The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

This is a novel written in communist Albania in 1981 but set in a fictionalised version of the Ottoman Empire in, I guess, the late 19th century. The protagonist, Mark-Alem, is from a family, the Quprilis, who are originally Albanian but are living in Istanbul and are prominent, powerful players within the Ottoman Empire.

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The book follows his career working at the Tabir Sarrail — the Palace of Dreams — a huge office devoted to collecting, sifting and interpreting the dreams of people from all across the empire. Once a week, a single dream is chosen as the Master-Dream and delivered to the Sultan, along with its interpretation.

“The world has long recognised the importance of dreams, and the rôle they play in anticipating the fates of countries and of the people who govern them. You have certainly heard of the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece, and of the famous soothsayers of Rome, Assyria, Persia, Mongolia, and so on. […] Now this long tradition undoubtedly has its own importance, but it pales into insignificance beside the operations of the Tabir Sarrail. Our imperial State is the first in the history of the world to have institutionalized the interpretation of dreams, and so to have brought it to such a high degree of perfection.” […]

“The task of our Palace of Dreams, which was created directly by the reigning Sultan, is to classify and examine not the isolated dreams od certain individuals — such as those who in the past were for one reason or another granted the privilege, and who in practice enjoyed the monopoly, of prediction through the interpretation of divine omens — but the ‘Tabir’ as a whole: in other words, all the dreams of all citizens without exception.”

The Palace of Dreams was apparently banned in Albania on publication, and you can see why. As a piece of political commentary, it is necessarily somewhat oblique, as this quote from Kadare points out: “dissidence was a position no one could occupy, even for a few days, without facing the firing squad. On the other hand, my books themselves constitute a very obvious form of resistance”. Still, the vision of a government trying to reach right into the minds of all its subjects, of a huge sprawling bureaucracy devoted to tracking and recording people’s thoughts, the brutal interrogation of people who are unlucky enough to have ‘significant’ dreams, and the way the process is undertaken with great seriousness but seems to be completely arbitrary: it’s a pretty good metaphor for a totalitarian government.

I find it quite hard to think of this as a book written in my lifetime; it’s not just the setting, but tone and style.  The most obvious comparison would be Kafka — there are descriptions of getting lost in the corridors of the Tabir Sarrail which are particularly reminiscent — but also someone like Bruno Schulz, perhaps. Early/mid C20th, anyway. Although this edition, which I picked up in a second-hand shop, was translated from the Albanian via the French, so I don’t know how that may have affected the nuances.

Still, it’s a striking fable. It’s very much built around one central concept, but it’s short enough that that’s not a problem.

The Palace of Dreams is my book from Albania for the Read The World challenge.

» The postcard is, as the caption says, of the central post office in Istanbul. Which is at least a big Ottoman bureaucratic building. I found it via Ottoman Imperial Archives on Flickr

The Culture of Lies by Dubravka Ugrešić

The Culture of Lies by Dubravka Ugrešić is a book of essays written between 1991 and 1996 — that is, during and just after the wars that resulted from the collapse of Yugoslavia.* It is my book from Croatia for the Read The World challenge, although there is a slight awkwardness to that choice. This is from the ‘Glossary’ which Ugrešić includes at the back of the book:

Identity:

A few years ago my homeland was confiscated, and, along with it my passport. In exchange I was given a new homeland, far smaller and less comfortable. They handed me a passport, a ‘symbol’ of my new identity. Thousands of people paid for those new ‘identity symbols’ with their lives, thousands were driven out of their homes, scattered, humiliated, deprived of their rights, imprisoned and impoverished. I possess very expensive identity documents. the fact often fills me with horror. And shame.

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My passport has not made me a Croat. On the contrary, I am far less that today than I was before.

I am no one. And everyone. In Croatia I shall be a Serb, in Serbia a Croat, in Bulgaria a Turk, in Turkey a Greek, in Greece a Macedonian, in Macedonia a Bulgarian… Being an ethnic ‘bastard’ or ‘schizophrenic’ is my natural choice, I even consider it a sign of mental and moral health. And I know that I am not alone. Violent, stubborn insitence on national identities has provoked a response: today many young citizens of former Yugoslavia, particularly those scattered throughout the world, stubbornly refuse any ethnic labels.

