The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: A palatial resonance

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The winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Award for January / February is

The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare (Collins Harvill, pounds 7.99). Barbara Bray translated Jusuf Vrioni's French version of the original Albanian.

The Palace of Dreams joins three other bi-monthly winners on the shortlist for the pounds 10,000 annual award, which will be announced in July. It is a remarkable and acute allegory of totalitarian life. The Palace itself is a government ministry dedicated to the gathering, classification and analysis of its subjects' dreams. A young man from an ancient family enters the palace and is swiftly embroiled in a battle between his own powerful relatives and the head of state. This is set against a chilling description of the absurd fallout from this grandiose assault on the subconscious life of a nation. Ismail Kadare is Albania's only internationally-known writer. In 1990, having been criticised for 'subjective treatment of history', he left Tirana and now lives in Paris.

The judges were: Jill Neville, Tim Waterstone, Robert Winder and Michael Wood.

'The task of our Palace of Dreams, which was created directly by the reigning Sultan, is to classify and examine not the isolated dreams of 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 interpretation of divine omens - but the 'Tabir' as a whole: in other words, all the dreams of all citizens without exception. This is a vast enterprise, beside which the oracle of Delphi and the predictions of all the hordes of prophets and magicians in the past are derisory. The idea behind the Sovereign's creation of the Tabir is that Allah looses a forewarning dream on the world as casually as He unleashes a flash of lightning or draws a rainbow or suddenly sends a comet close to us, drawn from the mysterious depths of the Universe. He dispatches a signal to the earth without bothering about where it will land; He is too far away to be concerned with such details. 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. For the interpretation of that dream, fallen like a stray spark into the brain of one out of millions of sleepers, may help to save the country or its Sovereign from disaster; may help to avert war or plague or to create new ideas. So the 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 pashaliks, 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 and 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 castrophe necessarily casts its shadow before it long before it manifests itself in real life. It was for that reason that the Padishah decreed that no dream, not even one dreamed in the remotest part of the Empire on the most ordinary day by the most godforsaken creature, must fail to be examined by the Tabir Sarrail. And there's another imperial order that is still more fundamental: the table drawn up after the dreams of every day, week and month have been collected, classified and studied must always be absolutely accurate.'

(Photograph omitted)