Literary space in the novel of Ismail Kadare: The palace of dreams (One semiotic approach)



This research study will be focusing on the social semiotic approach of Ismail Kadare’s novel called “The Palace of Dreams”. We chose this novel to study and analyze since this book is considered to be one of the most important works of Kadare. The palace of dreams novel brings out many aspects of the Albanian society including its governmental abuse of power during the era of Albania’s communist regime. The analyses of literary space in this novel will focus on locating the literary discourse in the text and the spaces of the text that produce discourse with their form, presence and extension. Moreover, we will analyze these spaces where actions were taking place to see if such actions affect the subject's journey (novel character) and if so, at what level. The goal of this research study is to see how and in what way the meaning is transmitted through spaces, and also how and in what form they serve the comprehensive ideas of the novel. Our purpose is not only to highlight the values of this novel, but rather to make it possible to understand the great importance that space plays in people’s work environments and in their private lives (the characters), and how crucial space is for their lives and destinies.

General Information

Keywords: palace, dream, space meaning, personal space, public space

Journal rubric: World Literature. Textology

Article type: scientific article


For citation: Brahaj M. Literary space in the novel of Ismail Kadare: The palace of dreams (One semiotic approach) [Elektronnyi resurs]. Âzyk i tekst = Language and Text, 2019. Vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 6–16. DOI: 10.17759/langt.2019060101.

Full text

Social semiotics also known as social semantics is a new discipline of the field of semiotics which focuses on literary ‘space’ as semiotics’ most important object. Thus, in the dictionary of Greimas and Courtés we can notice that the construction of a space object can be observed from a geometric point of view or from a psycho-physiological point of view...which means that space with its form and extent is already an object that carries and conveys meaning, symbolically marking a certain reality which can be seen as a body that exists to communicate. [ 2 ]

The theory of Greimas began during the sixties (1966, p. 174 – 185 and 192 – 212) by proposing the actantial model based on Propp's theories. [ 2 ]  The actantial model is a device that is theoretically used to analyze any real or thematic action, particularly those actions depicted in literary texts or images. In the actantial model, an action may be broken down into six components, called actants. Actantial analysis consists of assigning each element of the action which is described in various actantial classes. [ 10 ] This theory has six actants which are divided into three oppositions. The axis of desire - (1) subject versus (hereinafter ‘vs.’) (2) object: where the subject is directed towards the object. The axis of power - (3) helper vs. (4) opponent: here the helper assists in achieving the desired junction between the subject and object, whereas, the opponent obstructs. The axis of communication (the axis of knowledge, according to Greimas) - (5) sender vs. (6) receiver: where the sender is the element requesting the establishment and success of the junction between the object and subject. [ 3]  As aforementioned, based on this theory we will analyze Kadare’s novel “The Palace of Dreams” by using both, the Albanian version [ 6] and also the English version [ 7]  of the book. Considered to be one of the first texts ever written and published overtly and indirectly against the Albanian communist regime, this novel was immediately banned and censured when it was first published in Albania, back in 1981. Albania was ruled by a dictator named Enver Hoxha for over four decades (between 1945 to 1985), hence, this hallucinatory novel unfolds as an extended parable of the dictatorship which controlled the lives of Albanian citizens by emblematically monitoring their ‘dreams’ at that time too. Built on the basis of analogy by pointing to the power of the Ottoman Empire Kadare’s novel, it in fact talks about the communist regime in Albania.

Mark Alemi is the type of character in the novel who essentially works in the bureau world of ‘sleeping’ and ‘dreaming’. This person collects, sorts and analyzes tens of thousands of dreams duly reported by an abject, who portrayed as a compliant to a state that declares the interpretation of a dream fallen like a stray spark into the brain of one out of millions of sleepers, dreams to help save the country or its Sovereign from disaster. Assisted by his powerful uncle named the Vizier who was a State minister, Mark Alemi enjoys a meteoric rise in the dream palace. Due to his failure to decipher the real meaning of political dreams, however, the State takes an opportunity to lash out against his patriotic but yet aristocratic family, by executing his family members and leaving behind a pile of corpses. In other words, in the "palace of dreams" even the closest members of the palace were eliminated if they did not do the job properly or if they were seen as a risk to the State. The palace of dreams, called “Tabir Saray” in the book, is a place with an absolute control of power which portrays the totalitarian power of a Sate. In short, this novel speaks about communism in Albania through the symbolic parabolas, and through ways in which the dictator violates the rights of his own population, who were metaphorically not allowed to breathe freely or even dream freely.

Furthermore, this novel will be interpreted based on the theory of space semiotics alternating with Greimas theory since this theory will help interpret the symbolism of the novel and its ideas. This text has spaces which talk in a unique language, one that has special signs and meanings.

Recognizing space in text is important since the spatial discourse was seen as one of the most peculiar and the most important discourse in social semiotics. This discourse produces meaning and is considered to be a separate discourse in modern literature theories. Gianfranco Marrone states that "in the case of space, the system and the meaning of the process can be denied since it is not easy to talk about textuality, and above all it is difficult to talk about its borders. Rather, decisions about spatial boundaries of the text in some ways are supposed to be the basic text act. As such, it is clear that space, except for its senses has an effective symbolism which brings semantic and somatic changes in within a text."  [ 12] 

This way of looking at space is a novelty where such novelties can be applied to literary texts, in turn, producing and maintaining space. A semiotic observation of this nature in the literary work reveals deeper sides which in analysis of different nature do not get noticed. The same analysis will be completed here with Ismail Kadare’s "Palace of Dreams" work. This paper will demonstrate spaces in the text where literary discourse was set up and, where spaces as text produce the discourse with their form, presence and extent. All things considered, “the same place takes different importance and markings according to the points one chooses to observe. These points may be "subjective" of an individual located at a certain point in the space of the novel in question or "objective" that considers space without taking into account the concrete human experience.” [11] The point and the relationship that the subject creates with literary space is also one that determines meaning and the role of that space. This research will further analyze whether spaces affect the path of the subject or the figure of the novel character, and if so at what level? On one hand, how deep is the sense transmitted through them, and on the other hand, how much and at what level do they serve the comprehensiveness and ideals of the work [ 5]  and  [ 1]  

1.         Space in Text and its Types

Space in text has its role and importance but, in literary discourse especially, space plays an even greater importance. In the literary work boundaries, space becomes first–hand since here space is ‘the place where events take place’. This fact is found in Yuri Lotman's study which focuses its observation on the space where the events take place, and the importance of space as a geographical extension. A couple of questions may be asked when thinking about space and its style: on one hand, how much has space and its style changed over the history of literature? And on the other, in observing different literary works, how much of it has remained essential for understanding literary texts and their symbolism? Lotman states that these spaces often do not only have a structural function of the work, but they also carry a moral function in giving the message. “Moreover, notions of moral value and of locality fuse together, as places have a moral significance and morals have a localized significance. Geography becomes a type of ethics in literary space; therefore, "any movement in geographical space is significant in the religious and moral sense. In medieval literature, a person's journey to hell or to heaven is always thought of in geographical terms. This explains the composition of “La Divina Commedia...” [ 8, p.172]

In particular books, events taking place are located in certain spaces. These events include particular societal moves which talk about the connection between space where the particular work is developed and the work of art that is created as part of such spaces. Different books may include the content of the amount spent on a certain space where the story is taking place, and the depth of the relationship between work and the country reflected in the novel. Wellek and Warren claim that “literature reflects life, and life is in itself a social reality. Literature "imitates" "life" and "life" is, in large measure, a social reality, even though the natural world and the inner or subjective world of the individual have also been objects of literary "imitation." [14, p. 89]

According to this statement, we may claim that the action figures of the work are those that live in literary space and are in contact with such spaces which help or prevent them from realizing their goals. Space and the society in literary work are closely related to each other, therefore, in many cases the society is the space where stories begin. In other cases literature is the one that presents the society as self-created space. Such examples help us understand that space in literary work is created by discourse. If we refer to the "Dream Palace" novel as a topic taken for discussion, we will see that space in this particular novel is broad and it seems almost infinite. The main events are placed in one part of this space. However, in this case there are other places as part of space which include a long ranged empire going to distant lands, from Fushë Kosovë (in Kosovo), the Balkans, Bulgaria all the way to central Albania. These sites are evoked and behaved as part of the text through dreams as well, which dreams have their own space in the novel in question as they express the expansion of the empire, making space the root of this literary work.

As we can see, space is one of the most important components of literary work, the approach of one that varies from one novel to the other or as Lotman says; one that from time to time has changed our point of view in the geographic aspect of literary works. Scientific thinking of the modern era has changed our experience of geographical space. The asymmetry of geographical space and its close link to our general picture of the world have resulted in our modern way of thinking of geographical space as a domain of semiotic modeling. When we use different labeling concepts such as the East and West, we make the renaming of geographical places significant for literary space. “It is easy to make geography symbolic of literary space as for example; a geographical point becomes important when a particular event occurs in certain geographical areas where there are persistent wars or national and religious conflicts; or in a place where significantly different values or different national traditions are located. The history of geographical maps is the notebook of historical semiotic.” [8, p.177] In support of Lotman's thoughts, we have explored literary space and its types within the text, hence, we consider space within literary work to be one of the most important components of structural, symbolic and conceptual construction of the work.

1.1.      Personal Space

The body of a human being with its space is no longer a body as an organism only today, but rather a social body put together with a physique, as it was defined by the social semantics who have worked in this aspect.[11] Thus, the human body is part of the society. A human being’s working body lives in a social space where it creates its own space, it does so, on the basis of her/his relationship with it, but not only; she/he creates spaces on the basis that she/he considers personal too.Wherever we have physical persons, we also have these phenomena. The same applies to literary work, where in this novel Mark Alemi is the central character of the work that has his personal spaces where he lives and works too. But, what are those spaces and how many of them are there? Also, do we really have such spaces?

Although, Mark Alemi is an artistic figure that is portrayed in the novel with his physical features too. The social boundaries that he creates with the other acting figures in the work are of different kinds, they vary depending on his relationship with them such as:

1) Close boundaries, these are cases which include: family spaces and his meetings with his mother;

2) Little space boundaries: here is the case that includes moments with his uncles;

3) Distant places such as: the ones that are only work related spaces and spaces of people that he works with, which spaces are rare in this book. These are spaces with his supervisors and controllers with whom he has meetings and small exchanges, which spaces become closer during coffee breaks and

4) Highly remote spaces: these are spaces or boundaries between him and the main directorate.

Moreover, personal spaces are scarce throughout the operating space of this figure. He surely does have his own personal space but one that is very limited; hence, such space shows his shrunk and suppressed personality in the novel. He lives in an imperial state and its power is such that narrows one’s individual freedom, where the person in question does not do what he wants to do, but he has to do what he is told to do so, in other words he has to do the things that are commanded to him. The character of this novel gradually leaves his personal spaces, he leaves the space of his home, he abandons it and instead of being rewarded he ends up being punished for it. As Lotman says “There are many interesting consequences of this fusion of geographical and ethical space. First of all, the motivation to leave home is often not a personal one but rather, it is the need to seek reward for virtue or punishment for vice.” [8, p.172] In this novel, there is also the semi-personal space (which is shared with family members) of the Mark Alemi figure in his house only and in one case in his personal room. In the first case he evokes it with his remembrance in the environment of his workplace “….Through his thoughts he remembered his big house in the Royal Road, and his powerful tribe who often gathered in the afternoon in the great chamber of friends”, a short fragment taken from the book. [6, p.9] And in the second case he is in his home on only one single vacation day: “He stretched shortly and then, removed the hair net and rose from the bed…” book fragment. [6, p. 109 – 111]

1.2. Social Spaces

Social spaces, although more distant and less desirable, occupy most of the action spaces in this book. The novel figure comes from a particular house and is in search for a job in an institution, which makes one understand that he is looking for a good governmental job. Once he reaches this goal and gets employed in the governmental institution, he spends his time mostly in the workplace environment, in his spaces. Metaphorically speaking, in such wars, the strongest and the hostile one wins thus, the character in this novel is part of these events and spaces. He has his own life, but whose life others lead, including spaces and other phenomena. He is in search of an escape from lonely spaces which escape he gradually achieves. In the beginning the work space takes a good part of his time which he initially desires, but over time this space becomes compelling. He is obliged to work overtime- “And you, Mark Alemi, you will work overtime tonight”. [6, p. 93] Fragment taken from the book. This situation becomes an inseparable part of Mark which he accepts it in the absence of any other alternatives. Such States rule an individual forcing to become alienated. Be that as it may, how does the State achieve such goals? By using its “weapons” where one of them is the work space. In other words, it is the State that sacrifices or limits ones freedom. In this case, there comes a moment where the character gets only one day off which he doesn’t like, therefore, after a while he decides not to take a single day off work.

