Read The File on H. Online

Authors: Ismail Kadare

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

The File on H. (4 page)

BOOK: The File on H.
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Feeling content, the governor was able now to smile without effort at everyone, including those who in his view did not deserve his attention. Pjeter Prenushi would definitely be running over to the ridiculous shack above whose front door a signboard announced in blue hand lettering,
Photo Lux
, while the owner of the premises, bent double by his painful piles, would be waiting inside in a state of terror. He would stop trembling only when he saw that he had to deal with texts written in English. Shots of corpses, of stolen bracelets, and especially of naked women, gave him the shakes.

The governor was now visibly at ease. The thought of his two best sleuths in action outside in the dark, the cold, and the wet gave him special satisfaction. Others, he knew, were jealous of the perfect duo that afforded him his “ears” and his “eyes,” but as for himself, he had a distinct preference for Dull. And whenever rivalry between them was at issue, either because of some spat or on a question of pay, though he always tried to appear fair, he generally took Dull's side.

We are not a very developed country, he liked to philosophize from time to time, and as in any country of this kind, the eye does not play a preponderant role as far as intelligence is concerned. Most people here are illiterate, and even those who do know how to read and write do not like to do so often. Very few write their memoirs, keep a diary, or have a regular correspondence. Even wills, which are hard to imagine as not written down, signed, and sealed, are still frequently oral And do you know what stands in lieu of initials and the duty stamp? Curses! “May you never know a single day of happiness in this world or the next if you do not carry out my wish!” “May you turn into a tree!” “May the earth never accept your corpse!” And so on and so forth.

That is what he liked to say on the matter of eyes, but as soon as ears were the issue, he changed his tone completely. Ah, ears, gentlemen, are a quite different matter! The ear never rests, for people always want to talk and to whisper; what is said and especially what is muttered is always, as you all know, much more dangerous to the state than what can be seen. At least, in our country, he would add. And if the governor was among a group of very close or very reliable friends, he would indulge in recalling his one and only real failure in intelligence matters. A failure due., of course, to the “eye”: in letters from a provincial Don Juan to a Tirana tart called Lulu (the correspondence was naturally checked because of the king's open flirtation with the aforementioned tart), he had read the words
(“I swear it, those really were the words that I thought I deciphered, hidden like two hares in a thicket made of allusions to Lulu's belly, to her delta, to her thighs!”), whereas what was actually written was
 Good God, he still blushed as red as a beet whenever that misadventure came to mind.…

Mr. Rrok's conversation with the guests was still in progress, and the governor took a few moments to pick up the thread,

“Verily, there is a true and real connection, good sir,"the fair one was saying, “but it grows late, and there is not time to give the reason tonight.”

“Some other time, without fail,” the other one said, in an odd kind of lilt. “Weary we be, for our voyage was long…."

“But of course,” the governor said to himself. “It's time you worked out your cover stories! You didn't even bother to do it in advance. Ah, my unhappy province, to be so despised by mere spies!”

Someone suggested a hand of bridge, but the foreigners shook their heads. They repeated their litany about the tiredness caused by such a long journey; but the biggest surprise of all was that they did not know how to play! That was just too much!

Once the idea of bridge had been abandoned, the ladies took charge of the conversation. By far the most talkative among them was the postmaster's wife, beneath the half-patronizing, half ironical gaze of Mrs. Rrok, the soap manufacturer's spouse.

“I am deeply shocked to see how our own dear friends can hardly wait to meet the foreigners, so as to put on airs and graces and lead the young men on,” Mrs. Rrok whispered to Daisy, who turned away abruptly toward the fireplace, so as to hide her blushes. After busying herself for a moment at the hearth, she could turn back to Mrs. Rrok and show entirely justified bright-red cheeks. “I find this thirst for adventure quite revolting!”

Daisy smiled absentmindedly. She realized that Mrs. Rrok was irritated at not being able to show off her knowledge of Italian, but that at least allowed the magistrate's indolent wife to feel smugly satisfied. It was she who asked the visitors

“Will you be settling in at the Globe Hotel?”

