Every so often as he sat at his desk he would feel his head grow heavy, and wonder at the pages already written as if it had been someone else who'd penned them. There before him lay the melancholy aggregate of the sleep of one of the vastest empires in the world. [...] To all intents and purposes it covered the sleep of the entire planet.
Comparisons are inevitable; let's get them out of the way quickly, so we can concentrate on the book in hand: I got a strong flavour of Kafka and Gogol from reading Ismail Kadare's The Palace of Dreams (1981; translated from Albanian into French by Jusuf Vrioni, and then from French to English by Barbara Bray, 1993). Not so much in a stylistic sense; there are similarities, certainly, but reading Kadare's words at a double remove I'm wary of pronouncing too strongly on that. Rather, The Palace of Dreams evoked the same sort of disorientation in me as did 'The Overcoat' or The Trial: the feeling of a world out of kilter, but also of expected narrative beats and emotional notes continually upset or displaced. This is paranoia both underscored and punctured by bathos.
The Palace of Dreams is a short, elegant entry in the great tradition of fictional(ised) totalitarianian dystopias, a subgenre of which (as regular readers will know) I am a fan: ruled by a government that's sort of the Ottoman Empire, and kind of Soviet Communism, and also in a way neither of those things, a subjugated Albania plays host to a vast arm of the imperial bureaucracy called the Tabir Sarrail, or Palace of Dreams.
When Mark-Alem, directionless young scion of a once-illustrious and still ambitious Albanian family, is found a job at the mysterious Palace through sheerest nepotism, its grandiloquent and utterly absurd purpose ("a vast enterprise, beside which the oracles of Delphi and the predictions of all the hordes of prephets and magicians in the past are derisory") is outlined to him. The Palace, he is told, exists to collect, classify, and analyse the dreams of all the citizens of the empire. Each day, dreams are recorded by local and regional centres, and dispatched by horseback courier to the Palace. (Later, he overhears a couple of couriers talking, and learns that there are some dreams the horses simply refuse to carry; this isn't a detail that's ever explored further, but I fell a little bit in love with the possibilities of it.)
Why? Because dreams are omens; they are insight:
[T]he Palace of Dreams is no mere whim or fancy; it is one of the pillars of the State. It is here, better than in any surveys, statements, or reports compiled by inspectors, policemen or governors of pashliks, that the true state of the Empire may be assessed. For in the nocturnal realm of sleep are to be found both the light and the darkness of humanity, its honey and its poison, its greatness and its vulnerability. All that is murky or 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 long before it manifests in real life.
Mark-Alem's first entry to the Palace is hedged about with ominous narrative foreshadowing that is aware of, and revels in, its own absurdity. Arriving, he casts about for someone to show him the way in, and can only find a man standing on the pavement outside, who is - for no obvious reason - swathed in a voluminous cowl. We get an elaborate description of how the man's wordless gesture in the direction of the door is framed by "the enormous folds of cloth", but Mark-Alem, apparently oblivious to the slowly building horror-film strings all this creates in the reader's mind, reflects only, "Good heavens, what a strange get-up", and trundles off in the direction indicated. His reaction to the second symbol of Certain Impending Doom, by contrast, is amusingly disproportionate:
[T]he official with the morose expression had slowly risen from his chair. The movement was so slow and so smooth it seemed to Mark-Alem that it would never end, and that the formidable official on whom his fate depended was going to turn into a monster of some kind before his very eyes. He was on the point of yelling, "Never mind! I don't want the job. Give me back my letter. I can't bear to watch you uncoiling like that!" when he saw that the process was over and the official was finally upright.
This flipping back and forth, from blithe insouciance to borderline hysteria, is basically the story of Mark-Alem's emotional state during the novel, with the swings get wilder as he progresses deeper into the Palace hierarchy. Given the jobs he's expected to do, though, this is perhaps not that surprising. The scale - and the objective ludicrousness - of the task in hand can be inferred from the introductory spiel Mark-Alem is given. God sends us warnings, says his tour guide, of what is to come, but he doesn't expend too much effort ensuring it goes somewhere obvious and accessible. Thus:
It is up to us to find out where the dream has come to earth - to flush it out from among millions, billions of others, as one might look for a pearl lost in the desert.
Yes, that sounds like such an attainable goal, doesn't it?
The story thereafter essentially forms an ever-tightening spiral: of plot, of mood, of concept. We follow Mark-Alem deeper into the heart of the institution, as he is progressively, and for reasons that remain bafflingly opaque to him, promoted up the hierarchy. He has all those familiar first-day-at-work nerves - anxiety about pulling his chair from behind his desk, lest it send that awful screeching noise through the silent room and draw everyone's attention to him - with the added tension that he literally has no idea how to do his job. Confronted with a file of miscellaneous dreams and told to look for things whose 'significance' can only ever be clear in retrospect, how do you determine which ones can be filed safely away, and which ones need further examination? He divides the time until the first end-of-the-day bell between writing 'Useless' on dream reports that seem meaningless, making panicked reassessments of the same dreams - the more he looks at each one, the more he begins to think he maybe perhaps possibly he might see something in them after all... - and staring around the room at his fellow Selectors, wondering how they can possibly look so assured in their work.
Things only get more confusing the further up the ladder Mark-Alem goes. This feeling is literalised with a perhaps inevitable scene of him getting lost within the building itself, but here as elsewhere it's accompanied by a fun sense of bathos that stops it descended into over-familiar thriller territory:
Thinking he could hear footsteps not far off, he hurried along to join the unknown person making them; but the footsteps hurried too. He stopped; the other did the same. Then he realized that the footsteps were his own. God, he thought, it's always the same in this wretched place! How much would it have cost to put up a few notices showing the way to various departments?
(He eventually realises that the corridor he's in is circular...) Mark-Alem's move from Selection to the Interpretation department takes him further into the Palace's layers of bureaucratic redundancy. He spends days on the same file, chasing his tail around the maddening logic of a system predicated on hunting down smoking guns that, by definition, exist entirely in the increasingly fragile mind of the beholder:
The file was stuffed with dreams. Mark-Alem had read about sixty of them, and had set aside a score or so that at first sight he thought he might be able to decipher. But when he went back to them, instead of looking the easiest they looked the most difficult. So then he selected a few others, but after an hour or two they also had come to seem utterly confused and impenetrable.
"It's quite impossible!" he kept telling himself. "I shall go mad!"
He encounters dreams he picked out in Selection, and sees new things in them; he reads elaborate reports that he thinks might simply be the fabrications slipped in there by "provocateurs" (...or are they?); he even finds dreams that he fears might be saying bad things about his own intentions. It's a neat little demonstration of how totalitarian systems get under the skin: perpetuating themselves by multiplying imaginary threats, manufacturing reality, and turning everyone into potential subversives, until it is necessary to suspect everyone, including yourself.
Unsurprisingly, Mark-Alem drifts into a mental state that lies at some intersection of boredom, paranoia, and insanity, struggling to articulate his misgivings - or even, increasingly, to function outside his Palace role. His life becomes "like being in a fog which every so often seemed about to lift", but the possibility that clarity might emerge with the next report, or the next time he looks at the same one, keeps him endlessly searching. His mother notes he has become "emaciated", and he loses the ability to sleep:
In the background, there are political manoeuvrings among the elite, and occasional glimpses of Albanian tradition sneaking out from the beneath the blanket of empire; there is additional context here that I am not familiar enough with to interpret. Instead, I was mostly left feeling that the world looked just that little bit more odd now I'd experienced this book. So, recommended!
He stretched out on the bed and lay there for some time with his eyes open. He felt quite calm. It was a painless kind of insomnia, cold and smooth. [...] His whole being seemed to have undergone a transformation.