Monthly Archives: September 2013

“They all joined in the lament of the stars”: Dreams, narrative and epic poetry in Ismail Kadare’s Palace of Dreams

    “For in that nocturnal realm of sleep are to be found both the light and darkness of humanity; its honey and its poison, its greatness and its vulnerability. All that is murky and harmful, or that will become so in a few years or centuries, makes its first appearance in men’s dreams. Every passion or wicked thought, every affliction or crime, every rebellion or catastrophe necessarily casts its shadow before it long before it manifests itself in real life. It was for that reason that the Padishah decreed that no dream, not even one dreamed in the remotest part of the Empire on the most ordinary day by the most godforsaken creature, must fail to be examined by the Tabir Sarrail. And there’s another imperial or playder that is still more fundamental: the table drawn up after the dreams of every day, week and month have been collected, classified and studied must always be absolutely accurate….”

Fantasy and reality intertwine in strange – almost dreamlike ways – in Ismail Kadare’s Palace of Dreams. The setting is the heart of the Ottoman Empire – presumable sometime in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, based upon the stray reference to the Greek War of Independence. The historical Battle of Kosovo plays an important role, as do the very real political tensions between Albania (yet a province) and the Empire. And in the middle of all this, there is Tabir Sarrail, the Palace of Dreams, a mysterious, impenetrable and vitally important organ of the State, housed in a labyrinthine, inaccessible building, that is responsible for collecting, categorising and interpreting every dream that is dreamt by the inhabitants of the Empire.

    1984 meets The Castle, you might say. And true enough, there are traces of a totalitarian state operating through dream-control; and the dense, maze-like character of a building that comes to symbolise the stifling, entrapping coils of the State is certainly a trope from The Castle. But it would be reductive to simply classify Kadare as an elegant amalgam of Orwell and Kafka: The Palace of Dreams, like the rest of Kadare’s oeuvre, is a deeply subtle and thought-provoking work. To start with Kadare isn’t entirely interested in State totalitarianism. For instance, dreams are recorded at the behest of citizens – there is no extractor-machine that does the job. At the most basic level, therefore, dream collection is voluntary. And then again, for all of Tabir Sarrail’s twisting corridors, Mark-Alem (the story’s protagonist) always ends up finding his way around, either by asking helpful insiders (a category conspicuous by its absence from The Castle), or by blind luck.

Magical realism, you might say again. And there are traces of that too; yet Kadare is no Marquez or Rushdie or Ben Okri – it’s simply impossible to pin him down into a genre or a style; like The File on H, like Broken April, like The Siege – The Palace of Dreams merges reality and fantasy in a distinctly unique way; Kadare’s voice is his own.

Nonetheless, politics is deeply entwined with the story. As the excerpt above shows, the Empire has understood that the roots of all ideas that might one day become important enough to shake its very foundations, lie in dreams. Hence, the vast apparatus of collection, selection and interpretation; hence also, as Mark-Alem understands, the torture-chambers in the bowels of the Tabil Sarrail:

     “The copyist had said that it was obvious the prisoner couldn’t remember anything about his dream. That must be the real object of his incarceration: to make him forget it. That wearing interrogation night and day, that interminable report, the pretence of seeking precise details about something that by its very nature cannot be definite – all this, continued until the dream begins to disintegrate and finally disappears completely from the dreamer’s memory, could only be called brain-washing, thought Mark-Alem. Or an undream, in the same way as unreason is the opposite of reason… the more he thought about it the more it seemed this was the only explanation. It must be a question of flushing out subversive ideas which for some reason or other the State needed to isolate, as one isolates a plague virus in order to be able to neutralize it.”

While one plot-line follows Mark-Alem in the Palace of Dreams, a parallel plot-line traces the travails of his family, the Quprilis, a powerful, once-Albanian clan whose fortunes have risen and fallen spectacularly during the course of its dealings with the Empire. Here, Kadare explores his favourite themes – the place of epic poetry in constructing a nation’s idea and vision of itself, and how such ideas and visions – and therefore, the telling of epic itself – come to be the site of deep political contestation (recollect The Siege and The File on H). There exists an Albanian epic about the Quprili clan, and at an important dinner party, one of them calls rhapsodists from Albania to sing the epic in Albanian (a rare and untoward occurrence, since the epic is normally sung in Slav). The description of the performance is poetry in prose, Kadare at his lyrical best:

    It was a voice in which the throat of man and the throat of mountains seemed, over ages, to have attuned themselves to one another, and merged. And so, with other voices, even more distant, until they all joined in the lament of the stars… then another rhapsodist started to sing the Ballad of the Bridge, and through the hush that surrounded it… Mark-Alem seemed to hear the blows of masons, building in the cold sunshine a bridge sullied with the blood of sacrifice. A bridge that would not only give the Quprili family its name, but would also mark them with its own doom. 

The dream-world of Tabir Sarrail and the epic-world of the Quprilis come clashing together in brutal fashion when the State decides to attack the clan for – presumably – its powerful Albanian connections, and uses the interpretation of a dream as justification: in the dream – dreamt by a nondescript individual – there is a bridge, a violin and an angry bull; the bridge is interpreted to be the Quprili clan (because in Albanian, the word means “bridge”), the violin their epic, and the angry bull an attack upon the State. The basic purpose is, of course, a deeply political struggle:

    “It’s an exceedingly complex business, to do with the settlements and transfers of populations in the Balkans… in short, it directly concerns the whole map of the Balkans. For this epic, as I said, is sung in two languages, Albanian and Slav, and is connected with the question of ethnic frontiers inside the Empire…”

The whole episode becomes a brilliant exploration of how narrative and discourse (in this case, the interpretation of a dream) is regularly pressed into service to disguise and legitimise nakedly political ends. Kadare is too subtle to draw blunt analogies – there is nothing strictly comparable to the using dream-interpretation in a power struggle; but dreams here could – and I think, are meant to – stand for techniques as diverse as religion on the one hand, and ideologies of racism on the other, and every other form of ideology in between. Because, as Mark-Alem recalls being told:

    So people said some Master-Dreams were forgeries; that they were fabricated in the Tabir Sarrail by the employees themselves, in accordance with the interests of powerful rival political groups or with the mood of the sovereign; that if not entirely, they were at least partly doctored. 

