Three-Arched Bridge. The family is Albanian but works for a mighty empire, obviously the Ottoman one, and has had a lot of influence in the Empire but also a lot of setbacks. One of their members is currently Vizier but they know that things are likely to turn against them and they could be in trouble again. Much of the book follows one of the younger members of the family – Mark-Alem. At the start of the book he has obtained a post in the Ministry of Dreams. This ministry, as we find out, is one of the most important ministries in the Empire. People send them their dreams, which are analysed to see whether they might have any important information, particularly information that could help spot plots against the state.

Mark-Alem arrives at his new job to find a labyrinthine building and is told that his family connections won’t help him get a job but he is offered a job by the Director-General as “he suits”. Dreams are selected at the local level and then sent to the Ministry where the Selection Unit determines if they are useful and real. It then passes them on to the Interpretation Unit, which interprets them. Sometimes there are Master Dreams, which are of huge importance. Mark-Alem starts in Selection but quickly moves up to Interpretation which is very unusual, particularly as he shows no great aptitude. Indeed, he finds the work difficult.

Gradually, we see that there is a master dream coming, which involves the bridge and Albania and clearly presages some great event for the Empire. Things come to a head when the Vizier holds a family party and his brother, Kurt, has rhapsodists in to sing the national epic about the Quprili family. The Empire strikes back and the rhapsodists are killed, Kurt arrested and then executed and the rest of the family in fear. Mark-Alem, however, continues his work and finds out that the Vizier has also struck back and Mark-Alem rapidly moves up the ladder in the Ministry.

Kadare’s skill, as always, is to interweave Albanian myth, legend and history into his story and into the daily life of his characters, all the while presenting everything as real. On the one hand, Mark-Alem is an ordinary civil servant, worrying about his cup of coffee, the cold and his salary. On the other, he is involved in the master dream of Albania which is no more or less than the history and fate of his country. Another extraordinary novel from a master.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Naim Frasheri, Tirana
First published in English 1993 by Harvill Press, London, Arcade, New York
Translated by Jusuf Vrioni (Albanian-French) & Barbara Bray (French-English)