So, although Ugrešić was born in what is now Croatia, and so her book counts for my purposes as a book from Croatia, I should be careful not to label her as a ‘Croat writer’. But then it was never the intention for this challenge that the books and writers chosen should be taken as representative of those countries — or not in a straightforward way. In the context of this challenge, that dynamic between books and countries is quite interesting, but I think it needs a post of its own.

The essays are fascinating. They communicate a sense of an overwhelming cultural trauma, not just because of the war itself but because of the whiplash speed of the changes as all the ex-Yugoslavs created new identities for themselves. Streets were renamed, history rewritten, the literary canon divvied up.

And it wasn’t simply an assertion of a new positive identity for, for example, Croatia, it was necessarily a rejection not just of Serbia and Bosnia but of Yugoslavia. So the country where all of them had lived their whole lives, and which had been an imperfect but functional state for over 80 years, became a ‘prison of nations’, and anyone who questioned this was suffering from the dangerously subversive ‘Yugo-nostalgia’.

This is from the title essay:

I know of a writer colleague who claimed to a foreign journalist that he was ‘the victim of repression’ under Yugo-communism, that his books were banned, and that he had been in prison. That colleague was never in prison nor was he ‘the victim of repression’ and all his books were regularly published. I do not believe that he was lying. Exposed to media brainwashing, terror by forgetting and collective compulsion, my colleague had simply forgotten his personal history, he carried out an unconscious mental touching-up, and in the general context the spoken lie became an acceptable truth. And after all, the foreign journalist had come to hear just such a story, in his Westerner’s head he already carried such a stereotype: the story of a repressed writer in the former communist regime and a happy end in the new, democratic one.

I know of a Zagreb Japanologist who terrorised the whole Yugoslav cultural scene for years with — Japan! Throughout the whole of former Yugoslavia there sprang up haiku circles, haiku poets, ikebana courses, anthologies of Japanese poetry, twinnings between Osaka and Varaždin, festivals of Yugoslav haiku poets. Thanks to the activity of the aforementioned Japanologist, the inflation of haiku poetry during ‘totalitarianism’ had given us all a ‘pain in the neck’. Today the famous Japanologist claims that under the ‘Tito regime’ he was exposed to repression because of … haiku poetry!

We have always been at war with Eastasia.

The essays approach this central subject from various directions — the metaphor of cleanness and cleansing, the relationship between eastern and western Europe, the kitschiness of nationalist aesthetics, pop music — and they are all well-written, thought provoking and rather quotable. But instead of typing out long extracts I’ll just suggest you read it yourself.

Oddly enough, while reading it my mind kept wandering to the possibility of Scottish independence (which, for those who don’t know, is likely to be subject to a referendum sometime soon). In some ways it’s a ridiculous comparison; however the referendum turns out, I’m quite sure it won’t result in civil war and genocide. But there’s something depressing about the idea that after 300 years of the Scots and English managing to live together,† not always harmoniously but not disastrously either, we should have reached a point where we can’t bear to share a national border. And the shift from an intentionally inclusive (if ill-defined) identity like British to narrower, more exclusive, more ethnically specific identities like English or Scottish seems more likely to make us, if anything, more inward-looking and more parochial. But hopefully I’m wrong.

*or at least the first, main phase of those wars; there was the whole Kosovo thing after that.

†yes, I know, the Welsh and [northern] Irish live here too. But somehow I don’t think there are many Scots lobbying for independence because they want to get rid of the Welsh.

The Golden Boat by Srečko Kosovel

According to the dust jacket, Srečko Kosovel is ‘often called the Slovene Rimbaud’.* Mainly, as far as I can gather, because he wrote all his poetry very young; not, like Rimbaud, because he decided to run off and do something else, but because he died at 22.

