“How different it had been when I set out that other time, three months ago, in search of my death…

Even though it stands at a diminutive 91 pages, Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains packs just as strong a punch as his longer works. Set in rural Bohemia against the final days of Germany’s 1945 occupation of Czechoslovakia, the book follows Milos Hrma, a naive and sensitive young railway apprentice, as he returns to work following a suicide attempt. Like all of Hrabal’s work, Closely Observed Trains trips along at a nimble pace, stepping with apparent effortlessness from the entirely absurd and the deadly serious.

“Ghastly, the whole of Dresden’s kaput…. The whole of Dresden’s one torch. This lot climbed into my vans,” he [the train chief] said… And those Germans stood… staring at the ground; maybe they were seeing those last moments when they had leaped out of their windows into gardens and streets, everything cut off from them by falling trees and walls and beams. All those Germans had long arms, hanging now almost to their knees, and all this time not one of them blinked, as though horror had cut off their eyelids. And I had no pity for them, I who had wept over every kid that ever was slaughtered, and everything that suffered distress, I could find no pity now for those Germans. (p. 82)

The war is in its last days and the Germans have lost control of all Czech airspace, but the railway line that passes through the town remains a highly strategic one. Young Milos’ experience of war is distanced, and somewhat secondary to his personal troubles, but there is no glory to what he witnesses – hospice care for fatally burned soldiers; the victim of an aerial dog-fight; German citizens displaced following the firebombing of Dresden; the life-threatening pressure on Milos and the other railway staff to keep the trains running on time; a bullet-ridden, blood-stained train standing by as augury.

There was another close-surveillance transport running through the main line. All the fellows sunning themselves there on the tanks were young boys, just like myself, some of them even younger… but when they passed by that strafed train on the fifth line they froze, struck motionless. As each wagon came into the vicinity of those shattered coaches, consigned to the workshops for repair, every person aboard it froze, even the cooks stopped peeling potatoes, though these soldiers must surely have seen worse things at home, shattered towns, houses, heaps of dead. But just here, and now, and this, they hadn’t been expecting… (p. 56)

No review of Hrabal’s books can ever do his writing justice, or ever adequately express how much I adore his work.  To so seamlessly blend antics worthy of Benny Hill with the personal trauma of a failed suicide with the tensions of the humanity/inhumanity of an invading, all in the kind of casual narrative style you’d find chatting with a chap three beers deep at your local bar, and to make it all engaging is truly a unique feat. The ending is typically Hrabal – it may not leave you feeling happy, but it will leave you feeling.

And the captain’s eyes were gazing now at my wrist, where I too, had a scar; my sleeve had slipped down, and the captain looked at that healed wound like a man reading a book. Perhaps this captain had already learned much more, perhaps he was looking at everything now from the opposite viewpoint… And now they were all staring at my wrist, and the captain stretched out his little whip, and with it drew back my other sleeve, too, and looked at the second scar.
Kamerad,” he said.
And he made a sign, and the close-surveillance military transport slowed down, and the two pistols were withdrawn from my back…
“Go”, said the captain.
“Thank you,” I whispered. (p. 35)

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“What is the truth, then? Could it ever be found when its very roots were in dream?”

The Palace of Dreams is set in a vast Ottoman Empire in the late 19th Century. The central bureaucratic arm of this Empire, larger and more important than any other, is the Tabir Sarrail – the eponymous Palace of Dreams – where dreams from across the Empire are collected, sorted, interpreted, and analysed in order to discover any signs of impending social or political disruption. It is on the basis of these analyses that decisions are made by the Sultan, and the path of the Empire is determined.

DSC08384The novel opens on protagonist Mark-Alem’s first day of work at the Tabir Sarrail – a job secured only through his family name.  Mark-Alem is a member of the Quprili family, an illustrious ethnic Albanian family. Many of Mark-Alem’s ancestors have held positions of great power and influence in the Empire, but an equal number have ended up on the losing side of political intrigue – imprisoned, executed, or simply made to disappear by the state. The Quprilis may not have the standing they once did, but the family name still inspires deep respect and fear.

