Ismail Kadare, an Albanian writer living in French exile since 1990, says that “the writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship.” His self-proclaimed attempt to invent a hell on earth resulted in The Palace of Dreams, a novel of shadows, cold, uncertainty, and suspicion in which the state watches everything, including our dreams. Set in what feels like the 19th-century in the Ottoman Empire, it is the story of Mark-Alem, a young and not-entirely-competent son of an venerable family with a long tradition of government service and association with power. When his family gets him a job in the titular palace, Mark-Alem finds himself wandering down long corridors of identical doors, with no one and no end in sight. Though he struggles to understand what is expected of him and to do it when he does understand, his family connections ensure his quick rise through the bureaucracy. In the end, he has become one of the people he once despised.
That’s not a spoiler, because the book’s suspense comes not from what will happen, but from the aura of secrecy and distrust that emanates from the very streets and buildings, not to mention the people that populate this world. It feels like a Terry Gilliam movie (think especially, Brazil). Written in Albanian, I read a version translated from French into English. And still the prose worked—either a testament to the translators, or, more likely, to the power of Kadare’s story-telling ability. The Palace of Dreams is an excellent addition to the list of literature criticizing totalitarian government and to the way such societies dehumanize us all.