Filed under: Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction | Tags: albania, balkans, book reviews, books, ismail kadare, lit, literature, ottoman empire, reading, the palace of dreams
Many of Ismail Kadare’s novels take place in a sort of dreamscape, a land between the real world and the world in which myths are taken to be real, in which dreams and stories have a direct influence on daily life. In Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (which I have not reviewed – this is one I need to reread before discussing) Kadare moves so far into this mythical middle world that it’s hard to gain your bearing as a reader in the short novel. The Palace of Dreams, though explicitly dealing with dreams and myth, is better-grounded in an understandable world, making it a more welcoming novel than Spring Flowers.
The palace referred to in the novel’s title stands during the Ottoman empire, for the purpose of evaluating the dreams of the empire. Branches of the palace collect the dreams and send them on to the Palace of Dreams, where they make their way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of sorters and analysts who attempt to find some meaning or hint of the future in the collected dreams. One dream each week is passed on to the sultan; this is the Master Dream, and is taken to be the most important and impactful dream of the past week.
Kadare follows a new employee of the palace as he struggles to make his way through the palace, which is both physically and mentally labyrinthine. Mark-Alem is a member of a well-known noble family that has a storied history with dreams, having frequently been the victim of the cryptic analyses of dreams. In following Mark-Alem, and showing not only how the dreams of the empire touch his family, but how he rises at unprecedented speed through the palace’s ranks, Kadare shows us a sort of everyman. Although Mark-Alem rises to a high position within the bureaucracy, he rarely seems to understand his own interactions with the empire.
As with so many of Kadare’s books, this novel speaks clearly to the time of Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania. Here, though, Kadare never overreaches or overstresses the links between the old world he writes about and Hoxha’s regime (as he did in The Pyramid, where ties between the pyramid-building Egyptians and Enver Hoxha’s scheme to build thousands of concrete bunkers around the Albanian countryside were so nakedly pointed out that it was hard to feel Kadare fully trusted his readers), and the Palace as a mental and physical space suggests rather than demands that we use this story as a means of considering the dehumanizing effects of power.
Where Kadare really shines in The Palace of Dreams is in the bureaucratic stylings of the Palace. He nails everything about this, from the way Mark-Alem gets lost in the building even as he receives promotions, to the way that most employees have little sense of what work others in the building do, to the way Mark-Alem appears set up for failure but somehow stumbles through this incomprehensible system. Just see his first day on the job, when Mark-Alem’s boss offers vague instructions on his task, suggesting not only that he has little real idea of what his employees do, but that each dream makes countless directionless loops around the Palace before finally being deemed important or filed away in the basement.
“This is your first file. It contains a group of dreams that arrived on October nineteenth. Read them very carefully, but whatever you do don’t be hasty. If you think there’s the slightest chance that a dream might have been fabricated, leave it where it is and don’t be in too much of a hurry to remove it. After you there’ll be another sorter, or, to give him his proper title, a second inspector, and he’ll check what you’ve done and correct any errors. Then there’s another inspector to check up on him, and so on. In fact, all the people you see in this room are doing just that. So good luck!”