1.3. Topic spaces

As previously mentioned, topic spaces are somewhat of a mixture of two types of spaces (personal and social spaces), since topic areas are nothing but spaces where the hero acts. [4, p. 86 – 89] These are spaces in which the heroes pass their obstacles and ultimately triumph or fail. They are such spaces where different characters operate, including the hero in question. This happens due to the possession of different functions which are classified as follows:

1.3.1. Paratopic spaces

Paratopic spaces are ones where the acting subject is equipped with respective competencies in order to continue his/her narrative journey. Without such competencies we cannot have the journey or the narrative, as this is seen not only on literary works of Greimasi, but it is also seen in semiotics and social semiotics of different discourses. [9, p. 49 – 50] In this narrative we have several types of space:

1. The space where he takes competency “to take”- he takes this competency from the family space and is ready, in terms of liking, to continue. Affected, by other subjects present in that shared action space, he takes the ‘wanting to do’ competency, in other terms known as, the axis of desire: “- So you entered the Tabir Saraj, - said the great uncle to Mark Alemi, who had finally finished his confession. – You finally decided. - We all decided together, - said Mark’s mother”- book fragment. [6, p. 52]

2. The competency space where “you have to do”-  the subject in question takes this competency in the environment of the dream palace and is in need of knowing what he “has to do” narrative: these are selective work spaces where he gets familiarized with the things that ‘he has to do’, in order to continue. Here we also have to do with the axis of desire.

3. The spaces where the subject is equipped with a “knowing how to do it” narrative- these are selective work spaces where he is familiarized with different things that he will do. As it is described in the novel “That week, as his boss had ordered him, he spent half of his working days in every Selection hall for the purpose of familiarizing himself with the employment process”. [6, p. 42] The subject is in some way lacking other necessary space competencies in this case such as, the axis of power competency.

4. The “to be able to do” narrative- the subject here learns to do his work and in turn, he can or is able to complete the tasks assigned. This narrative once again affirms the multi-functionality of different literary spaces taking place in the novel based on subjects and situations. Furthermore, when the subject has the power or is able to complete the task, the space narrative of the axis of power competency is completed.

1.3.2. Heterotopic spaces

Heterotopic spaces are important in every narrating space. Heterotopic spaces are all of those spaces where the signing contracts between the subject and the consignee take place. Heterotopic spaces in this book describe the parties which agree on the realization of a certain performance and which parties in the end, based on Mark’s performances, reach an approval. The role of the consignor in this case is precisely the space which equipped the subject with the ‘you have to do’ narrative, since this contract in question, is in other words an order. The headquarters of the palace signs the contract and the subject is obliged to do as they have agreed. The following sentence of the book supports this narrative“…but one thing you shall never forget, my son, the request for keeping a secret. This is not just a request. This is a grand order of Tabir Saraj. And now start working…Congratulations!” [6, p.19] This space will follow Mark through the entire narrative program, including parts of his program realization. This part of the program includes spaces that will send help to tell him how to continue his journey on one hand, and spaces that will help his journey according to his goals and interests, on the other. This indication brings us to an understanding of the axis of knowledge narrative.

1.3.3. Utopic spaces

Places or spaces where the performance is reached are differently called utopic spaces. In the palace of dreams, these include spaces where the subject performs, works and acts at his workplace in the palace. For the text extensions the utopic spaces are the largest. The subject and his journey remains one of the main spaces in this book. The essence of the subject in these spaces is constituted based on his performance. By standing there, the subject reveals spaces that show the way a State and empires function in maintaining and realizing their State power.

