Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

B O O K   R E V I E W
The Politics of Dreaming
o f   c o r r i d o r s   e n d l e s s   a n d   i d e n t i c a l


By Ismail Kadare
English translation by Barbara Bray
205 pp
1990 ~ New York: William Morrow & Company

IN MANY classics of magical realism, such as Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novels themselves and works of fiction within them interpenetrate one another. The Palace of Dreams, by Ismail Kadare, is its own dream, a nightmare of totalitarianism in which work is life and government controls the subconscious.

Inside the vast and labyrinthine Tabir Sarrail, the dreams of the citizens of a Balkan empire, in a nameless time hovering between myth and history, are collected, sorted, and interpreted, in search of the crucial Master-Dreams which involve the security of the Empire and of the Sovereign.

Like the dreams in The Palace of Dreams, the novel itself has undergone both interpretation and misinterpretation. Upon first publication in Albania in 1981 under the title Nenpunesi i pallatit te enderrave, the novel was immediately banned by government decree. Readers of the English version are confronted with the same issues of interpretation that are developed in the book, as it is Barbara Bray's translation from the French translation, by Jusuf Vrioni, from Kadare's original Albanian.

(To a frightening extent the information we all receive today is selected for us, interpreted, and that interpretation is further interpreted, and it is that, without knowledge of the original or credence to the interpreter, which we guide our lives by.)

Kadare (b. 1936), also a poet and journalist living in exile in France since 1990, says he began writing in 1962 as a challenge to communist conformism in his native country. The League of Albanian Writers and Artists, however, has criticized his role as "a member of the parliament of the dictatorial Albania." Ina Daci, an Albanian expatriate, has called Kadare a "spoiled child" who enjoyed special privileges not granted other writers because of the high esteem afforded him by the international community.

He has been a perpetual nominee for the Nobel Prize, and the Velija Foundation awards an annual literary prize in his name, won several years ago by a Czech writer of similar sensibilities, Milan Kundera. And while Publishers Weekly (25 March 1996) praises Kadare as the "master of the political parable," the League questions his motives, claiming his fiction merely cloaks politics in history and folklore. But it is perhaps those very tactics that allowed him to continue writing during the oppressions of dictator Enver Hoxha (1945-1985). Though highly outspoken on political matters (most recently in his unabashedly nationalistic pleas for independence for Kosova), Kadare rejects labels such as dissident, insisting he is plainly and simply a writer.

Kadare has stated that The Palace of Dreams arose out of his ambition to create a hell of his own, because "the concept of right starts with hell." The sense of dread and unease, often self-imposed by the characters, easily recalls Franz Kafka's The Trial. The palace itself, full of corridors endless and identical, resembles the mind, and the labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges:

"He wandered the corridors in a state of bewilderment ....
He walked on for a long time, hoping to meet someone from
whom he could ask the way. But there was no one in sight.
Sometimes he would think he heard footsteps ahead of him,
around a bend in the corridor, but as soon as he got there the
sounds would seem to recede in another direction, perhaps
on the floor above, perhaps on that below....

"On he went. The passages seemed alternately familiar
and strange. He couldn't hear so much as a door being opened.
He went up a broad staircase to the floor above, then came
back again and soon found himself on the floor below.
Everywhere he met with the same silence, the same emptiness."

But what begins suffused in suspense soon reveals the invisible essence of reality. What critic Bruce Bawer calls "coincidence and weird intrigue" are really forces of magical realism penetrating the mysteries and impossibilities.

The first paragraph brings us immediately into a different world when we see "the uncertain light of dawn" on "no ordinary day." The protagonist, Mark-Alem, is off to his new job in the Palace of Dreams. He is a member of the family Quprili, whose name means "bridge" and symbolizes the access they provide between the worlds of dream and reality, between hell and right. Throughout the novel Mark-Alem imagines himself going by his ancestral names (Gjon, Gjergj, or Gjorg -- all found in other Kadare novels), and using versions of his patronym (Ura, Qyprija, Kurpija, or Kuprili) sometimes to hide, other times to claim his heritage, but always signifying his shifting realities.

The various dreams he encounters, though all invented by Kadare, are no different from actual dreams, and serve to highlight the characteristic magical realist ways of seeing things like a child. A fine example of this is the dream in which two men find a fallen rainbow. Of course everyone knows rainbows cannot fall intact from the sky, and yet for any child this could be perfectly plausible. The men dust it off, repaint it, and try to raise it up again, but it refuses to come back to life.

