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Authors: Ismail Kadare

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

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BOOK: The File on H.
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All the same the governor knew nothing of all that as he waited for the mysterious foreigners together with his habitual playing partners — the postmaster the magistrate and Mr. Rrok owner of the Venus soap factory he only industrial plant in N—-. But even if he had known' he would have said not a word of it to his friends' even less to their wives and especially not to his own wife, Daisy, for whom the travelers arrival was the most joyous event of the season.

Wearing a gently rustling sky-blue voile dress. Daisy perhaps because of the rouge she had put on her cheeks or because of the dark circles under her eyes seemed far away, as if she were slightly drunk. She went back and forth between the lounge and the room where the bridge table was set up' catching fragments of conversations that seemed to her ever more horrendously banal. They were speaking of the travelers who were due to arrive at any moment speculating as to why they had chosen to settle in this town in particular. Daisy found such considerations quite scandalous. The very idea that they might not have come to N——, but could have gone to some other place seemed to her so horrible that the merest mention of that possibility, the miracle having happened, could put the whole thing in jeopardy, and she almost came to the point of fearing that the visitors might ask themselves all of a sudden, “Well, really, why did we pick N——? Isn't there another town where we could go just as easily?”

“That's what is really extraordinary,” said Mr. Rrok. “Yes, it is really strange that they decided to settle here. You have to admit this is a godforsaken hole, off any road to other countries. It's not a historic site or a strategic town, as people say. A place with no name for anything in particular. And, what's more, stuck fast against the foot of the mountains,"

“It seems they had set their eye on this area even before they left America,” the postmaster asserted. “People say that as soon as they got off the boat at Durres, they hauled a map out of their bag and said, 'That's where we want to go,'“

As they chatted, they glanced now and then at the governor, but with a slightly weary smile on his lips (good God, how do you manage to keep the same smile on your face for hours at a stretch, for dozens of people?), with his early-evening smile on his face, he pretended not to hear them. In fact, he too had been wondering what made the foreigners choose the area of N---- for their puzzling business. On several occasions he had had an intuition that it would give him a lot of trouble; at other times he felt the opposite, that it could be advantageous to him. When he was feeling low he sometimes imagined that someone who wished him no good had packed these undesirable Irishmen off to him as part of a murky plot. All the same, though they might be wily foxes, they would this very night, the first night of their stay, reveal at least a part of what they were up to. In the confidential letter that he had sent to the minister by return mail on receipt of the latter's note, he confirmed it to be his view too that it was of the utmost importance to bring the travelers secrets into the light. Yes indeed, the governor sighed, the state is deeper than the deepest well. While he was still wondering when the whole affair would become clear, the doorbell rang. The sound of the bell affected all present like an electric charge. Most of them turned toward him as if waiting for instructions on what to do, others put down their glasses of port on a table or on the marble mantelpiece. All except Daisy became feverishly agitated; she stood stock still, her eyes riveted on the landing.

Meanwhile the maid had opened the door, and everyone could hear first of all the sound of their steps on the stairs — a sound that the governor likened in his mind to the noise of wooden legs (maybe because he had skimmed through the reports that alluded among other things to the
stiffness
of the foreigners Albanian, or maybe because it really did sound like that). In a flash, he caught sight of his wife's profile, which manifested her anxiety. Her hair was done up in a chignon, but a few stray blond wisps emphasized the grace of her smooth-skinned neck. With surprise rather than contentment, the governor wondered why he was incapable of feeling any jealousy on her account.

Without even bothering to hide her feelings, Daisy kept her eyes on the two guests as they climbed the wooden staircase behind the servant girl, half turned toward them, who led the way. They did not look anything like what she had imagined. Neither of them had hair that was remotely dark, or soft, or flattened. Nor was either of them redheaded or hairy, as Max Ross had been in her mind; quite the opposite, one turned out to have thinning, fairish hair. As for the other, he had a strong and energetic face and somewhat darker but still unremarkable hair, which was moreover cut short like a boxer's. That could not be Bill, but on the other hand, with his affable appearance as of a tame hedgehog, he could not be Max either! She almost released a loud sigh: They were completely unlike what she had imagined, but fortunately, thank goodness, they were young men.

Her turn came to shake hands, and to her great astonishment, the blue-eyed one with blond hair, as he took her hand in his, gave out in antiquated Albanian:

“Fair lady, to thee I bow, thy servant Bill Norton.“

“Daisy,” she replied.

The visions that had come over her in her bath a few days before, her speculation about it all ending up at the gynecologist's, dozens of equally insane details, flooded back to her mind and made her blush.

So that's the one called Bill, she thought after a moment, as they completed the round of introductions. She had certainly expected them to be different, but she could not say that she was disappointed. That would not have been fair, especially when she imagined the possibilities for scientists — venerable duffers in slippers and ridiculous nightcaps readying themselves for bed. For the time being, what remained from all that was a sense of losing her balance.… She should have shown herself equally attentive to the other one, Max Ross, but though he had brown hair and his companion was blond, she felt herself inclining toward the latter, the one called Bill It certainly was not his name but something else about him that decided hen Maybe a kind of gentleness, though very reserved and as it were constrained, together with his way of speaking, which seemed made of stone and which cast a cold shadow all around it. Daisy could not bear to be disappointed. Anyway, each is as handsome as the other, she thought by way of consoling herself, and what's more, both are young, even younger than she had expected. As for language, quite apart from speaking Albanian after a fashion, they both seemed to be in perfect command of English.
Darling
…
My dear

She felt suddenly that if she should have a sleepless night, her insomnia would be caused not by her being attracted to one or the other of them, as she had hoped, or by bitter disillusionment, but by something else, by the effort she was making to come to terms with the real appearance of the two visitors. During the night, and maybe for many more nights, she would suffer the changes that were needed to make her just as receptive to the reality of the Irishmen as she had been to her imagination of them.

