Most of Ismail Kadare’s novels are set in Albania, and the same landmarks appear in many of his books: the three-arched bridge, containing its human sacrifice, and the Inn of the Two Roberts, where travelers both innocent and suspect stop for the night. He frequently refers to the famous and still-debated Battle of Kosovo of 1389 (Elegy for Kosovo) and to the official method of Byzantine torture: blinding.
However, Kadare is concerned mainly with human rights, with the lot of the common people throughout history. In fact, he has a standard for assessing the actions of governments—including such things as architectural megaprojects: How will a given action, a government project, affect everyday people? How much will the people, including workers, suffer? These questions frame his novel The Pyramid, in which he deals at length with the inhumane treatment of the workers and the general populace during the construction of the largest pyramid in Egypt four thousand years ago; Kadare’s analysis is so profound that the edifice itself, the pyramid, pales in comparison. In the final paragraphs of the novel, the pyramid becomes transparent, except for the blemish of a bloodstain that can never be washed clean. For Kadare, brutality devalues products of labor.
Kadare realizes that human nature will never change, and that the behavior portrayed in the Greek myths and in William Shakespeare’s dramas continues unabated. There will always be people with a lust for power, and the retention of power will always involve intrigues and misinformation. However, power does not protect those who have it from illness, self-doubts, or senility. Kadare sees everyone’s weaknesses, and he writes with compassion for the human condition. He also sees everyone’s strengths, and his works contain memorable examples of what the human spirit can achieve against all odds. His beautiful legendary story Doruntine portrays the power of love to last beyond the grave.
Kadare considers himself a modern Homer, a storyteller par excellence, and he pays homage in his works to the great tradition of Albanian oral epics. His novel The File on H. is an amusing account of the attempts of two Irish American researchers to better understand Homer’s working method by studying the few remaining itinerant Albanian rhapsodists who convert contemporary events into epic poetry. The researchers do so at a cost. One of them finds that as he imitates the singing tone of the rhapsodists, he also progressively loses his vision, just like the blind, semilegendary Greek poet.
The Palace of Dreams
The Palace of Dreams was banned in Albania because it was seen as a thinly veiled portrayal of Hoxha’s communist reign of terror. This is a simplistically reductive interpretation of the novel. Although set in an Albanian context, the novel addresses universal aspects of the human condition.
The novel begins slowly and gathers speed. The salient features of the main character, Mark-Alem, are his passivity and uncertainty. He lets his influential family decide where he should work, and they even choose his fiancé. Both at work and at home, he assumes that everything is in someone else’s competent hands. When people hint to him that things are not as they should be, he dismisses them as saboteurs. As the novel progresses, Mark-Alem simply watches as his favorite uncle, Kurt, is led away by police, then hears that Kurt has been beheaded. Although Mark-Alem rises rapidly through the ranks and is appointed head of the Palace of Dreams, he does nothing to stop the senseless interrogation of a greengrocer, although he pities the man, and the grocer is eventually carried out in a coffin. While this complacency might seem on the surface to be serious sins of omission, Kadare does not portray them that way. In a novel replete with descriptions of coldness, snow, and ice, Mark-Alem seems permanently frozen with fear. He understands so little about the affairs of...
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