I found The Golden Boat: Selected Poems of Srečko Kosovel while I was browsing through the Salt website, looking for something I could buy to support their ‘Just One Book’ campaign. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and buy it as my book from Slovenia for the Read The World challenge. As a point of geographical and historical pedantry, Kosovel wasn’t actually born in Slovenia. As far as I can gather from the Wikipedia article, Slovenia never existed as an independent nation before June 1991, so anyone born in Slovenia is still under 18 today. Kosovel was born in 1904 in Austria-Hungary and died in 1926 in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which became Yugoslavia three years later).

EDIT — Just to add to the historico-geographical confusion: Tom points out in the comments that Kosovel’s home town was in the part of modern Slovenia that was annexed by Italy after WWI. So he actually died in Italy.

Kosovel wrote in free verse from the start, and if I’ve understood the introduction correctly, he was the first person to do so in Slovenian. But in subject matter and language, as far as one can tell in translation, the early poems are fairly conventional: low-key, atmospheric lyrics which are rooted in the Slovenian landscape, and particularly the Karst,† a rugged limestone plateau where a wind called the burja blows down from the Alps. I rather liked this early work, but I can see that if he had died even younger and these were the only poems that survived, he might not seem to be a particularly significant poet.

On a Grey Morning

On a grey morning
I walk the streets downtown,
the fog cuts into my burning eyes,
it cuts into my throat,
and is cold around my heart.

Then, from the bakeries,
the smell of fresh rye bread,
but the bakeries are still dark,
the street silent, nobody yet around
and I feel tight in my soul.

It is the memory of the Karst:
a village strewn among the rocks
that this black bread reminds me of,
this healthy scent from the bakeries
that smells so much like a caress.

Later his poetry became more avant-garde. He called himself a Constructivist, although apparently the connection with Russian Constructivism is not especially close.‡ Whatever the terminology, he is certainly part of the broader movement of European modernism, of Dada and Surrealism and Futurism and God knows what else. The poems become more fragmented, more opaque, more aggressive, there are sprinklings of mathematical symbols and typographical experimentation with different sized text and vertical text. There is some continuity of theme; the night and moonlight which are such a feature of the Karst poems are still constantly present, the Karst landscape and the burja still appear from time to time. But the poems become wider-ranging, more political. The death of Europe becomes a recurring theme, no doubt a response to having lived through the First World War: Kosovel was too young to fight, but he didn’t have to go war because the war came to him, or the town where he lived as a teenager.

Delirium

A martyrdom of thoughts.
Blue sea.
Grey prison.
A soldier is impaling
hopeless thoughts
on his bayonet
in front of the window

Pardon me. ‘O, nothing.’
Sigaretta.
Eine Edison.

I hear the blue sea
butting monotonously
into my skull

And another example:

The Red Rocket

—–I am a red rocket, I ignite
myself and burn and fade out.
—–Yes, I in the red vestments!
—–I with the red heart!
—–I with the red blood!
—–I am escaping tirelessly, as if
I alone must reach fulfilment.
—–And the more I escape, the more I burn.
—–And the more I burn, the more I suffer.
—–And the more I suffer, the faster I fade out.
—–O, I, who want to live forever. And
I go, a red man, over a green field;
above me, over the azure lake of silence,
clouds of iron, o, but I go,
I go, a red man!
—–Everywhere is silence: in the fields, in the sky,
in the clouds, I’m the only one escaping, burning
with my scalding fire and
I can’t reach the silence.

I enjoyed the poems enough, and found them interesting enough, to be glad I bought the book, though I don’t know that many of them will really stay with me. As ever with poetry in translation, you never quite know what you’re missing, although at least with free verse you don’t have the added complication of the translator having to produce some kind of rhyme and metre in the English. Not that I have any reason to doubt the merits of this translation, by Bert Pribac and David Brooks ‘with the assistance of Teja Brooks Pribac’; I just have doubts about the whole exercise of translating poetry. But perhaps that’s a subject for another day.

*Not, as I keep hearing inside my head, the Slitheen Rambo. Though poetry written by the Slitheen Rambo might be quite interesting, as a piece of xenoanthropology if nothing else.

