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Authors: Ismail Kadare

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

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BOOK: The File on H.
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Through slanted eyes, she looked at her white body beneath the water, with the black triangle of her pubic hair refracted into a double image. In this shifting focus she found a kind of creeping dreaminess, which made everything vague and ambiguous. Though she tried not to admit it to herself, she knew that her boring provincial existence made her ripe for a sentimental adventure. It was no coincidence that a few minutes earlier, when the water was just reaching her waist, she had stopped herself from thinking the morbid thoughts that had tried to seize her. An emotion she had caught from watching romantic movies at the cinema stimulated her imagination and, so to speak, laid down a path for it. Images of that kind ran before her eyes and she found it increasingly difficult to suppress them. Chaotically, without attempting any logical sequence of thought, she saw herself first entangled with the hairy redhead, Max Ross, not because she was really attracted to him but by force of circumstance, or rather by the desire to encounter the whole range of initial sophisticated emotions (rivalry, exacerbated jealousy., etc.), before plunging fully into an affair with the other, Bill “Oh my God!" she exclaimed suddenly and to herself, without ceasing to look at her water-enveloped body, as if it was the sight of her own nudity that had brought this thought to her mind. Just because her lover bore such a wonderful name would not prevent his making her pregnant!

She shifted awkwardly in her bath, like a sleeper turning over in bed. The gurgling of the water and the sight of the refracted curves of her body set her imagination wandering again. She saw herself, ashen-faced and visibly terrified, climbing the front steps of an ivy-covered two-story house. On the door was a brass plate bearing the name of the only doctor in N—— and,

beneath it, the word
Gynecology
.

Tests Daisy's husband had agreed to have after years of dithering had proved that it was he who was responsible for their childlessness. Since then, Daisy could not imagine having an affair without an aftermath at the doctor's clinic to remove the traces.

So she would have to appear before the man who, in the gloomy cast of the town's characters, played, or seemed to play, the role of disillusioned doctor (for that is how provincial doctors are portrayed in films and in the stories of a Russian writer named Chekhov). “An accident? “ he would ask, as his eyes traveled lasciviously over those parts of her body where not long before the drama of love had been played out but which were now as cold as the marble tiles of the consulting room. And she would then think: You flabby provincial quack! How can you understand anything at all about this tragic miracle?

She shifted once more, the water rippled for a few minutes and then calmed, and once again she could see the shape of her body in all its whiteness, anguish gone. Why did she allow herself these thoughts? Real joy, with its combination of pleasure, curiosity, and mystery, was just around the corner; she didn't need to make herself ill ahead of time with such mental contortions. A hand of bridge, a glass of wine, the warm glow of the hearth — these thoughts brought her back from her tragic tableau. All these things were almost palpably before her eyes and would be truly present within a few days. With a sudden burst of energy, she got out of the bath, put on a robe, and returned to her bedroom to dress.

Outside, as if nothing special had happened, it was still a soaking wet winter's day beneath a lead-gray sky, with drizzling rain tapping out the slow rhythm of life all around. Through the dripping rain the telephone wires would soon carry the news, first to the postmaster's wife, then to the other ladies of N—: something sensational was in the air.

Half an hour later, after making all her calls, Daisy went once again to the front window, which looked out over much of the little town. Though it looked quite unchanged, she knew that beneath that apathetic roofscape, her sharp-tipped news had hit targets all over the little town of N—.

2

D
ULL BAXHAJA, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS “THE EAVES
,' was the best informer on the books at N---- and had therefore been entrusted with the task of keeping an eye on the arrival and the subsequent words and deeds of the two foreigners. He wrote up his report for the governor on Saturday evening, that is to say on the day of their arrival After standing about waiting for four hours at the travel agency opposite the bus station, on the lookout for suspicious characters waiting to rendezvous with the foreigners, he wrote, he had noticed nobody who tallied even remotely with such a target. In fact, his meticulous observation of the site had revealed that apart from the usual porters, there were in all nine people waiting for the bus from the capital, which came this far only once a week, namely on Saturdays, and that all nine had indeed greeted relatives immediately on their arrival via the aforementioned bus service, their shows of appropriate emotions demonstrating that their wait at the station had been fully justified. Save for the Gypsy Haxhi Gaba, of whom the governor had perhaps heard speak but whom the author of the present report failed to mention previously since it was a well-known fact that the aforementioned waited regularly for the Saturday bus in the hope of finding among the travelers some person who might be inclined to slip him a few coins in return for his customary trick — “Your Honor will pardon me the expression