He stayed there another few seconds looking at Mark-Alem, then turned around and left. Mark-Alem was momentarily rooted to the spot, then slowly, trying not to make any noise, he edged the chair back a little, slid between it and the table, and, still very cautiously, sat down. (31)
In The Palace of Dreams, Kadare’s spare prose is the perfect counterweight to the ineffable subject matter. The novel at times verges on farce, as inspectors and interpreters in the Palace struggle to find some meaning in that which may have no meaning, looking to the lives of the dreamers and to past dreams for help in deciphering the images placed in their file. When it shifts from farce to tragedy – when we, and Mark-Alem, see the impact these dreams, and their interpretations, can have on a life – Kadare keeps the novel so tightly tied to the dream descriptions that reality itself begins to shift into a sort of dreamscape. The Palace of Dreams is a gorgeous imagining of the attempt to impose reality upon dreams, and dreams upon reality.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction | Tags: albania, balkans, book reviews, books, ismail kadare, lit, literature, ottoman empire, reading, the siege
Ismail Kadare’s The Siege is not, strictly speaking, a historical novel, but it does give a broad sense of life, and life during war, during the time of the Ottoman Empire. As with Kadare’s other novels, The Siege takes place in his native Albania; and, more specifically, is set at an unnamed citadel belonging to Skanderbeg (an ethnic Albanian member of the Ottoman army, who left Islam in favor of Christianity, and the Turks for the Albanians). Strange though it may sound to say that this novel, which has no narrative thrust other than that of shifting levels of despair, succeeds because of its plotting, The Siege works because there is a tension to the story even as we suspect that it will lead to no real conclusion. Kadare sometimes gives in to an excess of dreaminess in his writing, but here keeps that tendency in check in favor of describing the council meetings and varied attempts to break the citadel’s defenses, and following the lives of those members of the Ottoman army waiting out their lives beyond the walls of the citadel.
The Siege is told largely from the view of the Ottomans, with short – two-page – narratives inserted between chapters, describing the Ottomans’ latest actions from the view of an Albanian inside the citadel. This means much description of the minutia of siege warfare, from deciding which soldiers to send over first, to when to pull back, to how the successes and failures of an attack can change the careers of the men making the decisions. This may sound dull, but Kadare is pitch-perfect in this novel, giving his characters the space to battle over their preferred strategies, and thereby giving the reader a chance to, as it were, join the negotiations. In focusing not only on the details of the siege, but on the decision-making process, Kadare also offers an extensive exploration of the idea of power, and of what influences the men fighting this battle.
There are few characters who maintain their role throughout the novel – who aren’t sentenced to death, or demoted to the lowest ranks of the army, for a loss, an accident, or a wrong decision – but even those who do maintain their position (most notably the pasha – the army’s leader – and Çelebi, the chronicler assigned to turn the siege into myth) are keenly aware of their precarious position and the odds that they will lose their power far more quickly than they gained it. When assigning punishments, decreeing that men should go “down below” to dig a tunnel underneath the citadel, the pasha recognizes not only that he holds these men’s fate in his hands, but that someone else holds his:
He hastily initialled the sentences but added in the margin, “Send below”. As he scrawled those words, which meant “to the tunnel”, he felt the well-known sensation of the powerful of the earth who can cast another man into the abyss. The idea that his own fate was also in the hands of another did not hold him back, but, on the contrary, put fresh energy into his view. He had long known that the world is but a pyramid of power, and the loser would always be the man who gives up the exercise of his own power before the other. (124)
Kadare also explores the minor, and often failed, assertions of power the men make, their attempts to break into the Pasha’s inner circle where they can be heard with the other top men of the army. In Kadare’s vision, even the secretary recording these meetings is seeking opportunities to declare his own strength:
The Pasha had spoken. In the utter silence that ensued all that could be heard was the scratching of the secretary’s quill as he put down on paper everything that had been said. They were all accustomed to this sound which was always identical, whether the words being transcribed were sharp or smooth, scorpion bites or soft summer wind. Those among the council members who were familiar with administrative accounts realised that the secretary was making his quill squeal more than was necessary. To judge by the serious face he made at such times, it wasn’t hard to guess that these silent pauses in which his pen scratching was the overriding sound gave him his sole opportunity in life to assert his own importance. Once someone started talking again, his very presence would be forgotten. (201)
There’s a sense of the forgettable to the events of this novel. As anyone with a rough understanding of the history of the Ottoman empire can guess, this siege won’t be successful; it is nothing more than a footnote in history, months of war that are of note only as a part of the tide that will eventually overwhelm the Albanian defenders. The scribe who spends so much time observing soldiers and battles for the account he will eventually write is confronted not only with the question of whether this will be read and remembered, but by the fact that what he records is not really the truth. Throughout the novel, men make note of the things the scribe won’t write in his chronicle – the aspects of warfare that are so wholly ugly they’ll find no place in the glorious chronicle of this siege.