† Or indeed Kras. Rather like the book about Cyprus I was reading the other day, this is one of those regions where everywhere has several different names in different languages. The translators use Karst, the Germanised form of the name, perhaps for its associations with the kind of geological landscape that is named after it.

‡ I’m just repeating what it says in the introduction at this point. I don’t know enough about Constructivism or its relationship with the many other isms of the time to make that judgement.

» The photo is Škocjan, © inyucho and used under a CC attribution licence. inyucho says: ‘A large collapsed doline, typical for the Kras region from which the term “karst” is derived.’

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić is my book from Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Read The World challenge. I actually had a different writer in mind — Ivo Andrić, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961 — but when I saw this in the bookshop I switched. Mainly because most of the books I’ve been reading are a few decades old, and it’s nice to find one which is fresh out of the oven (published in German in 2006; the English translation by Anthea Bell in 2008).

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone tells the story of Aleksandar Krsmanović, a boy who is growing up in the Bosnian town of Višegrad but flees with his family to Germany in 1992 to escape the war. Since Stanišić grew up in Višegrad and moved to Germany in 1992 as a fourteen-year-old, I assume it is somewhat autobiographical.

The blurb on the back cover compares Stanišić with Jonathan Safran Foer and David Foster Wallace, which gives you some idea of the kind of writer he is: a clever young man who isn’t afraid to leave evidence of his cleverness on the page. There are sections written in different voices, stylistic quirks, elements you might call magical realist, a bit of a book-within-a-book and so on. In fiction there can be a fine line between overtly clever and overly clever, and for the first few chapters I was a bit unsure which side of the line this book falls, but it won me over.

Here’s a fairly randomly picked passage:

My Nena went deaf the day Grandpa Rafik married the river Drina, face down. The marriage was legal because Nena and Grandpa Rafik had been divorced for years, something unusual in our town. After Grandpa Rafik was buried, they say she said at his graveside: I haven’t cooked anything, I haven’t brought anything, I haven’t put on black clothes, but I have a whole book full of things to forgive. They say she took out a stack of notes and began reading aloud from them. They say she stood there for a day and a night, and word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page she forgave him. And after that she said no more, and she never reacted to any kind of question again.

Nena Fatima has eyes as keen as a hawk’s, kyu, ket-ket, she recognises me before I turn into her street, and she wears headscarves. Nena’s hair is a secret — long and red and beautiful, she gave the secret away to me as we sat outside her house eating börek in summer and feeding the Drina with minced meat. Cold yoghurt, salted onions, the warmth of Nena rocking silently as she sits cross-legged. The dough is shiny with good fat. Nena rocks back and forth and lights a cigarette when I’ve had enough. I am the quietest grandson in the world, so as not to disturb her stillness and our sunset. Sultry heat gathers over the river and looks attentively at Nena Fatima, who is humming as she plaits her secret into a long braid. I don’t laugh with anyone as softly as with my Nena, I laugh with her until I’m exhausted, I don’t comb anyone else’s hair.

As I do the Read The World challenge, various themes are recurring; this is the third book I’ve read (along with My Father’s Notebook and The Kite Runner) which is written by a refugee, starts with nostalgic memories of the home country, and then describes the country collapsing and the refugee experience. It is much the best of the three, I think; I did genuinely enjoy The Kite Runner, but it is deeply emotionally manipulative, like watching a Hollywood film about a difficult subject by a skillful but solidly mainstream director. The kind of glossy film on a ‘brave’ subject which is daring enough to win a few Oscars but which you look back on a few years later and think… meh. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is a more interesting book all round; messier, more personal (I think), funnier, sadder. And while I don’t want to overstate the originality of it — it’s been nearly a hundred years since some bright spark invented modernism, FFS — it is at least less of a straight down the line conventional narrative.

» the photo is of the bridge over the Drina in Višegrad that is mentioned in How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone and is also incidentally the eponymous bridge in Ivo Andrić’s novel The Bridge on the Drina. The photo is © blandm and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

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