• Friday, June 24th, 2022

Ismail Kadare was born into a non-religious family in Gjirokastër in Southern Albania in 1936. His father was a civil servant and his mother was from a wealthy family. He went to primary and secondary schools in Gjirokastër, followed by language studies at the University of Tirana in the faculty of history and philology, where he obtained a teaching diploma in 1956. He continued his studies at the Maxim Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow until 1960.

Kadare was a member of the Albanian parliament from 1970 to 1982. Following strife with the authorities in 1975 over a politically satirical poem, he was not allowed to publish any of his work for three years. He was accused by the president of the league of Albanian Writers and Artists of intentionally avoiding writing about politics by writing mainly about history and myths, thus missing the point that Kadare preferred using these means as an allegory to tackle the current political issues without fearing repercussions.

Being an eminent figure in Albania since the sixties, Kadare sought and obtained asylum in France before the fall of communism in his country. He stated: “Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible … The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship”. Since 1990 he has lived both in Paris and Tirana.

Ismail Kadare is a prolific writer, having written a collection of poetry, essays and short stories. His books have been translated into several languages; in 1992, he won the Prix Mondial Cino Del Duca and in 1998, he was the first Albanian to be presented with the prestigious French Legion d’Honneur. In 2005 he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 he won the Prince of Asturia Award of Arts. He has frequently been a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Palace Of Dreams or Tabir Sarrail has been translated into several languages. It was first published in Albania in 1981 and in English in 2008. In 1982 the Hoxha government banned the book for indirectly attacking the communist regime. The Palace Of Dreams is considered Kadare’s masterpiece and the one among all his books he is pleased to have written.

The story is set during an unspecified period of the Ottoman Empire reigned over by a sultan in an autocratic Balkan realm having Albania as its centre. Many years before, the country’s early sovereign created an establishment called Tabir Sarrail or The Palace Of Dreams. This bureaucratic institution is still operating when the novel begins several years later.

The Palace Of Dreams’ primary purpose is to go through all the dreams the empire’s citizens submitted. Several employees studied, analysed and interpreted them to select the Master Dream to be presented to the sultan each week. That is the one dream chosen by the experts that could be vital for the future running of the empire and helps its functioning. However, great caution is required to ensure that some prefabricated dreams used politically to influence certain state decisions are detected and reported.

The reserved, meek young protagonist, Mark-Alem Quprili, has a double-barrelled name; the first name is western, the second one is vaguely Muslim, and his mother’s family name Quprili refers to the Albanian three-arched bridge. Mark-Alem comes from an illustrious privileged family. His uncle, the vizier, finds him a position in the palace of dreams to secure the family’s interests from within against the governing authorities. Because the uncle says to his nephew: “The Tabir Sarrail had recently been playing a more important rôle in matters of State … Whosoever controls the ‘Master Dream’ holds the keys to the state”. Throughout history and at various times, the Quprili ancestors were at the head of the empire, which brought them misfortune often because they were redoubtable and mistrusted.

Working in the palace of dreams, Mark-Alem finds himself like a cog in a big wheel, a nightmarish world with mazes of umpteen dark, gloomy corridors, locked, unmarked doors, whispers and footsteps sound. A Kafkaesque universe of civil servant bureaucrats cut off entirely from the real world.

Despite his boredom and lack of interest, Mark-Alem endeavours to take his work seriously; nonetheless, he fails to detect the dream submitted to him twice in which several indications were targetting his family, that he overlooked and consequently will harm the Quprilis before they resurface again, like a phoenix from the ashes, taking their revenge and becoming mighty.

In the story’s surreal atmospheric, perplexing world, the author describes in simple and yet powerful language and through casual remarks and innuendos his grim perception of an oppressive dictatorial administration referring to the then Enver Hoxha regime in Albania. A competent, skilful accomplishment of anti-despotism and exploitation.

Ismail Kadare’s Palace Of Dreams is also reminiscent of the English writer George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen-Eighty-Four novel, which demonstrates the outcome of the despotism of a society run under tight repressive supervision of people’s behaviour inside the society.

