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Authors: Ismail Kadare

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

The File on H. (15 page)

BOOK: The File on H.
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They had come across nothing like this special use of time in any other European epic poetry, not even in the Icelandic sagas.

It was March, but the days were still as short and dark as in February. Waiting impatiently for the weather to improve, the Irishmen feared from time to time that the first warmth of spring would take them away from the climate of the epic — for, as they had come to realize, epic weather was always wintry. It was initially rather astonishing that a Mediterranean country like Albania could have engendered a poetic climate that was all north wind and glistening snow and ice. The entire corpus of the epic seemed to crackle underfoot like an icebound field. But epic cold was generous, for the snow never melted sufficiently to reveal the mud underneath, and it struck the scholars that the climate had been specially invented to allow its characters to hibernate and to reawaken years later. At first they had taken it for granted that epic poetry originating at six thousand feet above sea level would necessarily be set in a snow-laden landscape, but as more detailed study of the ballads demonstrated, the characteristic climate of the Albanian epic corresponded to a much higher altitude than that, and it was safe to suppose without risk of error that the action was located in an area situated between twelve and fifteen thousand feet above sea level — halfway between the earth and the heavens.

They had been making more recordings, many of them providing perfect material, and were quite satisfied with their progress. The work was going well. They had succeeded in completing their inventory of instances where the Albanian epics coincided with those of the ancient Greeks, They had identified the equivalents of the House of Atreus and of Ulysses, and beyond that they had found doubles of Circe, Nausicaa, and Medea, as well as figures identical to the Furies and the Eumenides, whom the Albanians called Ora and Zana, They had undertaken further research on the question of forgetting by looking at details such as the rhapsodes diet, including their consumption of phosphorus. (Oddly enough, it turned out that the highlanders
?
diet contained virtually no fish and even less of the minerals, such as phosphorus compounds, that are believed to improve the memory. Any rhapsode offered such nourishment would doubtless have treated it as a magic potion intended either to intensify memory or to annihilate it.) What's more, they had succeeded in recording a ballad sung by a rhapsode who was thought to have committed a murder the previous week (a “blood debt” paid off), though they failed to establish whether or not this experience had exercised any influence on the poem or its delivery.

Despite all these elements, which complicated their task, Bill and Max felt that they had succeeded in weaving the Albanian epic onto the reels of their tape-recording machine. Each morning when they woke, their eyes turned automatically toward its quietly gleaming lid. They liked to remind themselves that the creation of that device was like a miracle. It seemed to have been decreed that the solution of the Homeric enigma had had to wait until tape recorders had been invented.

Thinking such thoughts bolstered their confidence and swept away their doubts. They imagined their predecessors in Homeric studies who, after struggling to pierce the mystery as they were doing, had eventually given up, and become ironical, not to say sarcastic, about their original enthusiasm, about their own gullibility, and about anyone who might try the same research again. But the tape recorder was the Irishmen's rampart against failure and ridicule. Earlier scholars, they assumed, would have solved the puzzle of H. long since had they had a tape recorder to help them. The Irishmen were lucky to be alive at the right time: the key to success had fallen into their lap, and in the last analysis, they were simply carrying out the imperatives of their own time.

They had a dreadful fright one night when they thought that the machine had broken down. It was very late, and they were playing back a recorded tape. All at once the volume rose, then the voice slowed down and trailed off into a croak that sounded like a man dying of apoplexy. Bill and Max went as white as sheets. They could not have been more agitated had they been watching one of their nearest and dearest suffering a stroke. They panicked, paced up and down, tore their hair out, turned the instruction manual inside out, until Max suddenly thought of checking the batteries. Thank the Lord! they sighed with relief, when they realized that the only thing wrong was that the batteries were dead.