— namely the performance of an impressively long sequence of farts. As the honorable governor presumably knew, the above individual had been investigated several times for bringing the town into intolerable disrepute, etc., etc., but as far as the author of the present report was aware, the case had not yet received a satisfactory solution. In sum, apart from the doings of the aforementioned Gypsy, nothing suspicious had been uncovered by the investigator.

Although his particular branch was aural, Dull went on in his long-winded way, he had tried to accomplish his mission as scrupulously as possible, that is to say keeping watch on the foreigners from a distance, which in his humble opinion (if His Honor the governor would pardon such forthrightness) belonged more to the ocular branch.

So without claiming to offer advice to anyone, and certainly not to the governor, he would have thought that for this first phase of surveillance it would perhaps have been more sensible to employ the services of his colleague Pjeter Prenushi, an old hand at the oculars, whose abilities in this branch had long been unrivaled and had reached new heights on the day when — the honorable governor would perhaps recall —he had managed to spot from a distance of thirty meters that despite her exaggeratedly heavy makeup, the wife of the French consul, on a visit to their ancient city, was making eyes at someone.

Notwithstanding the aforesaid, and never wishing to question orders from above, he felt no awkwardness about taking on a task that was perhaps not strictly within his purview. On the contrary, deeply encouraged by the confidence that had been placed in him (even if it was perhaps on this occasion a confidence not entirely warranted on the part of His Honor the governor), he had as always spared no effort in fulfilling his mission as conscientiously as he could and in reporting the facts as laid out above with the greatest precision.

As for the two foreigners, it could not be asserted with absolute certainty that their behavior aroused no suspicion at all In fact, it quickly became apparent that they were not at their ease, as evidenced by their constantly turning their heads this way and that, their weary faces, their hesitant gestures, almost certainly the symptoms of the anxiety, not to say the fear, that was torturing them.

They spoke first to Haxhi Gaba, in Albanian, making mistakes that were more likely the result of confused feelings than of genuine ignorance of the language. They took the Gypsy for a porter, whereas Haxhi Gaba thought he was being asked for his usual disgusting performance and was preparing to oblige, that is to say he was limbering up his whole body, so to speak, in order to expel the required quantity of air with sufficient force and sound — “I must ask Your Honor to pardon me once again" — so as to produce the sequence of farts that he imagined the two foreigners had ordered. The aforementioned was thus ready to perform his outrageous action — which he would have perpetrated this time, without a doubt, on what could indeed have been considered an international stage — when the present author, moved solely by a sense of patriotic duty and disregarding the fact that he was in no way authorized to do so, intervened and shooed the Gypsy away.

As for the suitcases and especially the metal trunks that the foreigners were lugging with them, the present informer had some difficulty in ascertaining anything about them on the basis of mere sight, especially as it was a well-known fact, as he had had cause to recall just a moment ago, that his field of action was essentially auditory, etc., etc.

On this point, while it was not his habit to meddle in other people's business, his sole concern being the smooth running of affairs of state, and while he would not wish to cast the eagle eye of his colleague Pjeter Prenushi in the slightest doubt, he felt obliged to point out that even Pjeter's gifts would hardly have sufficed to assess exactly the weight of the suitcases and especially of the metal trunks, let alone establish some relationship between the aforesaid weight and their contents. That said, he would take the liberty of suggesting that it might be appropriate to seek the opinion of the man who had hauled the load on his back, to wit, the porter Cute, also known as Blackie.