An old and basic point about how much of social reality is constructed, and then presented as being as immutable and unchangeable as the stars. In Kadare’s deft and skillful hands, it becomes the basis for a wonderful and moving story. Categorisations and constructions occur often, and eerily, but subtly:

    These dreams are those of the dark people, and the dreams opposite are those of the bright people. 


    “Dreams of the first period of captivity…” said the archivist, indicating the relevant shelves, “or as they’re also called, dreams of early captivity, to distinguish them from the later ones, the dreams of deep imprisonment. The two kinds are very different. In the same way as first loves are different from later ones.” 

The great thing about Kadare, as ever, is that all these numerous themes – dreams, ideology, politics, empire, epic poetry, nationhood – are kept together in a tense balance, entwined with each other and yet retaining their separate characters. And this tension is reflected, towards the end, in Mark-Alem’s own sense of confused displacement, of being in a world in which the centre can no longer hold, in words that perhaps ring even truer today than they did when Kadare wrote them:

    “As for Albania… it grew more and more distant and dim, like some far cold constellation, and he wondered if he really knew anything about what went on there… he sat there uncertainly, his pen growing heavy in his hand, until finally it rested on the paper and instead of writing Albania wrote: There. He gazed at the expression that had substituted itself for the name of his homeland, and suddenly felt oppressed by what he immediately thought of as Quprilian sadness. It was a term unknown to any other language in the world, though it ought to be incorporated in them all.

     It must have been snowing… there…”

A great book. On par with Broken April, The File on H and The Siege. Unequivocally recommended.


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Filed under Albania, Albanian Fiction, European Writing, Ismail Kadare, Ismail Kadare, Miscellaneous

“All things counter, original, spare, strange”: Poetic Philosophy through the Ages?

A while ago, I observed that when T.S. Eliot, in his book of literary criticism, The Sacred Wood, says that good poetry must aim at “that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations” – he is echoing the aesthetic arguments of the Russian defamiliarists, in particular, Victor Shklovsky who, four years before, in 1917, had written:

“… and art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.“ 

It seems that the Romantics (first generation and second generation) were on to something similar a hundred years before. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge writes the following about Wordsworth:

Mr. Wordsowrth… was to… give the charm of novelty to things of every day… by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us… but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

The similarity is striking not only because the same word “familiarity” is used in the same context, but the entire sense of the two paragraphs is very proximate. Both Shklovsky and Coleridge lament the moribund nature of custom that deadens and dulls our perception of the world into something; and both advocate the point of art (poetry) to be – through defamiliarisation – to reawaken this perception to its full and rich state: so that we can feel things and the stone is made stony (Shklovsky), so that the eyes, ears and heart can see, hear and feel again (Coleridge).

And today, while reading Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, I came across this paragraph:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

Followed by:

[Poetry] makes us inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being… it creates new the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. It justifies that bold and true word of Tasso – non merita nome del creator, se non Iddio el di Poeta.”

Shelley is, of course, very evidently channeling Coleridge here, and elaborating upon the basic point: familiarity suppresses beauty by casting a veil (of commonality?) over it; poetry tears down this veil and reveals beauty to us through defamiliarising the sensations and perceptions that we have come to expect and become accustomed to. He is also channeling Wordsworth himself, who in Lyrical Ballads spoke of how extraordiness can serve as an act of “reforming perception.”

The irony here, of course, is that Eliot had a famously low opinion of the romantics – and yet they both seem to have been subscribing to a broadly similar philosophy of poetry.

But I think the most striking statement of this philosophy comes neither from the romantics, nor from the modernists, but from a representative of the intervening period – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Victorian poet, famous for the sprung rhythm. In Pied Beauty, Hopkins puts it pithily – and perfectly:

All things counter, original, spare and strange…

Counter – against the grain, and therefore, unfamiliar; original – by definition, un-imitated, and therefore unfamiliar; spare – in old English – meant “scant”, or rare – and therefore, unfamiliar; strange – naturally, unfamiliar by virtue of being so. What I like best about Hopkins is that while Coleridge, Shelley, Shklovsky and Eliot all express their philosophy of sensing-beauty-through-defamiliarisation through prose, Hopkins does it through poetry – and increases the impact tenfold. It is something similar – but not identical – to Blake expressing his philosophy in a single line of pure magic:

To be an error, and to be cast out, is a part of God’s design.” 

Of course, I’d like to believe that god’s design is at least, in part, aesthetic perfection, in which case Blake would join the illustrious list cited above, but that apart – I think it’s quite fascinating how poets separated by centuries, poets belonging to very different – and in fact, diametrically opposed schools of poetry, poets who would differ fundamentally on aspects such as rhyme, metre, vocabulary, scansion – nonetheless seem to agree on the most fundamental issues of them all: at the ultimately abstract level, what is poetry for, and how must the poet fulfill his task?


Filed under Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory