reviewed by Fin Keegan

FOR A PERIOD of six months towards the end of the 1990s this reviewer read for the Fiction Department of a major New York magazine of no small pretension and more Names in its past and present than, well, one could easily shake a stick at. My job in those haunted halls was simple: to read (i.e. to reduce; to liquidate) the Slush Pile, a Ionescian execresence of paper that was crawling up one wall of the office and threatening to choke a much-traversed shortcut through to the sanctum of the Literary Editor, a man who had already suffered his share for art (some of it at the hands of the Italian riot police, but that’s another story). This mound of unsolicited short fiction, a slow-motion volcano crudely distributed in Post Office bins as if by an Emergency Response team, was the most famous–and certainly the biggest–such heap in the world. Escaping it meant, and still means, instantaneous transformation of a life, the literary equivalent of triumphing on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”.  

Ismail Kadare

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But, like the inhabitants of shanty towns everywhere, nobody really escapes Slushville. Victories there may be, but they are usually Phyrric: a handwritten rejection slip from the Magazine is a much sought after prize.
And, unlike Kafka’s parable, each supplicant doesn’t get their own doorkeeper. This writer had first to belong to a particular university which is neither easy to matriculate into nor cheap to attend. Beyond that he had to compete against his classmates, a not insignificant number, to make a short-list of three candidates, then dress up and venture downtown for grilling–in three seperate interviews by three different staff members–at the Magazine’s offices. The winning candidate was issued a wad of rejection slips as thick as a telephone book and sent to the office canteen with as many manuscripts as he could safely carry (for there is no dedicated desk and besides the process of rejection is unsightly).

All this nonsense may or may not be commonplace in contemporary Albania; and yet to read Ismail Kadare’s Palace of Dreams [Nepunesi i pallatit te endrrave, Tirana 1981] is to be reminded of those situations when one has, for whatever reason, become a beauracratic cog, part of an institutional machine (health insurers, government departments, media organisations, the secret police) which has to, or thinks it has to, process the emotional stuff of humankind. In the Palace of Dreams this effluent is not, as so often now in the West, encoded into ones and zeros, but the legally obligated dream diaries of an empire’s citizens.
Our hero, a diligent young man by the name of Mark-Alem, has been drafted into the Palace, run by a vast army of sad civil servants, and, like them is faced with sifting through an unending stream of fantasies and dreams, charged with panning out any divinations of a plot against the Sultan, Emperor of a Balkan empire centered on Albania. Though coming from a long line of Viziers and governers, Mark-Alem nonetheless begins at the bottom, grappling exhaustively with the tangled wishes and fears of a multitude. It is not long before his persistance gains him promotion (from an office dedicated to “Selection” to one preoccupied with “Interpretation”) and nightmarish insights into the anti-human workings of a repressive state. Needless to say the book, which came out in the bad old days of Hoxhism (Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator for many decades, ceased being a Stalinist only to become a Maoist) was banned as soon as it appeared. Kadare, much of whose work met with this fate, ended up fleeing to France, where he now lives.



The Palace of Dreams is a rewarding book, easy to read, atmospheric, curiously anachronistic now even though its message is, as they say, timeless (the novel’s natural fellows being Darkness at Noon, say, or 1984). One caveat: the fact that the book is translated from Albanian into French and thence into English hardly inspires confidence. Its tortured journey into the world’s lingua franca reminds one of that Portuguese-English phrase-book produced in the 1880s whose author, one Pedro Carolino, spoke not a word of English, a lack he surmounted by way of a Portuguese-French dictionary and a French-English phrasebook. In the end he produced such proverbs as “He is beggar as a church rat” and “A bad arrangement is better than a process”.
One could hardly accuse Barbara Bray, who can at least speak fluent English, of foisting such infelicities on Kadare’s readers–though on the opening page we read of our hero feeling “an ironical grimace flit briefly over his still-numb face”. Surely the Two Languages Principle (as Comrade Hoxha might say) is sound and, if not by Nobel Laureates, should by professional translators at least be observed, that is to say: where possible one ought to avoid dragging a work of the imagination across more than one language. I refuse to believe that the publishers could not dig up a single English speaker who read Albanian literature and could write a decent sentence in his mother tongue. Perhaps they didn’t look beyond their pavilion at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Not that publishing Ismail Kadare is an uncomplicated matter in other respects: he has earned more column inches in the West for his political ambiguities than for his work itself. The fact is, exile and banned author that he may be, Kadare was closely acquianted with Albania’s elite and is said to have debated with the dictator personally about his work (while humbler critics perished in detention). But however murky all this gets one hesitates to sit in judgment of a writer who had to live and create in the familial totalitarianism of Hoxha’s Albania. Undeniably, The Palace of Dreams is a powerful work of Anti-Totalitarianism and not the kind of thing an immoral writer could, would or would ever want to produce. Moreover, the Dreamworks moralism with which we judge writers of the former Eastern bloc, would have lasted five minues in the Tirana of old.



Incidentally, to return to the yellowing heaps of Slushville, I have noticed that Internet newsgroups and writer’s magazines regularly speculate what could possibly go through the minds of those elect who sift, review and almost invariably reject the many thousands of short stories that pour into The Magazine each month. These “elect”, I can now reveal, spend much of their dreamy read-time speculating what the submitters themselves could possibly have intended when they sent in material more fit for analysis than publication.
For the record the leading themes of these stories, discounting the ramblings of the insane, were:

picaresque imaginings of the lives of amputees;
levitating housewives;
talking cats or household pets, and;
the first sexual exploits of post-war youth.

I would advise anyone with more than a passing interest in a fiction-writing career to steer as clear as possible from these seemingly innocuous subjects–although, needless to say, those who ignore me are the likeliest to succeed.

Fin Keegan

A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Fiction