At the Palace, Mark-Alem begins his career in Selection, where dreams are weeded out. He quickly is promoted to Interpretation, where creativity reigns. No symbols or keys are employed against which a dream can be matched; each dream must be individually interpreted, just as art is a creative process, and magical realism does not reflect reality, but interprets reality in a unique way. By this process the very interpretation of dreams creates a new reality. Even the Vizier, head of the Quprili family, tells Mark-Alem that some people "think it's the world of anxieties and dreams ... that governs this one." But in both his positions, when Mark-Alem encounters the one dream that predicts the events to come, he hesitates to take action: he doesn't classify it as "Useless," nor does he interpret it benignly. It is subsequently chosen as the Master-Dream, which serves to guide government policy.

In his novel Broken April (Prilli i thyer, 1980), Kadare has Bessian, a famous writer, proclaim all really important things are "at once terrible, absurd, and fatal." Similarly, in The Palace of Dreams, nothing is more important here than the Master-Dream, and so it is interpreted as no less than a threat of treason from within the Quprili family.

At any point the characters might turn off the road they are traveling, but events have taken on the force of destiny -- the dream is dreamt, the meaning revealed, the fate of the family is set -- since the completion of the bridge centuries before, literally in stone. A banquet is held and an epic is sung: "Ballad of the Bridge with Three Arches," from whence the Quprili family derives its name and its path, and in which its historic political importance is proudly recounted. The Sovereign immediately unleashes his jealous rage. They do not conform, so they are punished. This is a fine magical realist example of how not only tales but the facts and things they encompass break free to become a magical part of historical reality.

The Quprili home is invaded by government troops and a member of the family, the suspected threat in the Master-Dream, is taken into custody. But the head of the family, the Vizier (who may be Kadare himself), does not respond to the outrage as family members in other Kadare novels do, in accordance with the 14th-century Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a code of vengeance.

"This was the ancient reflex of the Quprilis, who in similar
circumstances, scores of times in the history of their family,
assumed the mask of unreality."

This is, perhaps, the one characteristic which sets them apart from the Empire and the Sovereign. As the accused man is led away, the Vizier looks "into the distance, into some mysterious depths ...." He is looking beyond the limits of reality.

It is the nearness of relationship between the bridge and the family, extending far beyond the name, which is this novel's all-encompassing characteristic of magical realism. The very completion of the bridge, as detailed in Kadare's The Three-Arched Bridge (Ura me tri harqu, 1978), leads to horrors impossible to foresee, an unintended escalation of the spilling of revenge blood as depicted in Broken April, and ultimately not to freedom, but to the oppressive Empire served by the Palace of Dreams. Mark-Alem's inaction, as if he were made of stone, results in the loss of an uncle. Only at the end does he realize that his

"patronymic bore within it, like a secret message, the destiny
of the Quprilis for generation after generation. And so that
the bridge might endure, a man was sacrificed in its
building, walled up in its foundations. And although so much
time had gone by since, the traces of his blood had come
down to the present generation. So that the Quprilis
might endure ... "

Immurement is a universal motif of folklore, and this particular version is Kadare's own interpretation of a Greek myth about a bridge over the river Arta.

Albania is only now awakening from its isolated past. In his writing, Kadare has built a bridge across the chasm that separates the customs of vengeance in ancient Albania, and the rigid conformism of communist rule, from the modern concepts of freedom and the rule of law in 21st century society. The Quprilis are a bridge to that envisioned future of humanitarianism, as represented by the Vizier, from out of a personal hell.

The Palace of Dreams is an intriguing novel that easily drew me into its strange world and held my interest until the end. Many of the key elements of magical realism can be identified in the style and execution, but Kadare rejects the label of magical realist, and his novel ultimately veers away from the category. In Mark-Alem's gray existence, life only flares up a moment before death. The repeated suppression of his Albanian name, and that of his country -- unlike the prideful recount of the family epic -- is what allows him to survive. Such a strategy of silence in both his writing and his living might have insured Kadare's survival during the Hoxha regime. This dreary negation of life is the opposite of the atmosphere of enchantment that suffuses the writing of Kundera and the best magical realist novels. The Vizier sees the beauty of life on the other side of totalitarianism, but Kadare denies us that vision. Perhaps he does this out of a fear that has arisen from his own writing: no one can predict the shape reality will actually take.

Though freedom has arrived in Albania, the Albanian Daily News, an Internet periodical to which Kadare contributes, has reported "more than 400 vendettas" since the fall of communist rule. Such news, and the lessons of the Quprili family and the bridge, leaves one with an ominous feeling.

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