However, the croaking drawl of the failing tape stuck in their minds. That must be how the entire machinery of the oral epic had run down: its present voice only muffled the death rattle that could be heard nonetheless. The machine had produced just twelve lines for the year 1878 and had painfully squeezed out only four or five for 1913 like the last words of a delirious patient. The epic was now comatose. There was not much chance that it would come to in time to mumble a few more words before freezing forever in the silence of death.

One nighty they recorded the rumble of thunder over the high mountains and another night, the howling wind. They thought that these noises would help them to recreate the right atmosphere back in New York when they would be working on the tapes at home.

Martin told them one day that he had seen the Serbian monk wandering around the area again; but the scholars hardly remembered whom he was talking about.

Before reporting the significant results of the surveillance carried out this day of the cave known as the Screech Owl's Cavern (or the Hermits Cave, to give it its other name), I should like to remind the governor that in my report oft February I referred to a conversation between the two Irishmen and the Serbian monk Dushan, who in the course of a journey to Shkoder stopped for the best part of half a day at the Buffalo Inn. If I am so bold as to remind you, sir, it is because the significance of the dialogue overheard today at the Screech Owl's Cavern will perhaps be easier to grasp if put in the context of the conversation mentioned above. In addition, prior to giving an account of the later conversation, I
should like to forewarn you, sir
—
and I do this not for the sake of justifying any failings on my part, sir, or to cover up any slackness in my conduct of the surveillance, but solely out of respect for the truth — I must therefore advise you forthwith, sir, that said conversation was closer to the gabbling of a pair of lunatics than to a normal discussion, and that given these circumstances, the governor will naturally understand the extent of the difficulty one has in reproducing its tone correctly. I must repeat that I do not wish thereby to justify in any way
.…

“What a terrific fellow!” the governor said to himself as he raised his coffee cup from the circular mark that it had left, like a seal, on Dull Baxhaja's latest report. “He's the greatest!” Lower down, the spy gave the governor his formal assurance that he had always been careful to have his hearing tested, that he had taken the test required by regulations only a fortnight before, and that he had official certification that his hearing was A-1 and 20/20. Furthermore, keen as he was to maintain his memory in tiptop shape, he observed all appropriate dietary regulations, did not drink alcohol, and even though he would prefer to eat rather tastier morsels, he consumed the required weight of fish per week to provide his system with the right amount of phosphorus, and even went so far as to take the elderberry syrup that the doctor had prescribed for him three times a day. He begged the governor to forgive him his second digression, a liberty taken not at all for the purpose of obtaining a pay raise or promoting his career but solely in order to establish the credibility of this report and to fulfill the task allotted to him, insofar as the slightest doubt that might be raised as to its truthfulness could jeopardize the further conduct of the surveillance of the two suspects,

"Oh, hell!” muttered the governor as he raised the coffee cup again from its second ring mark on the report. He knew full well that even if he studied rhetoric or jurisprudence or any other subject of that ilk for twenty years, he would never be able to write so fluently or with such style.

Right, let's get on with the story, he thought, as if weary with the preamble. In fact, Dull had guessed that the governor's main satisfaction in reading his reports came from his flowery introductions. If the governor allowed himself to feel bored by the preliminaries and wanted to get to the meat of the report, it was only because he planned to go back to the beginning later on and reread the preamble for pleasure.