1.4. Dream spaces

This novel is a literary work dedicated to dreams, where all its discourse revolves around unrealistic dreams. In it there is the palace in the center, an institution, and the whole empire that deals with dreams. We have the whole space with all its forms and shape that deal with dreams only. This is basically the whole essence of the novel. What is a dream nonetheless? - A dream is essentially an illusive reality, a desire, and a personal matter. At the same time, what happens when the state interferes in such private matters? These individual dreamers and if their dreams are against the State, the dictating state denounces them and it destroys or shatters them. Therefore, dreams become the cause of persecution and extermination for individuals in such cases. In this novel, the controlling state deals with citizen’s collection, selection and interpretation and the whole process becomes strict for the purpose of keeping its citizens under control and observation. In this novel, spaces of the whole state serve these objectives, including persecution, as a terrible and an obscure nightmare. Whereas, the dream in essence is freedom, the empire in this novel is against individual freedom. In short, this novel portrays the power of struggle against the individual, followed by the war for complete destruction all the way to one’s mysterious extermination by the totalitarian regime of a state.

2.  Space as a text

Space with its forms, layout and composition is viewed as a text which produces and conveys meaning. Space can take on many roles as it all depends on the narrating program and the form of spaces that the subject carries. Such narrating programs also depend on whether they are in the subject’s favor or not. Space, in the case of the subject taken as a study, has many functions, and in its forms these spaces take different roles. Our subject has a narrative program that is clear, a program that starts to be realized in a certain way where the premises of the palace come out as: deceiver- as a manipulator and dispatcher- adjudicator (directorate office), as the directorate is the one that leads and orders. The directorate plays with the subjects in this novel as if they were dolls by sending them where they please. This is an institution of a country unfolding in the eyes of the subject with all its sides. The auxiliary part is the working environment: selections, archive and interpretation. Moreover, the subject’s barriers or anti-subjects are: dark halls, multiple closed doors and doors with no names on them. These spaces are used by the exterminator to hinder other subjects in furtherance of wanting to show greater superiority and power.

3.  Types of Space


Our subject during his journey is faced with different forms of spaces where he has some rapports with them, such as:

1. Familiar/unfamiliar spaces: in the premises of the palace the subject is faced with familiar and unfamiliar spaces. Where there are known spaces they portray auxiliaries and where there are unfamiliar spaces they portray barriers. Here is another example of it taken from the book “The galleries seemed familiar at times and not so familiar at other times. Not a single door was heard open anywhere.” Or, “Those halls he had never even seen before, in fact, he didn’t even know which side of the palace they belonged to…” [6, p. 73 – 90]

2. Allowed/forbidden spaces: our subject here is faced with allowed and prohibited spaces, where the prohibited ones are quite numerous. He is allowed to go to the selection and interpretation department when he is transferred to the archive, but only by special orders, i.e. “-What are you looking for? – said a stranger. It is forbidden for you to pass here”.  [6, p. 74]

3. The far/close space: when these spaces seem close they are easier to be used and when they are far away such spaces become more difficult. Based on them, sometimes there are easier facilitations to reach the object, in turn, causing confidence and security, other times there are obstacles caused by distant objects which cause fear and doubt, i.e. “And in front of him came a far-sighted reality” “Wondering what is there in the distance”. [6, p. 70 – 103]

4. The up/down space: in the palace there are up and down spaces emphasized in the way the work is designed to function. These spaces have a contagious structure of the bottom up view. The ‘up’ structure is one that reminds you of a hellish structure since it passes through 7 scalable scales as follows: Directorate, Dispatchers, Archive, Interpretation, Selection, Collection and Lunch Room.

            5. The center/periphery space: here the subject knows the bottom/up organizing method of these existing spaces in the palace, therefore, he somewhat understands the spaces center/periphery. The dispatcher is also the center, while others gradually go according to their functions towards periphery.

          6. The light/dark space: this particular space is sometimes influenced not only by its shape, but also by other elements including the elements of light becoming an obstacle or aid based on its presence or absence. These spaces in the palace are also illuminated by numerous lights (workrooms), but those spaces take us to complete darkness too, as they include halls and corridors to the exit of the semi-dark archive, i.e. “The dimming light of the lanterns is lost in the distance”.  [6, p. 101]

7. Doors that open/doors that do not open: this controversy is probably the most highlighted and the most important one in the novel. An open door is a helping perspective, whereas, a closed one is the opposite, i.e. “There were doors on all sides. Mark Alemi pushed the doors forward one after the other, until one of them opened…”.  [6, p. 8]