Kadare perfectly captures the deadening effects of war, how its horrors become commonplace; the political machinations that go into decisions down to the level of what soldiers should be eating; how power is claimed and used and, in time, lost; and the circular nature of war, the way that one army will so easily replace the last. By showing so much of the siege through the chronicler’s eyes, Kadare also questions how memory is shaped, and what aspects of war will be remembered, and which should be remembered. The Siege is a remarkable novel, one worth repeated visits for its unsentimental look at mythmaking and the nature of war.
“In the raging storm of battle the crocodiles charged the ramparts again and again, but fate…” It was a hard sentence to finish off, and he had a headache. He was tempted to write “…did not smile on them”, but “smile” seemed the wrong word here. How could there be any smiles in the midst of such horrible butchery? He put his quill down and stared pensively at the pages he had written in a hand now weakened by age. One day, they would constitute the sole remains of all this blood spilled beneath a burning sky, of those thousands of dreadful wounds, of the roar of the cannon, of the yellow dust of forced marches, of the unending, nightmarish ebb and flow of assailants beneath the castle walls, of men clambering up ladders under showers of hot pitch and arrows, falling to the ground below, then clambering up again alongside comrades who don’t even recognise you because you are already disfigured by your injuries. Those pages were going to be the sole trace of the soldiers’ tanned hides, of these innumerable skins on which sharp metal, sulphur, pitch and oil had drawn monstrous shapes which, when the war was over, would go on living their own lives. To cap it all, these pages would also be the sole remnants of the myriad tents which, when they were dismantled, as they would be in a few weeks’ time, would leave thousands of marks on a wide empty space, looking as if it had been trampled by a huge herd of bizarre animals. Then, next spring, grass would grow on the plain: millions of blades of grass, utterly indifferent to what had gone on there, with no knowledge of all that can happen in this world. (294)
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: albania, balkans, book reviews, books, ismail kadare, lit, literature, reading, the accident
Ismail Kadare’s The Accident is a brief novel that explores, sometimes obliquely, the ways stories are told, how relationships develop and shift over time, and the life of Albanians following the collapse of Communism. The story centers on the accident of the title, which is detailed in the first of the novel’s three sections. A man and a woman leave a hotel and get into a taxi for the airport. Something happens – something distracts the driver – and he goes off the road. The man and woman are seen in the air, sometimes clinging to one another, sometimes seperate. Both die. The driver survives, but is unable to describe what he saw that caused the accident, other than to say, time and again, that just before the accident the man and woman tried to kiss.
There doesn’t appear to have been any foul play, but because the accident is a strange one it is marked as an “unclassified” type, which gives to it a longevity as Serbian and then Albanian spy agencies come across the file, and later as a researcher opens the file and tries to understand the nature of the relationship between the man and woman. The attention given to the accident is remarkable; as Lisa Hill writes in her fantastic and detailed review of the novel, the novel shows the “excess of agents and analysts with not enough to do after Tito had gone and Yugoslavia had been dismembered.” See how the accident is forgotten, briefly, before being brought back to life by these young Balkan governments:
Three months later, the archivist could not hide his astonishment when the governments of two Balkan countries, one after another, asked to inspect the file on the accident at kilometre marker 17. How could the states of this quarrelsome peninsula, after committing every possible abomination known to this world – murdering, bombing, setting entire populations at each other’s throats and then deporting them – find the time, now that the madness was over, instead of making reparations, to enter into such minor matters as unusual car accidents?