“Nay, ma'am,” they replied together, almost as one.

The magistrate smiled sourly.

“So where else do you expect to stay? The Globe is the only decent hotel in our town,”

“Nary in town,” said Bill “We shall go hence.”

“What?” Daisy cried out, as if something had burst inside her heart. She had avoided looking into the eyes of her guests, as one puts off one of life's enhancements until later, but now she turned a wild stare straight at the man who had chilled her heart by uttering such an ice-cold sentence. Daisy's glance was at once heated, reproachful, and enticing, a combination that ought to have led the man to change his mind, but the foreigner only repeated his merciless words.

The governor had moved away from his guests momentarily, but now he came back to lend an ear to what was being said about the newcomers accommodation. And what he heard was really odd. The foreigners were explaining quite openly that notwithstanding the pleasure of present company, they had no intention of hanging about in the town, No, they weren't off to any other town, certainly not to any other area; they were going to stay in this zone, for sure, but not in the town of N----, and anyway, they wanted to have as little as possible to do with towns. They would lodge in a wayside inn far from any other houses, a remote hostelry or, more exactly, one of those coach houses located where major routes intersect. If the cold weather had not already come on, they would have gone up into the highlands to carry out their research but as the hills were now deep in snow, they would have to settle for a lodging at the foot, beside the old highway, as they said, one of the places where traveling singers usually put up. In fact, they had already pinpointed the inn they had in mind, and it was not very far away.

“Ah! You mean the Cross Inn,” the soapmaker butted in, “It's beside the main road, about halfway between Shkodér and Tirana,”

“Nay, sir,” replied Max Ross, “Tis called the Inn of the Bone of the Buffalo, or, for short, Buffalo Inn.”

“Oh,” said the postmaster “but that's a very old inn, and so far away from anything that even telegrams take four days to get there.”

The Irishmen let out a gentle laugh.

“We saw it on the chart,' said Bill “It is the place that best befits our task.

“Obviously!” the governor muttered to himself, “You couldn't imagine a better place for your secret machinations!”

“So you have also brought maps along with you” he inquired aloud.

“Aye, a goodly number. And all the epic areas are marked."

Wonderful, thought the governor. They are not even bothering to pretend anymore. He was tempted to ask them what these epic areas were but chose instead to pretend not to have noticed the term.

“Where is this Buffalo Inn, then?” Daisy asked the postmaster's wife in a whisper.

“How can I explain? I don't remember very well. I only went there once, with Petro, but it's such a tumbledown place it makes you shiver just to see it — it looks like a heap of ruins.”

“Unless I am mistaken,” the governor interjected, “it is, with the exception of the Inn of the Two Roberts, in central Albania, the oldest house of its kind and has been in existence since the Middle Ages.”

“And is it very far from here?”

“No, not really. An hour's drive in a cart, I guess.”

Daisy felt warmer. An hour in a horse-drawn carriage wasn't the end of the world. The conversation around the foreigners had got livelier.

“You really are amazing,

Mr. Rrok was saying, with his face right up to theirs, smiling under their noses. “Myself, for instance, I deal in soap, and I reckon I understand a bit about the world insofar as well, we all have something to do with soap, don't we, all day long, from dawn to dusk. So, as a result, when I think about it, I say to myself, Soap is important, universal, and it seems everybody else thinks that way too. Because in fact you know it's not a joke, it's something that has to do with the body. There's soap for shampoo, there's toilet soap that does its job well or not so well, aside from all questions of scent, not to mention any other qualities or defects, for instance excessive acidity, which can be harmful, as you may well understand, to the delicate skins of ladies, especially when they wash their private … Ha! So anyway, I can have the illusion that everyone thinks of soap just like I do. But then along come two gentlemen like you, who are not in the least interested in my bars of soap and who have got it into their heads to come all the way to the end of the world to stay in a pigsty of an inn and try to find out about a blind guy who lived a million years ago! What a funny world this is!”

