Doruntine and The Palace of Dreams, Ismail Kadare

For starters, neither is as good as Broken April. Part of the problem is that the prose is weaker and more watered-down probably owing to the fact that unlike Broken April, both of these were double translated, from Albanian to French to English. Kadare’s style is simple and robust enough to appear to withstand the two hops better than some of Stanislaw Lem’s work. But the major issue is that they are tangential to Kadare’s main concerns, while Broken April is fundamental. Both were written about fifteen years after Broken April, and either represent unsuccessful attempts to branch out, or ambitious attempts to claim more territory.

Kadare’s obsessions are those of an anthropologist: he believes in the power of a local self-legislated culture to perpetuate itself down through the ages and maintain a stranglehold on all aspects of life. In Albania, he had what seemed like a perfect case study, and he never lost interest in it. Doruntine and The Palace of Dreams really are works of anthropological study, but the basic materials of the books don’t lend themselves to it. Their achievement is in how Kadare contorts, often unexpectedly, the material to orient it to his interests.

Doruntine is a simple tale of medieval folklore. A small Albanian town’s police officer, Stres, investigates a ghost story where the long-dead Constantine supposedly brought his sister, Doruntine, back from the foreign lands of her husband, at the request of their mother, which he had sworn to honor under the custom known as a bessa. Since the sister and the mother both die of shock before Stres can interrogate them, Stres is rather stuck. The local church official tells him that he will face dire consequences if he doesn’t make shortwork of the idea that a man was resurrected. But Stres decides that local culture trumps even the threat of religious persecution, and that by proclaiming the power of the bessa to even transcend the Christian religion, he will solidify the power of the indigenous culture. This leads to a burlesque. Stres tortures a merchant until he admits that he and Doruntine conspired to pretend that the merchant was Constantine resurrected, then tortures him until the merchant admits that he made it up.

In spite of the torture, Kadare allows the triumph of the culture to seem honorable. But the only real success is in Stres’s integration into the community that he had felt alienated from, through the affirmation of the power of the bessa. And Kadare, having pulled the rug out from both the myth and the revelation, actually ends on a very dark note. The honor at work is completely contextual. Calling Kadare’s approach subversive would be misleading; he is an anthropological realist.

The intrusion of that realism on apparent folklore is unsettling. In The Palace of Dreams, Kadare applies the same realism to allegory and the results are bizarre. At first it seems like a modern allegory out of Camus and Orwell, something like Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Mark-Alem, through his powerful family connections, gets a job at the totalitarian-ish Palace of Dreams, where submitted dreams from the country are analyzed for dangers to the state and prophecies of what is to come. And early on, with the mechanistic, though vague, descriptions of dream analysis and the corruption in the monolithic Palace, it resembles the allegories of Vladimir Makanin and Danilo Kis. But even then, Kadare doesn’t seem to be as interested in the vagaries of dream analysis or even of the torment of the population. Instead, he focuses on Mark-Alem himself, and the political infighting between his family (apparently based on a real set of longstanding nobles in Albania, and using the same name) and the government. His family, it seems, controls a key part of the Palace and are attempting to use it to reorient the government. There is a putsch, but Mark-Alem, whose personality is underdeveloped and a bit passive, ends with an affirmation of cultural tradition and a declaration of allegiance to his family, which will outlast the imposition of the Palace of Dreams on the country.

Except for the bit about the dreams, this isn’t much of an allegory; it’s quite close to Communist Albania. If you want allegory, consider Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, where modern Scotland gets put through an apocalyptic political wringer. Here, the Palace is neither inscrutable nor omniscient. Next to the castle in Broken April, the site of long-standing, immutable tradition, it’s nearly impotent. The role of the unrealistic palace of dreams is pedestrian: it represents an attempt by the new state to gain control over the fundamental culture of its people, and it can only succeed as far as a powerful family embedded in that culture joins it. Mark-Alem’s dilemma between state and culture is abstracted from specifics, but it remains too personal and too psychological to be an allegory. It’s not where Kadare’s interests lie. Like Aharon Appelfeld, in whose works the Holocaust looms unspoken, Kadare is monomaniacal in pursuing his chosen subject, but he is more willing to extend himself to new forms, even without ceding an inch of his intent.

Leave a Reply