The Tabir Sarrail is vast and complex in every way possible – psychologically in the role it plays in minds of citizens, and physically in both its bureaucratic structure and the actual physical building, as Mark-Alem experiences:

The corridors were all completely deserted… he walked on for a long time hoping to meet someone from whom he could ask the way. But there was no one in sight. Sometimes he would think he heard footsteps ahead of him, round a bend in the corridor, but as soon as he got there the sounds would seem to recede in another direction, perhaps on the floor above, perhaps on that below. …On he went. The passages seemed alternately familiar and strange. He couldn’t hear so much as a door being opened. He went up a broad staircase to the floor above, then came back again and soon found himself on the floor below. Everywhere he met with the same silence, the same emptiness. He felt it wouldn’t be long before he started screaming. (p. 71)

Despite his family prestige, Mark-Alem is an insecure and anxious young man, with little ambition and a lot of naivety. He doesn’t seem particularly curious about the mechanisms of the Palace except for when they present themselves – when he physically stumbles across them, or when someone explicitly explains them to him. Even once he begins to realise that events around him might be being driven by some external force, he allows things to come as they will.  Mark-Alem is placed in a rather advanced position in the Tabir, in the Selection Department – but he finds his work tedious and frustrating, and is frequently frozen by his lack of confidence.

He was obsessed with the idea of making a mistake. Sometimes he was convinced it was impossible to do anything else, and that if anyone got anything right it was purely by chance.
Sometimes he would get frantic with worry. He still hadn’t submitted one decoded dream to his superiors. They probably thought him either incompetent or else excessively timid. How did the others manage? He could see them filling whole pages with their comments. How could they look so calm? (p. 73)

Mark-Alem is an interesting character for a book of this nature. Anxiety and insecurity aren’t strange characteristics for dystopian protagonists, but Mark-Alem differs from others (D503, from Zamyatin’s We, or Winston Smith from Orwell’s 1984), in that he never becomes individually heroic, or develops a clear sense of purpose directly against the Empire. He also lacks a certain sense of individualistic hope that’s typical of most other dystopian protagonists, and there’s quite a deep ambivalence towards the fate of Albania itself.

As for Albania… It grew more and more distant and dim, like some far cold constellation, and he wondered if he really knew anything about what went on there… (p. 188)

As I said in my last post, I’ve been really struggling to put together this little review. For a slender little novel – clocking in at just under 200 pages – it certainly doesn’t skimp on conceptual depth. I’d originally written that I didn’t find it as immediately enjoyable as I was expecting or hoping it to be – but that doesn’t seem quite fairIt’s interesting enough that I read it twice in quick succession, and I feel like it’s going to stick with me for a while. Perhaps my hesitation is down to the specifically Albanian aspect of the book – certainly not a negative, but I felt like there were a lot of subtleties that I missed entirely because I’m not Albanian and I (sadly) only know the very basics of Albania’s political and cultural past.

It’s hard to know how to judge the book fairly though – originally published in Albanian (and swiftly banned, unsurprisingly), it was translated into French by Jusef Vrioni in 1990, then from the French into English by Barbara Bray in 1993. I barely speak French, and I definitely don’t speak Albanian, so the English translation is all I can go by… Translation between languages is a tricky issue at the best of times – can any translation be truly accurate? How does nuance change when we change languages? What of the original is lost when we end up with a copy of a copy?  I enjoyed A Palace of Dreams less than I enjoyed The General of the Dead Army (also translated from Albanian to French, then French into English by Derek Coltman), but I can’t tell whether that’s down to the translation or the book itself – and perhaps that’s all I can say on that.

I would love to see a A Palace of Dreams republished as an annotated edition (with perhaps a new translation, from the original), to help fill out the more specific cultural, historic, and symbolic references in the book – and how the book fits into the wider Kadare oeuvre. The concept is brilliant, the breadth of the concept is brilliant, and the book is only a tiny insight into this world. If you enjoy totalitarian dystopias, particularly with a bureaucratic focus, The Palace of Dreams is a must-read.

In the same way as a plant or a fruit remains under the earth for a while before appearing above ground, so men’s dreams were now buried in sleep; but it didn’t follow that this would always be so. One day dreams would emerge into the light of day and take their rightful place in human thought, experience and action. As for whether this would be a good thing or a bad, whether it would change the world for the better or the worse – God only knew.
Others maintained that the Apocalypse itself was simply the day when dreams would be set free from the prison of sleep… Weren’t dreams after all messages sent from the dead as harbingers? The immemorial appeal of the dead, their supplication, their lamentation, their protest – whatever you cared to call it – would one day be answered in this way.
Others shared this point of view, but provided it with a completely different explanation. When dreams emerged into the harsh climate of our universe, this argument ran, they would sicken and die. And so the living would break with the anguish of the dead, and thereby with the past as well, and while some might see this as a bad thing, others would see it as liberation, the advent of a genuinely new world. (p. 85-86)