8. Labeled and unlabeled spaces: these are spaces that cause even more confusion bringing greater barriers for the subject. This is more pronounced with the doors that do not show differences between them because they are all the same in appearance and are not known in the status or function, but logic itself says that they should not be the same. He is faced with closed and unlabeled doors every time he leaves the room, and whenever he is told to go somewhere, he is confused by unguarded places, i.e. “The hall was long and gloomy. The doors appeared in dozens, high and with no numbers”. [6, p. 9]                             

4. Meaning and Function

All of these forms and types of literary spaces in this novel, as said above have, have one meaning as they are used for one purpose only. The meaning and function of this literary work is used in service of the basic idea of the novel. These unrecognized, unlabeled, banned, distant, obscure, unattended, and closed spaces convey the message of individual’s strict limits. The individual is in service of the State as a center piece, where they convey the idea of the tyrannical, the invincible, the fearsome, and mysterious State, being in control of it with a hand that is strong, torturing, and a dominant one that commands them all. This space portrays such subjects where the tyrant can once reward, and then punish them. This is about the palace as a weapon of power where you stand up, and then fall. All of these spaces are a major obstacle for any subjects that attempt to work in it; they are spaces portrayed as obstacles for every individual inside or outside of the palace. Furthermore, the subject in question turns into a phantom that cannot act according to his own wishes within the novel. He works in a space that makes him feel dreadful due to the object’s sights. From the position of the subject in these spaces we understand the institution, the state. The subject reveals the dark side of an imperial and totalitarian power where the individual’s right to freedom, to dream or act, is violated, not only one’s rights who are out of their power, but rather the rights of those who are part of their service.

This novel is built on the basis of analogy, pointing to the power of the Ottoman Empire. Thanks to the linguistic and spatial traces (infrastructure and architecture of the palace corresponding to those of the city center of Tirana and the Ministry of Interior, [6, p.  201 – 231] which the author purposely keeps in text, this analogy addresses the totalitarian communist regime in Albania. Through the empire explanation we come to the true story, that of the totalitarian power as intended by the author. This analogy shows that this novel is unique and universal at the same time, since this work corresponds with many totalitarian powers in the world. These mysterious spaces of governmental institutions exercising unlimited power over individuals, describe spaces of totalitarian powers around the world which existed throughout the history of mankind. In this novel, power is the one that uses space against the subject, for his/her purposes, such as: for control, domination, abuse of power, and violence in all respects. As a result, the subject in this book is submissive, weak, obstructed, imprisoned and has no freedom, and where even his dreams are crushed. The subject thinks that he has a program where he targets a valuable object; as a matter of fact, he aims at freedom of action, but he never achieves this goal because he is used and consumed by the spaces described in the novel. Therefore, this literary space has been used to show punishment, lack of freedom, persecution of individuals to their smallest details, taking those details away and leaving Mark with nothing. In other words, the totalitarian regime rules with its space, which space is also totalitarian, dominant and violent. The space has precisely the same function just like the totalitarian power to which it belongs.


5. Conclusion

Space is an essential element of literary work where by observing space with this method, this study highlights the symbolic function of space and its possible ways and forms that literary space may have in function of one or more ideas of the work. This study also observed how space can take roles which depend on the narrative program that the subject has, and whether the forms of space are in his favor or not. In the reviewed novel, we saw that literary spaces in the text and the place where the events took place were totally against the character. There were more unknown, distant, dark and unnamed areas which brought Mark Alemi to complete failure and personal collapse.

       This study observes how space of literary work designed for the subject(s) acting in it can greatly affect the achievement of its overall perfection. The symbolism of space goes along with the conceptual-sense construction of the whole work as it affects the formation of its narrative and its narrative path. Furthermore, space with its forms and extension are viewed as separate text that produce and transmit meaning. Such meaning suggests ideas and builds sub-textual messages. The construction based on space and other elements in this novel makes one understand that this literary work was built on the basis of analogy and symbolic parabolas. In conclusion, this novel is the war of power against individuals, an attempt for power hungry leaders to cause complete destruction over an individual leading all the way to his/her mysterious extermination.


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Information About the Authors

Manjola Brahaj, PhD, University of Tirana, Moscow, Russia, e-mail:



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