Dull went on to inform the governor that on 5 March he had observed the Serbian monk Dushan wandering around the inn once again, but to the spy's surprise, the monk did not attempt to contact the foreigners and even seemed to be avoiding them. The monk had done none of the things that Dull had expected him to do.— he had neither stopped at the inn to rest for the night, nor had he continued his journey, nor had he gone back on his tracks — and had thus become doubly suspect, requiring even more vigilant surveillance. The monk Dushan, after illogical to-ings and fro-ings in the backyard of the inn, suddenly set off — and, even more amazingly, set off without his horse — in a direction that led one knew not where, in a directionless direction, so to speak, like a man wandering forlornly in a desert. At this point. Dull admitted, he had hesitated for a few minutes: Should he follow his target and thus abandon his area of surveillance? Or should he wait for the monk to return to the inn, which was where Dull had instructions to carry out his mission? At this point the report-writer felt obliged to inform the governor that his hesitation was quite unrelated to any personal concerns, nor was it the expression of any views that he would certainly not allow himself to hold about the regulations and laws of the state. Definitely not! He had hesitated only because some time before, he had attended a surveillance seminar where the main topic of discussion had been whether or not a good spy, when faced with a target moving away from home ground, should come out of his observation post and trail the target or stay put throughout the duration of his posting, in order to protect the security of said post. Unfortunately, no conclusion had been reached and the discussion had been held over to the next -seminar, so that, as the governor would now no doubt appreciate, his hesitation had been but the reflection of this controversy, or rather of the fact that it had produced no answer,

“Wow!” the governor cried out, and he made a nail mark in the margin alongside this whole passage.

Dull then told how he had followed the monk over the fields, observing all the correct tailing procedures, and in the end, to his great surprise, he observed the monk entering the Screech Owl's Cavern, or the Hermit's Retreat, as it had more recently been dubbed (the governor was presumably
au fait
with this development), since the hermit Frok had taken up residence there.

It was easy to understand the link, Dull went on, between a foreigner such as this monk from Yugoslavia and the hermit Frok, especially in view of the well-known interest of foreigners in taking up residence in precisely this part of the country. Taking advantage of his knowledge of the terrain, and fortunately aware of the fact that the cave in question possessed a ventilation shaft. Dull had circled around to the back of the hillock in which the cave had been dug and, given his experience in the chimney business, had found it quite easy to take up position inside the shaft, whence he could hear perfectly clearly anything the two suspects said to each other.

At this point the author of the report requested the governor to please pardon him for returning once again,
en passant
, to the issue of the credibility of his report, or in other words to the reliability of his hearing and his recall, etc., etc. Aware that he could well arouse the governor's justifiable irritation by such repetitions, he would nonetheless like to emphasize, just to make doubly sure that the point had not been forgotten, that part of the conversation overhead at the Screech Owl's Cavern, or, to be more exact, the first part of said conversation, was so similar to the incoherent ramblings of a pair of mental defectives that it could easily raise the most unfortunate doubts about the sanity of the overhearer.

The present writer, Dull went on in the third person, could have used a very simple device to avoid any possible misunderstanding and inconvenience, and that would have been to omit any mention of the first part of this conversation, on grounds of its being devoid of interest, especially as the present author reached the ventilation shaft with a certain delay and could therefore provide only a necessarily incomplete account. That is what he could have done to make things easier for him. self, but his professional conscience forbade him to take the easy option. For even though the beginning of the conversation may have been incoherent and insane, as it did indeed appear to be at first sight, or rather at first hearing, even though it resembled paranoid ramblings, etc, one could not avoid asking the question: what if? What if the ramblings were only apparently mad, what if the incoherence was in fact a secret code used by the two suspects for communicating with each other? This possibility had been enough to persuade the author of the present report to put down in black and white as accurately as he could the nonsense overheard.

At the point when he had got into position by the air shaft leading to the cavern, the two suspects (most of the talking was done, however, by Frok) were exchanging hypotheses about where the eye of the world might be found. As far as Dull could understand, they thought (but most especially Frok, who had asserted this explicitly) that the world, that is to say the terrestrial globe, possessed eyes, just like any other living being, eyes that, in his view, were to be found respectively in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Greenland and the North Sea, and in the Central Asian plains, "One of the eyes is now very much dimmed," the hermit went on, "and the planet sees poorly through it, but it would be wrong to think as most people do that the bad eye is the one located in the steppes. In fact, it is the opposite: the weakened eye is the one that I have pinned down to the ocean floor and the healthy eye is the one I have placed in the dusty plains of Asia, That is how it is, brother….”

BOOK: The File on H.
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