Kadare uses fables and history in his books, as he also did in The Siege (which we read and discussed in our Book Club in 2012) as a shield against the repressive authorities. He masterfully interlaces remote historical times, folk stories and realities in his books in a convincing way, letting the reader reach his own interpretation of what is behind the story’s message. The totalitarian regime understood Kadare’s message targetting Hoxhism, which was why the novel was banned upon publication.

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• Friday, May 27th, 2022

Nina George was born in Bielefeld, Germany, in 1973. In 1991 she quit her studies without finishing high school and worked in catering before becoming a freelance journalist, magazine columnist and managing editor for a wide range of publications.

Nina George is a prolific writer; she has published novels, mysteries, non-fiction and many short stories. Her work consists of books written under various names: Nina George, Anne West and Jean Bagnol. In 2012 and 2013, she won the Friedrich Glauser prize for a German-language crime novel.

In May 2015, Nina George was elected to the board of the German Pen and is now an official adviser on the topic of authors’ rights. In 2019 she was elected President of the European Writer’s Council and was re-elected for 2021 to 2023.

Nina George and her husband, the writer Jens Johannes Kramer, live between Hamburg and their cottage in Concarneau in the Finistère department of Brittany in north-west France.

The Little French Bistro was first published in German in 2010 and in English in 2017. It is Nina George’s second novel after The Little Paris Bookshop, published in German in 2013 and English in 2015 and was read and discussed in our Book Club in 2017.

The Little French Bistro’s main character is the German sixty-year-old housewife, Marianne Lanz, who has been married to Lothar Messman for forty-one years. He is an old-fashioned chauvinist, a tight-fisted and egoistic sergeant-major in the German army. Neglected and often admonished by her unloving husband, the dispirited Marianne tries and fails an attempted suicide in the river Seine after quietly leaving her husband in a restaurant in Paris during their holiday.

While in the nurses’ office in a Parisian hospital after being rescued from the waters of the river Seine, Marianne comes across a striking coloured painted square tile used by the nurses as a place-mat. It depicts the ocean view of Kerdruc, a small Brittany port in the north-western-most region of France, jutting out into the Atlantic ocean. She sets her mind to end her life by drowning in the ocean of this beautiful location. However, once in Kerdruc, everyday happenings make her repeatedly postpone her suicide for the next day. She is employed in the kitchen of the Ar Mor restaurant and sympathises with all the villagers around her.

Surrounded by an array of warm-hearted, convivial and different types of indigenous people, Marianne gets better as she starts seeing clearer in her mind and heart. For the first time, she feels free and finds time to learn slowly about herself and her needs in life. Deep feelings that have been buried all these years, shared with an authoritarian, unfeeling, heartless husband, resurface.

In this idyllic place, she finds love, peace and comfort with the handsome Breton artist, Yann Gamé from Armor, the tile painter of the magnificent view of the Kerdruc’s harbour she owns and treasures. She decides that it is never too late to start a new life – even at her age – afresh with Yann because as long as there is hope, there is a future. Marianne, who went on a journey intended for death, discovers a second chance and a marvellous potential new life reaching out to her for the taking.

Nina George’s writing is clear, vivid and lovingly descriptive; we can almost taste and savour the seafood, smell the ocean breeze, hear the French folkloric music with the accordion playing and share the fabulous French “joie de vivre” in this remote part of France called the end of the world. Unfortunately, the author preferred to introduce multiple characters to her reader while neglecting to depict the characters in depth.

The story conveys a fairy-tale world of Alice in Wonderland, looking through the glass to find a friendly, peaceful, unreal world that she never imagined existed, combined with Cinderella being saved by her fairy godmother and finding her prince charming after years of hardship and slavery.

The author includes a magical realism phenomenon in her story: Marianne, who has spiritual powers, and a birthmark proving her Celtic Druid origin, further enhances the simile and, in return, explains her attachment to this chosen Celtic place in Brittany to spend what is left of her years.