Kadare’s prose here is marked by its opaqueness. When one researcher – the one who provides us much of the lovers’ story, as he can imagine it from reading their letters, speaking to friends, piecing together their movements over the years – details their affair, the language of it is often combative, not so dissimilar from the language of war. Much as the novel centers on and spins off of the central event of their accident, the lives of the lovers Besfort Y. and Rovena St. spin around the collapse of Hoxha’s Communist government, that shared history explaining, for some, their off-and-on relationship. For Rovena St., the end of the dictatorship is imagined as a sort of dividing line, not just between past and present but between the impossible and the possible.
The rattling of the chains dragging the dictator’s statue through the centre of Tirana kept interrupting her thoughts. It was this sound, louder than any earthquake, that divided past from present. Everything that had once been impossible had suddenly become real, such as his invitation over dinner, a week after they had met, to a three-day conference in a Central European city.
As the researcher reconstructs their relationship, Besfort Y. and Rovena St. reference their relationship in regards to Albanian folklore and Cervantes. Mystifying references in their letters to meeting “post-mortem”, and descriptions of their meetings that suggest they have shifted from romance to the relationship of that between a call girl and her client, become easier to understand when viewed through the lens of attempts at reconstruction. Sensing their relationship is coming to an end, the lovers attempt to find some new way of understanding their relationship, a new way of being. This is, as Lisa wrote in her review, not so different from the attempts of new Balkan nations to build themselves after achieving a first or reformulated independence. There are depths to which every relationship is unknown and remains unknowable, or appears differently to each person, as Kadare suggests via the very structure of the novel, in which certain sections are acknowledged to be entirely imagined. And yet, there is also the suggestion that all these things can be tethered to another, older story, that there is a reference point for each and every story, as with Besfort Y’s request for three days’ leave from work, just before his death.
He could not forget what a colleague had said a long time ago, when he first mentioned the inquiry to him. In such cases of law, the English refer to remote history, Muslims to the Qur’an and emergent African states to the Encylopedia Britannica, but in the Balkans they find every precedent with little effort in their ballads. Three days’ leave to carry out a duty, normally something left undone? There will certainly be a well-known paradigm for this.
At end, The Accident is an elliptical and often frustrating novel. These frustrations, though, are coupled with moments of intense beauty. Though Kadare offers no clear guide to his goals with the novel – though there is no real path to understanding the relationship of Besort Y. and Rovena St., or the interest of the spy agencies with their accident, or the interest of the researcher in the couple’s story – he does offer a story that is as gorgeous as it is baffling, as it shifts through time and space and myth in seeking an answer to this couple’s story. That there doesn’t seem to be an answer, that their lives are as enigmatic at the end of the research as they were in the moments following their deaths, doesn’t weaken the novel, but rather serves as encouragement and inspiration to explore it for a second time.
Filed under: Reading Journal | Tags: best american science writing, books, cloud atlas, cooking solves everything, david gaughran, david mitchell, eric hobsbawm, if you go into the woods, ismail kadare, kindle singles, literature, lord of the rings, mark bittman, nations and nationalism, reading journal, shameless, the accident
Lots of aspirational reading this week. I signed up for this great classics challenge hosted by Jillian. I use the word “challenge” about as loosely as I can here, because the whole thing strikes me more as, I don’t know, a collective effort to better our reading habits and read books we’ve meant to read for years…but haven’t. Over in the sidebar you can see a link to a list of classics I plan to…okay, will try to…read in the next five years. It recently occurred to me that these books average about 800 pages each and that I’ll be lucky to read half of them in five years, but it sure will be satisfying to knock a few of them off my Shelf of Shame, ie the collection of classics I’ve bought but never read. I’m already making great progress with this challenge – I moved my copy of Dickens’s David Copperfield to the end of my bookshelf, where I have to face down its cover dozens of times a day, from its former position wedged between my Albanian dictionary and GRE study guides.