“What a dismal idiot," the governor said to himself. The revenue inspector had not been wrong a couple of years ago when, over some card-game squabble, he had told Mr. Rrok to go jump into his own vat and tern himself into a bar of soap.

With the help of her maid, Daisy served coffee. As the governor sipped from his cup, his mind wandered to the hotel manager, who would by now have had ample time to sift through the entire contents of the travelers' suitcases.

The foreigners' faces were now showing signs of real weariness. And the evanescence of the face powder of the postmaster's wife was an unmistakable sign, well known in the tiny social world of N——, that midnight was nigh. Despite everyone's efforts at stifling their yawns, sleep hovered in the air.

A lull in the conversation gave the foreigners an opportunity to make their farewells. They stood up and bowed and, on the landings were asked by those showing them out whether they remembered the way back to their hotel or if they would like an escort. Then Mr. Rrok declared that he would like to walk them back himself, which aroused both general approval and a degree of regret, though at this late hour of the night no one could rightly say what the grounds of the regret were, or if indeed they had any relevance to soap.

Shortly after, the other guests took their leave, and the house soon resounded only to the couple's own footsteps. In the tense silence of the night, the sound seemed to take the two away from each other, though they must have ended up in the bedroom together. As she undressed before joining her husband in bed, Daisy tried her best to put the two foreigners (or, more exactly, one of them) out of her mind, but once the bedroom had become totally dark and silent and the faint squares of the windowpanes could be made out opposite the marital bed, at long last, as if she had found the path on which to direct her thoughts, she turned them with complete naturalness toward the man she had just met, just as she used to do when she was a girl. What could he be doing at that moment?

The two Irishmen got back to their hotel a little before midnight, Dull Baxhaja wrote in his report. As per instructions, he had gone up into the attic, and well before they got back from the party, in fact at ten-thirty precisely, he had taken his position over the room where the foreigners were staying. After checking the state of the ceiling (the gaps between the boards would permit him not only to hear whatever might be said but also to see a bit), after checking also what kind of creaking would occur if and when he was obliged to move one or another of his limbs, and, furthermore, after ascertaining the risk of falling through a rotten plank (even now, after so many years, he still felt horror at the memory of the night when his right leg had suddenly gone through the ceiling of the Shkjezis' bedroom, sticking down like a surrealist lamp fixture and giving the old lady the heart attack that took her to an early grave) — after having taken all precautions, then, and despite the fact that the rafters were crawling with bugs and other repulsive creatures, he applied the rules recently issued by counterespionage personnel management (rules intended in the first place to minimize drowsiness and above all actual sleep among on-duty surveillance operatives) and took out his little tin of personal bugs and spread them about his person.

As mentioned at the head of the present report, Dull Baxhaja continued, the two foreigners had returned to their room a little before midnight, and they had begun to pace back and forth, from corridor to bathroom door, as if worried about something. From time to time they exchanged a few words in their own language, which made no sense at all to the present observer, and that was not because some of the words were uttered by one or the other of the suspects while brushing his teeth: as the governor would know, the present observer was able to distinguish words pronounced by individuals having not just a toothbrush but any manner of object in their mouths, be it a pipe, a cigar, or, as in the case of Maria K., who habitually put it there during lovemaking (the governor will pardon the following), an organ that cannot possibly be named in the context of the present report. The present writer was thus perfectly able not only to grasp all such speech but also to understand a suspect who spoke while chewing, or with a sore throat, or with three-quarters of his teeth missing, and in many analogous circumstances, to such a degree that — as the governor must have been informed — Dull Baxhaja, “The Eaves,

was the one and only spy in the whole Northern Zone of the kingdom capable of interpreting the speech of a man struck down with apoplexy. No, to repeat, if he had been unable to understand the dialogue between the two suspects, it was not because they were brushing their teeth most of the time (a dialogue, and a brushing, that went on for some considerable length of time), but for the simple and obvious reason that the conversation took place in English, an idiom that, as the governor must surely be aware the sleuth Dull Baxhaja did not understand.

BOOK: The File on H.
11.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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