BOOK REVIEW / From the land of plots: 'The Palace of Dreams' - Ismail Kadare trs Barbara Bray: Harvill, 14.99 pounds

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IN 1981, when The Palace of Dreams was published in Albania, Ismail Kadare was the country's pre-eminent writer and President Enver Hoxha was in the process of ridding himself of a Politburo rival Mehmet Shehu (later said to have 'committed suicide at a Central Committee meeting'). 'The country was full of plots,' wrote Kadare, 'the book was immediately banned and I was forbidden to publish for 10 years.' He later went into a voluntary two-year exile in Paris, exasperated with the Communists' belated and inchoate reforms. More a loyal irritant than a Havel, he had published half-a-dozen allusive novels during the Hoxha years: a one-man national literature. But it's not hard to see how this one went too far for the commissars.

Unlike the mechanised systems of Orwell's Ministry of Truth or Zamyatin's Bureau of Guardians, the endless corridors and offices of the Tabir Sarrail - the state's most secret nerve centre - deal in manuscripts. Dream jottings are gathered on horseback from all corners of a version of the Turkish empire. By the anonymous thousand, cowed scribes 'who had probably never even realised that the room they worked in actually had windows' sift and analyse each contribution. Every week the Office of the Master Dream selects a single emblematic manuscript and relays it to the Sultan; the rest are consigned to the archives which stretch under the whole city.

With a repeated recommendation that hangs between menace and patronage ('You suit us . . .'), the officials of the Tabir Sarrail appoint and promote Mark-Alem, a minor member of the ancient Albanian family of Quprili who has added an 'Islamic half-shield' to his name in self-

protective colonial deference. He sinks into the hermetic, parallel world of the dream palace, while his uncle, the Vizier, courts official censure by commissioning a Quprili family epic in Albanian. Mark-Alem believes his position is doomed until, inexplicably, the Quprili stock rises again and he becomes even more powerful than he would wish.

By setting about Albanian nationalism at the heart of a state bureaucracy, Kadare was able to promote national pride while condemning political dictatorship. But The Palace of Dreams has another, more philosophical project: the quest for a perfect record of human events. As Mark-Alem struggles deeper and deeper in the archives, he discovers a catalogue of life in the accumulated dreamings and is overwhelmed by wistfulness. As the Archivist points out, 'old men sigh that life's a dream'; Kadare's delicately misted view of another world (as much internal as totalitarian) lives up to the splendour of his title, replacing any ironic sneer with a cry to 'sleep again'.