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Authors: Ismail Kadare

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

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BOOK: The File on H.
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"No, let's leave them behind. I don't think they'll ever be of any use.“

He kept rubbing his eyes, and though he did not complain about it, Max guessed that his friend's sight had suddenly clouded over. As the vial of eye medication had been smashed along with everything else, the course of treatment had been interrupted and Bill's condition had taken a turn for the worse

They got into the horse-drawn vehicle and turned to take one last look at the door of the inn, whose half-legible sign seemed to cast a shadow of oblivion and abandonment on the surrounding countryside. Every sound and every movement only heightened their feelings of deep bitterness and irreparable loss. They had come close to finding the key to the puzzle of Homer, and just as they were about to grasp it completely it had been torn from their hands, for no reason, for nothing at all! To cheer themselves up, they sometimes said they could always come back next year, or a few years later, and start their research all over again, but they themselves knew it was not true, that they would never come back. For even if they did travel once again to these parts, they would encounter no trace of the rhapsodes, or if they did, they would find only a hand-ful, and they would have gone deaf; and not only the rhapsodes but this whole last laboratory would thenceforth be buried under the ashes of oblivion. The age of the epic was truly over in this world, and it was only by the purest chance that they had had the opportunity of glimpsing its last flickering before it was extinguished for good. They had captured the final glow and then lost it. The veil of night had fallen forever over the epic land.

Yes, that was it: night had fallen forevermore. For although they could not quite admit it to themselves, they could imagine a second visit only as an excursion into an icy sphere whence life had departed, where it would hardly be possible to make out in the dust the marks of the white stick of the Great Bard whose riddle they had sought to solve.

Such were the musings of Bill and Max as their dray took them back to the town of N—, where they were to stay until the end of the week, when the bus would come to take them to the capital.

Unlike their last stay, they did not venture out of the hotel and met no one. The last locals with whom they had any dealings were the manager of the Globe Hotel and Blackie the porter, who lugged their suitcases to the bus station, then hobbled over to the bar, where, for reasons unknown, he drank himself silly and started talking about his first wife, whom no one had ever heard of before.

Some time passed. It was the middle of a perfectly ordinary week for the little town, a week devoid of any event whatsoever with an amount of drizzle exceeding the climatic norm for the season and the place. But the excess of light rain suited the town all the same; it was in harmony not just with its architecture but also in a sense with its whole way of life. The monotonous patter seemed to be an attempt to help people bear the burdens that weighed them down, to alleviate their fate of being at the margin of real life.

The last winter had in fact brought them a whole series of exceptional events, though it had all begun slowly and almost imperceptibly. The arrival of the foreign scholars, the link that had been established once and for all between this place and Homer, the gossip and fantasies of the women, the enigma of the Buffalo Inn, then the arrival of the English-speaking spy, the mysterious attack on the inn, the bloody chains, the horde of journalists from Tirana — these events were more than a backwater like N---- could bear, especially as they all took place in a single season.

Now it was all fading away. In the cafes, the skeptics who had at the start been against all that imaginative nonsense and had then given in to collective pressure were now holding forth with conviction: “It's our own fault, you know We didn't need to link the name of our town with a fellow who died four or five thousand years ago! For sheer stupidity, that takes the cake! If it had all been about opening a ketchup factory or the spa people have been going on about for ages, there might have been something to say for the fuss, but that Homeric business was just nonsense! Romantic nationalism, that's what it is! Outdated fetishism! You might as well try to put a halter on a ghost! And what kind of a ghost, I ask you — a blind ghost!”

The café audiences nodded wisely, as if to say: Yes indeed, how could we have been so stupid as not to think of all that? Good grief, a blind ghost! Well, thank goodness the whole business is over now, without any more harm done, because it could all have turned out much worse.

That is what the barflies thought, but the opinion of the town's gynecologist that Thursday afternoon was rather different. He was standing at the large bay window on the first floor of his house, part of which had been converted into a private clinic, and was watching the young woman whom he had just examined walking down the narrow alley in the rain, stepping carefully so as to avoid the puddles.

On the doctor's elongated face, somewhere between the chin and the lower lip (because of its curious shape, the doctor's face differed from a normal physiognomy in all its proportions) there hovered something like a smile, expressing either a mildly ironical anxiety or the pleasure of having a morbid curiosity finally satisfied after years of waiting.

No, it wasn't all that easy to remove ail the consequences of the two foreigners' visit to N—-.

His eyes swept over the coldly glinting medical instruments lined up on the white-painted shelves. No, to make all the consequences disappear from that woman, for instance, he was going to have to use certain of those instruments on hen

“Incredible!” he exclaimed, as he looked down once more at the alleyway, where she was no more to be seen. He had been waiting so long for the day when she would come for treatment at his clinic! Season followed upon season, and still she did not come. “It seems she'll never deceive her governor!”

But now she had come, just as he had stopped believing that she would ever need his services. As he had expected, she was pregnant.