Outside of work (more on that later), my reading lately has been focused about half on epic, immersive novels, and half on short and easily consumed essays and stories. Kit Steinkellner did a Book Riot piece a few weeks back, “Every Book I Read Needs to be at Least 50 Pages Shorter,” which makes the point that books need to be done like screenplays. The title of the piece is misleading, because Steinkellner doesn’t really say that every book needs to be fifty pages shorter (in that she does have a decent point; all I can hear right now is Kristen Wiig’s character from Knocked Up saying, “Tighten!”) but that novels shouldn’t be over 100,000 words – that there should be a clear limit for novel length just as there is a clear limit for screenplay length. It’s an interesting post (not least for the comments that follow), but also fundamentally off-the-mark. Because, hell, movies aren’t the only expression of film; you don’t even need to make an argument anymore that the best writing is in serialized TV shows because it is so obvious. Something like The Lord of the Rings (which I am still reading, and loving) or Game of Thrones or Stephen King’s Under the Dome is comparable not to the latest hour-and-a-half-long popcorn flick, but a fifty-hour TV drama. I swear, I am going to bring this all together at the end.
I’ve also been reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for this readalong hosted by Care’s Book Club and Melissa at The Avid Reader’s Musings. I tried to read Cloud Atlas last summer and failed miserably – I started right before flying home for the first time in two years, which explains a lot – and am so, so glad I gave it another try. I’m halfway through now and am so in love with the book I don’t even know where to begin. There will be more gushing and expressions of love for David Mitchell, later this week.
My reading’s also been tending to the very short. I picked up a Kindle copy of the 2011 Best American Science and Nature Writing on sale, and have been reading essays as a sort of reward/break from my reading for work. What I like about the collection is that it’s like having a zillion Kindle Singles for the price of one. (Speaking of which, recently read Mark Bittman’s new Kindle Single, “Cooking Solves Everything,” which probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know about cooking and eating real food, but is as much a pleasure to read as everything else that Bittman publishes.) Last week the New York Times ran a review piece on Kindle Singles, which I hope they’ll do again in the future.
Also read a couple of stories by David Gaughran (who writes the best, best blog about self-publishing – with a real focus on marketing and design and being professional; I don’t even self-publish and I can’t stop reading the thing), available as an e-book, “If You Go Into the Woods.” The two stories here are light and quick reads and – I am not quite sure how to put this – very popular-feeling. You know, these read like stories that were written for readers, not for fellow writers, and it’s a lot of fun to read a short story that doesn’t ask for five rereads in order to figure out what the hell is going on.
Anyway, reading Gaughran’s stories sucked me in in some way, so that now I can’t stop thinking of buying his most recent novel, A Storm Hits Valpariso, to read when I’m flying home. Because I am the sort of person who starts planning what she’ll read during nineteen hours of flights and layovers…over four months in advance. Make sure you look at Gaugrahn’s blog, and pick up those short stories (it looks like they’re free in the UK, 99 cents in the States).
Since I’m always mentioning reading for work, let’s explore that (slightly duller) direction, too. Last week finished Ismail Kadare’s The Accident – I’ll put up a review soon…soonish – which somehow manages to take on Balkan spy agencies, a long-running affair, and time in just a couple hundred pages. Now on Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, which is interesting but which I have to read standing up to keep from falling asleep.
And one quick comment on non-bookish stuff. I’ve been watching Shameless lately, which is (back to that Book Riot piece!) a long and funny and sad and immersive serial that has, at least momentarily, displaced Downton Abbey in my affections. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot out of it, but it is just unbelievable in the way it faces poverty, alcoholism, and limited opportunities (there’s this one moment when Fiona, who dropped out of high school her junior year to care for her younger brothers and sisters, is serving drinks to a table of men at one of many humiliating, temporary jobs, that is just gut-wrenching) without ever diminishing the family or their stories.
Filed under: Reading Journal | Tags: a clash of kings, chronicle in stone, comfort reading, elizabeth george, fantasy, g is for gumshoe, ismail kadare, kinsey millhone, lord of the rings, mystery novels, nancy drew, reading journal, sue grafton, the two towers
Iris wrote this great post about reading journals and using our blogs to offer something besides straight reviews of novels. I don’t usually use this blog to do much other than review and post about short stories, but lately I haven’t been so much in the mood to review. To say, many thanks to Iris for reminding me that I can use Fat Books for whatever I like.
