The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

Rating: ** (2 out of 5)

Review: This book follows Mark-Alem, a young man from an aristocratic family in the Ottoman Empire, who, at the bid of his family, starts working in the Palace of Dreams. This is a place where the dreams of every person in the empire are collected, sorted and interpreted, in order to control the citizens and find the Master Dreams, the ones that give clues into the future of the Sultan and the Empire. The building is a nightmarish maze that engulfs Mark-Alem in despair, and his powerful family’s interests are frequently at odds with those of the Palace, so he fears that his life will eventually be touched by disaster.

The premise of this book is quite interesting, but I had problems getting into it because of everything else. I don’t know how much was lost in translation (this is an English translation from the French version – the original is in Albanian) but the writing style didn’t work for me. Mark-Alem’s disposition in the entire book went from very nervous to outright panic, and I couldn’t understand why. It felt like the book was telling me that he had reasons to feel terrified but wasn’t actually showing me the reasons.

I really liked the premise, and I usually like metaphors and political dystopias, but this one just didn’t work for me.

P.S. Even though I wasn’t crazy about this book, I do have an interesting back story about it. My friend André bought it in Cuba (of all places!) when we went there a couple of years ago, but only managed to read it on a journey to London. He lent it to me so I could read it on our trip to Scotland. So this is a very well traveled book!


4 thoughts on “The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

  1. I agree that, perhaps because of translation, reading Kadare just doesn’t feel like reading Orwell or Huxley, but that might also happen because we read other dystopian books before and are no longer affected by that element of surprise and amazement at its creation and development. On the other hand, I really liked Mark-Alem – “from very nervous to outright panic” – he is believable and helps transmit what one might feel surrounded and oppressed by both that system and his family’s expectations. I also enjoyed learning about the world mostly through the characters eyes, discovering and understanding as he did, it improved the experience quite a lot. I have to admit that The Palace of Dreams is not my favourite dystopia but I seem to have enjoyed reading it more than you did. Here’s to hoping the next book I lend you becomes a personal favourite! And where will that book go next? It’s almost as well travelled as me!

    • I’m not entirely sure that having read other dystopias is the issue – I had read a few before getting to Huxley and I still enjoyed “Brave New World” immensely. I guess I just didn’t see exactly what was so oppressive in Kadare’s world. The Palace of Dreams seemed like just another bureaucratic place (of the kind we can find in our society), only it was concerned with prophecies derived from the dreams that people chose to send in.

      I agree that, for Mark-Alem, the place would be a source of uneasiness because it was so obviously against his family’s interests, but what about for everyone else? Was the Palace of Dreams scarier or more influential than the hidden politics that every society has and which shape the future of the people? I guess we could look at the Palace as a metaphor, but even then I felt that it lacked a profundity that other dystopian books have.

      • (Continued since it was too big for me to see it on WordPress).

        Of course my interpretation and lack of empathy with the book might derive not only from the double translation but also for my lack of knowledge about Albanian history. Perhaps in the future I will appreciate this book more, but for now, it just fell short of my expectations.

        Maybe you could give the book away in a swapping program and have the people document where the book goes. 😀

  2. The Palace of Dreams can of course be thought of as a metaphor for the organizations and schemes behind nowadays politics but it does take it to another level. People send their dreams to the Tabir Sarrail because they believe it’s their duty to the state and that in some way it helps them all but truthfully it serves to spy on everyone, both on what they do and think and on what they will do in the future. Acting against people based on what you predict (or choose to believe) they will do is taking political scheming to a whole new level. It’s a kind of “Minority Report” situation where the purpose of the system is to keep the regime and the status quo. That being said, I agree other dystopian books might be bolder and have a much bigger direct impact on the reader.

    I don’t know if I’d give the book away, I like to keep them all! (“my own, my precious…”)

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