She had sat with flushed cheeks as he pronounced his verdict: “Madam, you are pregnant.” Without waiting for him to ask her to explain anything, as if they had enjoyed a tacit understanding for years, she had begun to talk. No, she wouldn't hide it from him, there was no point in any case, she would hide nothing from him, she had had an adventure with one of the two learned scholars, more precisely with the one who had glaucoma. … That was what she had said, in an almost mechanical prattle, as if she had learned it by heart, while she hurriedly put her clothes back on, her eyes fixed firmly on the exit door, and she hadn't answered his question about the date on which she could have the operation, nor did she respond to his final words of assurance that even though he was only a country doctor he was a gentleman nonetheless and that she could trust that her husband would never know anything at all…

Well, well, well, the doctor mused, still standing at the window, made opaque by the rain. Who could guess what really goes on in the back of beyond? And he felt a pang of regret, like a bout of rheumatism brought on by the damp, that he had never made a record of all the bizarre episodes that had cropped up in the course of his long careen

It must have been the same day that Bill Norton and Max Ross, wrapped in traveling capes, stood on the deck of the Durres-Bari steamer and watched the coast of Albania recede into the distance. Actually, only Max was watching, because Bill could not really see anything anymore. During the week they had spent waiting for the ferry, Max had tried to persuade his companion to resume the eye drop treatment, but Bill received these pleas with profound indifference. Once, he said he would start proper treatment when he got back to New York, but his tone made his fatalistic attitude pretty clear.

Max looked at his friend from the side and recalled that he too had once felt resigned to a disastrous end. Homer's revenge. He tried in vain to rid himself of that thought, but it had wormed its way into his mind. Perhaps that was how the Blind Bard would always take his revenge on those who sought to solve his riddle … ?

The mere thought made Max shudder. Was the loss of sight perhaps a necessary precondition for entering the Homeric night?

He shook himself as if to cast off these gloomy musings. Remembering that he had bought the day's newspaper on the dockside and still had it in his pocket, he took it out and, struggling to prevent the wind from blowing the paper away, said to Bill:

“Hey, look! We're in the news….”

“Really?”

They found a wind-sheltered spot, and Max read the article to himself first of all.

“The trial of the bandits will start very soon,” he said to Bill a few minutes later in the midst of his reading. “There's an interesting hypothesis about the instigators “

“Really?”

“They're saying something about Serbs,” said Max as he tried to flatten down the wind-blown newspaper.

“Do you remember that monk with the jolly face?” Bill remarked.

The paper in Max's hands flapped about dement-edly.

“Listen to what it says here, though: ‘This is not the first time that Slav chauvinists have brutally attacked scholars working on Albania's classical roots. Any mention of the Illyrian origins of the Albanians, in particular, arouses in them barbaric and murderous jealousy, which is, alas, just as widespread here, in the Balkans.' Well... hang on, what's this? ‘Anyone who deals directly or indirectly with this topic is in their eyes an enemy. And the hand that wielded the crowbar that struck down the Yugoslav scholar Milan Sufflay in a Zagreb back street some ten years ago did not tremble at the prospect of slaying two Homeric researchers from across the Atlantic.'"

Bill touched the place on his head where he had been hit. He could still feel the swelling.

“But look here, there's something else about us on the inside pages."

Max's brow furrowed impatiently as he read on. He nodded once or twice, seemed about to smile, then muttered: “Unbelievable!”

“So what is it?” Bill asked.

“It's incredible, Bill!” said Max, without raising his eyes from the paper. “The
epivent
we were waiting forwell, here it is! And do you know what the subject is? It's the most recent episode you could possibly imagine: it's an epic poem … about us!”

“What are you saying?”

“Look here. Oh, but of course you can't make out the letters. … Sorry, Bill, I got carried away. Wait, I'll read it aloud. “A black
aprath
 rose from the waves….' That's how it begins.”

“What? What do you mean?” Bill stammered.

“A black
aprath
 rose from the waves.”

“What's an
aprath? I
don't get it.”

“I suppose it's an Albanian version of the German word
Apparat
, meaning a piece of equipment — that's the tape recorder,” said Max. “Yes it has to be that. Hey listen to the rest of it:

“A black aprath
rose from the waves.

Some said it came for our good. 

It will bring only grief, said the others.

Some said it brings frozen nightingales to
life.

By God it freezes the
lahuta, 
said the
others
. …”

Max looked up as if to share his friend's astonishment. He could not yet believe what he had read. “Is there more?” Bill asked, “Go on!.”

Max swallowed and continued to recite from the page:

“Hermit Frok came out of the cave

Where he had been hiding for seven years

Some think him a good man — 

He is evil incarnate, say the others. 

O Lord! He lay into the
aprath, 

He made it bleed black bile — 

Slowly pulled out all its entrails, A

nd the hills and the heavens shook with his cries….”

Max glanced up at his friend once again. Bill had recently acquired a kind of detached stare that seemed quite impenetrable.

“It really is about us...,” he said reflexively in Albanian.

“What a tragic misunderstanding!”

It was too late now to try to put it right. By the fact of that misunderstandings they had now become an integral part of a mysterious universe. Things had come full circle.

There was a long blast on the ship's horn. Max was about to go back to reading the paper, but the expression forming on Bill's face suddenly held his attention. It was as if something were about to boil over on that inwardly thunderstruck face, with its aging, windburned, leathery skin, its eyes, like those of the more or less completely blind, seemingly made of stone.

“A black
aprath
rose from the waves …,” Bill mumbled.

Somewhat taken aback, Max was on the point of asking, “What do you mean?” but he realized that the question itself would have no meaning.

Suddenly, with a gesture that seemed to belong to another body, Bill pulled his right arm from under his cape, raised it to his face, splayed his fingers, placed his palm against his upper cheek and ear so that his fingers made a kind of ridge visible over the top of his head.
Majekrah
, Max thought, but he had no time to ponder it, because his companion had meanwhile begun to chant, in a flat and expressionless voice, the lines of verse that he had just heard read to him.

He repeated them with amazing accuracy, and the monotonous tune of his chanting enhanced their dis-tance' making them seem to come from far away in time and space.

Good God! thought Max. He really is ill. He's going to die….

The word
death
crossed his mind twice over, but strangely it now seemed devoid of any significance. It was only a shell that encased something else.

BOOK: The File on H.
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