My reading lately has been a lot of Albanian history interspersed with comfort reading. I mean the Emily Giffin kick that I was on a few weeks ago, The Two Towers (which I just started rereading), and Sue Grafton. Plenty of Sue Grafton.
When I reread The Fellowship of the Ring last year, I had a hard time thinking of it in terms of anything other than comfort reading. It was such a great book to return to when I was sick (seriously, for like a month straight – that’s what happens when you should go to the doctor but don’t) and working on a huge project (a gazillion spelling bees). The Two Towers is just about the same. Reading the first chapter, I was surprised by how clumsy Tolkien’s writing seemed, but after a couple chapters I had slipped into the rhythm of it. I’d been debating starting on the second book of the George R.R. Martin series, but I’m glad I decided to stick with The Lord of the Rings. Gives me what I wanted out of Martin – that sense of a completely imagined and endless world – but with the added benefit of familiarity. Plus, this means that when I fly home (July 31st! [for good this time!]) I can buy A Clash of Kings in paper.
Reading this article on Nancy Drew’s “father” last week, one thing O’Rourke wrote really struck me – that no reader could ever solve one of the Nancy Drew mysteries. When you hit the end of the novel you could look back and say, “okay, I guess everything fits that solution” – but as you read, there was no way you could take the “clues” Nancy found and turn them into anything meaningful. The Nancy Drew books just aren’t the type of mystery designed so the reader can attempt to solve them as he or she goes along. While I was getting close to the end of Sue Grafton’s G is for Gumshoe, with no clue of what “solution” Kinsey was close to finding, or how the hell she had gotten there, I realized that Grafton’s mysteries have the same problem. I keep reading the Kinsey Millhone books because I’m getting fond of Kinsey’s character, but I’m more passive than I was when reading, say, one of Elizabeth George’s books (as frustrating as her books have become). What “clues” Kinsey deals with aren’t clues of the type that might lead the reader anywhere; we just end up waiting for Kinsey to have a flash of inspiration and tell us how she solved the mystery, going from clueless to closing the case in the last few pages of each novel. This is, actually, kind of frustrating for a reader.
In other news, I have a box of books on Albania and stuff relating to Albania on its way to Tirana. I’ll probably post about some of these things as I read them – expect a lot on Ismail Kadare’s novels – although it occurred to me, as I was looking at the nonexistent comments for my review of Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone and this longread on Albanian blood feuds, that exactly zero people, other than myself, are interested in this stuff.
Also, my Kindle had a baby. If I can pose this question to people who own one of the newest Kindles (which is so small I find myself tempted to buy one when I get home – imagine how easy it would be to use even with just one free hand!), how are you supposed to take notes on the thing? I appreciate how much smaller the Kindle got once Amazon dumped the tiny keyboard, but if I had to laboriously select the letters on the Kindle’s on-screen “keyboard”, one by one, using the up and down button, I would never, never take a note. It seems like giving up on the story that you can mark up an ebook just as easily as a real book. You can’t, which is why I coerced my parents into spending $50 to mail a box of books to me in Albania, rather than reading them on my Kindle.
In the same ereadery vein, The New York Times today ran a piece about digital distractions on tablet devices. The piece falls into the camp of NY Times pieces telling us things we already knew, using a small subject sample, but whatever – the idea of people struggling to read novels or other books on their tablets is both painful and obvious. One of the things I like about my kindle, especially since I’m in Europe and can’t access the internet on it (old timey kindle here), is that there are no distractions. I can’t go online, I can’t learn if I have a new email; I’m just reading. A tablet seems like an appealing thing to have for a subscription to the Times, and to play Angry Birds on, but I can’t imagine reading a novel on one. You?