Meanwhile the introductions were over, and the two foreigners felt that momentary awkwardness of blundering into a social gathering that had been in progress for some time. They smiled again at everyone, then once more at various individuals, until the governor seeking to put everyone at ease, asked:

“Would you care for anything to drink, gentlemen?”

The thought of drinks and prospect of the visitors choices relaxed the company somewhat. Everyone expected the foreigners to be connoisseurs of fine wines. Oddly enough, they were not. Perhaps this was what prompted the regulars to notice that the guests attire was also quite surprising. It was, so to speak, rather casual, to put it mildly. All of which contributed to loosening the governor's tongue:

“I learned of your arrival in our fair city and I thought, They are far from their families, in a foreign land, in the back of beyond, and quite alone. That's right? So then I thought you might like to come to play bridge, that way you would feel less cut off….”

The governor spoke slowly and articulated his words so as to be understood, and the foreigners nodded their heads.

"We thank thee, good sir." said the one with the crew-cut hair. “Albanians are for hospitality renowned.”

“Do you expect to stay for a while?” Mr. Rrok inquired.

The foreigners shrugged their shoulders.

“Methinks a goodly length of time.”

“We are delighted." the governor replied.

“Thank you, good sir.”

Daisy thought that she recognized something familiar about their intonation … classes on ancient Albanian versification at the girls' school. But she found it hard to concentrate.

“From what I have heard about you, you intend to study our folklore?” said the governor.

One of the visitors raised his eyebrows as if to delay replying, while the governor exchanged a rapid glance with the magistrate, the only person with whom he had shared his suspicions.

“How can I put it? Verily, indeed … and perchance other matters too,” came the reply, from the one called Bill Norton.

“I'm sorry, but I did not quite understand.

The other foreigner furrowed his brow once again, “We purport to have much ado with your ancient song,” he explained. “And perchance …”

“'Dawn came up from the couch of her reclining …,'“ Daisy recited to herself, the opening line of one of the epic poems in all the anthologies. That was the rhythm she could hear in the speech of the two visitors.

“… and perchance with something most closely allied to it,” the fair one went on. “We mean to say: Homer,"

“Your good health!” said the postmaster's wife, as she raised her glass of port.

Despite her powdered face, she was visibly impatient to have these boring questions and answers come to an end and to learn more interesting things from the foreigners. Daisy had mentioned something about their having brought with them the very latest in gramophones. So what were people dancing to these days over there, from New York to California?

“You mentioned Homer?” the governor continued. “As far as I recall, a blind old Greek poet?”

“Why, yes!” Bill exclaimed in English, to Daisy's great joy. She turned triumphantly to the other women in the room, as if to say: Now you can see that they're real foreigners, speaking in English like that!

“Really, Homer? For three hundred years there has been some debate about whether there was one or several Homers…
.”

Mr. Rrok, the factory owner, straightened his bow tie, spread a smile across his face from ear to ear, and shyly intervened:

“Pardon me, gentlemen. Out here in the back of beyond, we do not have much by way of scholarship. Myself, for instance, as I told you a few moments ago, I deal with soap — Venus soap, toilet soap for ladies.… Ha ha, that sort of thing I have at my fingertips. But as for deep questions of philosophy, Homer, Verdi, or what have you, I haven't got a clue. So please excuse my ignorance, but tell me: what connection can there be between Homer and your esteemed journey to Albania? If I am not mistaken, Homer lived four or five thousand years ago and quite a long way away from here, didn't he?”

The postmaster's wife could not restrain herself from a loud sigh of exasperation. Daisy had always told her that Mr. Rrok had no more brains than his bars of soap had legs.

The foreigners exchanged smiles that the governor judged to be full of meaning.

Verily, about three thousand years ago, good sir,” one of them said. “ And far away from this place. But the connection exists nonetheless.”

The shadowy smiles that the governor had thought full of meaning returned to their faces. Hmm, now they're making fun of us openly, he thought. They're definitely trying to pull our legs. How could one believe that they were really looking for a solution to the mystery of Homer in a small town that had never had any connection whatsoever with the poet? Couldn't they have found a more plausible excuse for coming? But even on that score they didn't seem to have made much of an effort. Provincial they must have thought peasants living in a backwater…. Ha! We shall see who has the last laugh! You two may have seen all sorts of things., the governor continued to himself while maintaining his unwavering smile, you may have looked at skyscrapers and things of that kind, but what you've never met before is Dull Baxhaja. When he gets on your tail he'll stick there like a leech, no matter where you are — on top of a skyscraper or in the ninth circle of hell!

The thought of Dull calmed him down for a moment. Then his mind went back to the note from the Minister of the Interior, or rather to the phrase about their being "caught in flagrante,” after which, the minister said, "your mission will be terminated, the remainder being my concern.“ To tell the truth, the governor had no clear idea of what would constitute being "caught in flagrante.“ On this point the minister's epistle seemed to have been written hurriedly, even impatiently: he had gone so far as to give the bizarre advice to treat the foreigners well “even after they've been nabbed,” “Treat them as before, but get them to understand that they've been caught in the act and that there's no point trying to get off the hook."

Now that he thought about it, the minister's letter seemed even odder than it had at first sight. It all might have seemed part of a game, if the minister hadn't repeated how important the whole matter was, much more important that a provincial official could imagine.

Taking pains not to be noticed, the governor looked at his watch. At the present moment, Pjeter Prenushi should surely have managed to open the suitcases and to photograph the piles of notes and documents that the customs report said they contained. And then, following the orders he had been given, he would have what looked like the most interesting texts translated, so as to get them on his boss's desk by dawn.

BOOK: The File on H.
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