Blackie the porter:
Suitcases? Don't talk to me about them suitcases, for God's sake, they nearly broke my back! Forty years I've been at this job, I never carried anything that heavy. Heavier than lead, I tell you! What was inside them? Don't ask me — stones, iron, maybe the devil himself, but definitely not shirts and ties, I'll swear to it. Unless they were clothes of iron, like knights used to wear in the old days, the sort you see in the movies — but these were modern gentlemen, nothing to do with suits of armor, and they didn't look like madmen either. No, no, those weren't no ordinary suitcases of clothing ... Blackie can tell what's in a suitcase just by handling it. Soon as he hoists one up on his back, he can guess whether it's a rich man's, full of heavy, silver-embroidered cloth, or a padre's or a mufti's, with holy books inside, Bibles and Korans and the like. Nothing misses Blackie's eye where suitcases're concerned. He just has to stroke one to know if it's got a bride's clothes in it, all buoyed up with joy, or a widow's rags, weighed down with grief. Blackie's carried a heap of cases — the cases of happy folks, crazy folks, exiles running from the king's fury, desperate people expecting to hang themselves the next day with their luggage straps, the trunks of thieves, painters, women with their minds on only one thing (you can feel that right down your spine!), officials' traveling bags, hermits' packs, and even madmen's luggage half full of stones. Blackie has seen it all, he has, but those two, they had suitcases like Blackie has never carried in his life, for the love of God. They took my breath away. I thought I was going to split in two, and I said to myself, “Blackie, old man, you can say good-bye to this lousy job! Fall down and die rather than bear the shame of having to say: I can't carry that!” ‘Cause Blackie once had a dream that was sadder than death. A traveler with a suitcase appeared on a road made of green and brown sticky cardboard and said, “Hey! Porter!” Blackie tried to lift the suitcase but didn't have the strength. There you are, it was just like in that dream — I was soaked in cold sweat under them damned cases. Those weren't suitcases but the devil himself!

The manager of the Globe Hotel:
The suitcases were really heavy, but the trunks even more so. In order to get them upstairs to the room on the second floor — dear me! — I had to involve not just the usual bellboy but also two chambermaids and the cook.

The foreigners spoke to me in Albanian, but truth be told, the language they spoke was not our usual way of speaking at all. I don't know how to explain it, but it was like a tongue that was frozen in places, hard as ice, if you see what I mean. My job as a hotel manager involves meeting quite a few foreigners, so Fm used to all sorts of peculiar pronunciations. I don't mean to boast, but the truth is, because of these peculiarities I can tell straight off, without even looking at their papers, whether customers are Italian, or Greek, or Slav. Well, as for these two foreigners, it wasn't any of those kinds of accents. No, it was something completely different. Maybe I'm not making myself clear. They spoke a language that was … how shall I put It like it had cooled down. A bit like the way my mother — may her soul rest in peace — came back to talk to me in a dream a few years ago. And I was so taken aback that I remember saying to her, “What have I done to you, Mother, to make you speak so?” Forgive my digressing like that, I beg you….

Then what? Sorry, I almost lost the thread of my story! Well, they went up to the room we agreed to give them. Following your orders, we had sprayed it three times with insecticide, but dear me! I must confess I wasn't sure we'd managed to get rid of them all They could have got in from the rooms next door, or under the doors, or especially they could have come down through the ceiling. But that's another story. … I just wanted to say that the foreigners stayed up there on their own until a messenger came from the governor, with an invitation to a game of bridge.

The governor's greeting, together with an invitation to drop in for a game of bridge, had been brought to the newly arrived travelers at around seven in the evening by the city surveyor. The surveyor's evidence, corroborated by the hotel manager (he had been up to knock on the door to announce that they were being asked for by an official gentleman), was that the travelers were rather surprised by the invitation: not only were they not expecting it but it had seemed so odd, not to say bewildering, to them that they took a little time to grasp what exactly was meant. The surveyor (like the hotel manager, of course) refrained from revealing, on reporting the foreigners' reply to the invitation, just how the governor's kind request had been greeted. But that did not prevent both of them from telling their friends that the travelers had hardly been eager, that they were fairly reserved, you could even say cold, and when they heard the word
bridge
, they seemed distinctly irritated. According to the city surveyor (and the hotel manager, of course) — this account had reached the governor's ears fairly quickly through the latter's own informers — the two travelers accepted the invitation more out of politeness than from any wish to play bridge. Oddly enough, far from being offended in the slightest by these comments, the governor mentioned this fact with evident satisfaction in his weekly report to the Minister of the Interior stressing the degree to which the witnesses were honest and reliable folk.

BOOK: The File on H.
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