Off to Never-Never Land

The Palace of Dreams: A Novel BY Ismail Kadare. Arcade Publishing. . .

The cover of The Palace of Dreams: A Novel

AT THE START of Albanian author Ismail Kadare's novel The Palace of Dreams (1981), a young man named Mark-Alem Quprili wakes up one morning with a vague sense of dread. He eats breakfast with his mother. He flips through the pages of a family history. Passing details about his ancestors—their triumphs and misfortunes, the origins of their name and its stigma of murder—only serve to sharpen his anxiety. Then he sets out on foot, bundled against the cold, for his first day of work at the Tabir Sarrail, the vast shadowy agency of a sprawling unnamed empire (imagine an Ottoman-era super-state), where the dreams of an entire population are gathered, sorted, and interpreted for signs of danger, subversion, or dissent.

Kadare constructs a vivid architecture of totalitarian fear and loathing, detailing the palace's unnumbered doors, identical corridors, mazelike stairwells and passageways, which cause a shrinking sensation in all who enter them. Mark-Alem can barely find his way through the door on his first day. But he soon rises through the ranks of selection and interpretation. Running alongside the story of his ascent is that of Mark-Alem's renegade uncle Kurt, known as "the wild rose of the Quprili tribe," who appears to be plotting a coup d'état. His weapon, however, isn't the army, the merchant elite, or some kind of deep state capable of toppling the government. His weapon is the art of storytelling or, more accurately, the epic.

For an annual family dinner, Kurt brings in a band of Albanian rhapsodists to sing an epic about the Quprili clan. All goes according to plan until the Sovereign's police force storms the dinner. What happens next? Suffice it to say: There's blood on the Persian carpet, and those rhapsodists are screwed. And yet, in the aftermath, fragments of their song remain in the minds of those who heard it: The listeners cannot shake the sound of the strange stringed instrument (which "would scrape their souls raw"), the singers' peculiar tone of voice (more eternal than everyday), or the jarring drama of the lyrics (a duel of the dead, a mother's blinding her own son).

Kadare has described The Palace of Dreams as his harshest critique of dictatorship. He has also said it was his attempt, after Dante, to write his own hell. The book was banned in Albania as soon as it appeared, because it skewers the autocratic regime of Enver Hoxha. But the invention and construction of the Tabir Sarrail is so meticulous that it illuminates the inner workings of dictatorships elsewhere, in Hafez and Bashar al-Assad's Syria, for example, or wherever an empire is ruled by a mix of the terrifying and the absurd; wherever one can say of an institution, "Reality split in two there and led swiftly to unreality." It isn't a pretty picture. Thirty years after The Palace of Dreams, Kadare remarked, "People fall under dictatorship in various ways, but escape from it in more or less the same manner: crippled. You can find yourself under dictatorship suddenly. . . . But you can also fall into it slowly, by not using your critical faculties. . . . And there is a third way . . . to go right toward dictatorship, like friends seeing each other at a party." If you can dance your way in, one hopes that, however maimed, you can still come out with a song.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer based in Beirut and New York.