Review by Sho Spaeth
In The Palace of Dreams, Ismail Kadare describes a dream in which dead regimes lie in wait in a special hell, biding their time until they might be revived, essentially the same, with only their insignia and flags changed; the dreamer imagines the State of Herod rising again and again, forever, merely stopping for a new coat of paint after each demise. The dream is meant, in Kadare’s novel, as a provocation, an anonymous shot fired at a government so repressive that it monitors its subjects’ dreams. But such a provocative image can take on a life its creator never intended, and this dream serves rather well as a description of Egypt’s modern history; after all, the Egyptian people overthrew over 40 years of dictatorial rule by ousting Hosni Mubarak in 2011, only to return to it three years later under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the autocrat now wears the robes of the guardian of the revolution. Basma Abdel Aziz’s novel The Queue offers a window into how the revolution failed, an achievement made doubly impressive by the fact that novel was completed in 2012, and appears to have eerily predicted the rise of someone like Sisi. The book has been compared to George Orwell’s 1984 and Kafka’s The Trial with good reason; Abdel Aziz, a psychologist, has stated that her aim was to illustrate the psychological games authoritarian governments play with their subjects, and there are echoes of Josef K.’s bewilderment and Winston Smith’s education in the novel’s protagonist, Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed. Yet Elisabeth Jaquette’s lucid translation of Abdel Aziz’s words makes visible to a new cadre of readers the way in which The Queue sets itself apart from other books that seek to explain the underpinnings of a repressive state: first, by focusing on the period of transition between authoritarian regimes; and second, by giving readers the unique perspective of how women in particular are affected . . .