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Authors: Ismail Kadare

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BOOK: The File on H.
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After brushing their teeth, the two foreigners opened their suitcases, took out their pajamas and went to bed. It must be emphasized that they exchanged yet more words in the dark before going to sleep. Nothing to report for the rest of the night. Nobody knocked at the door; our two customers therefore did not open it; nor did either of them go to the window so no signal was given by lantern by lighter, or by any other means. The only detail perhaps worth recording: one of them went to sleeps as the observer realized straightaway but the other stayed awake, tossed and turned in bed, sighing heavily and scratching himself. With the exception of the last detail whose cause was easily guessed (though the hotel manager had sworn thrice over that there were no bedbugs here), it was hard to understand why one of the miscreants should have sunk into slumber while the other stayed awake and even harder to grasp the reasons for the contortions and sighs of the latter. The sleuth would like simply to observe that his long experience had taught him that in similar cases — in other words., where the miscreants are two in number — it is not unusual for fear, doubt, anxiety indeed even thoughts of betrayal, to prevent one of the partners in crime from sleeping in peace. So that was perhaps the reason for the difference in behavior between the two in the present case also. But there could of course have been other reasons: for example one of them may have had a guilty conscience and as everyone knows that can disturb one's sleep, whereas the other, the less dishonest of the pair, could sleep like a log; unless it was the other way around — that the really crooked one, hardened to this kind of adventure despite his tarnished conscience, was sleeping soundly, while the one who was but a beginner in the trade and had not yet been blooded was unable to quell his inner torments. These finer points perhaps went beyond the sleuth's mission, and the governor may well have formed the view that his agent was treading on ground well outside his areas of competence for the pettiest of motives, such as ambition, a desire for promotion, or just vainglory. But he wanted it understood that no such assumption would be justified, and that if he expanded on such and such topic or came close to appearing impertinent by dealing with matters that were not strictly his concern, then he did so not for any of the base motives mentioned but because he was convinced that he was thereby doing his job more satisfactorily, for when all is said and done, did the governor himself not declare, at that meeting he held with us all, that spies were not merely listening instruments but living beings, servants of the state enjoying not only the right but even the
duty
to interpret what they had been asked to do in as creative a manner as possible?

To come back to the reasons for the sleep of the one and the sleeplessness of the other suspect, the sleuth added, the reasons could be quite different from those suggested above. He was close to concluding simply that the two fellows had maybe arranged to parcel out roles, one sleeping while the other kept watch, for security reasons.

The spy also mentioned which bed each of them was sleeping in and added a sketch of the scene to his report so that with the help of the hotel manager, it was easy to ascertain which of the two researchers did not get a wink of sleep.

3

T
HE ONE WHO COULD NOT SLEEP
was Bill Norton. Although usually a light sleeper, he had thought that with the fatigue of the journey, the late night, and especially the few glasses he had drunk at the governor's party, he would nod right off. But that did not happen. An hour after getting into bed, he realized that he was going to have a sleepless night. A flea or bug bite had sufficed to shatter the fragile, unconscious partition between sleep and waking. The hotelier's words “I can assure you there are no bedbugs here; only yesterday I sprayed your room with insecticide,” together with the smell of disinfectant and the memory of the dreadful bus ride and their arrival at N——, the search for a porter, all coming on top of their reception on entering Albania, in that filthy customs office, and then the ogling of the governor's wife, especially as he'd thought such transparent banter had had its day long ago, and finally the hotelier's assurance, " … unless of course they come down through the rafters”: all these superimposed impressions overlaid, so to speak, by an inexplicable anxiety, the kind of alarm one feels when it seems that someone is trying to force open the front door of one's house — all that had him tossing and turning in bed all night long.

Two hundred yards away, the sole photographer in the town of N, who with Pjeter Prenushi's help had reproduced every page of the newcomers' notebooks a couple of hours before, was now developing the film beneath the spy's baleful stare, Pjeter was still smarting from the slight inflicted on him by the governor when he awarded the initial surveillance of the foreigners to Dull Baxhaja. “So do you believe me now, you numskull?” he muttered angrily to himself. “Thought you could do without me, didn't you? But you've seen the light at last, haven't you, that we're dealing with educated folk, the type of customer that doesn't just say what's in his head without thinking but puts it down in writing. OK?”

The prints, still wet, were laid out to dry, and the photographer was fishing the last ones out of the sink. Ha! Dull could train his ears as long as he liked, but what these foreigners had in their heads was right there in black and white!

Pjeter Prenushi lit cigarette after cigarette as the photographer, his face drawn and haggard from lack of sleep and ill health, took the very last prints out of the developer.

The agent looked at his watch from time to time and snarled, “Come on! Come on!” just to keep the old man on his toes.

It was two o'clock on the dot when Pjetr Prenushi's cart rumbled under the windows of the hotel where Bill Norton was still tossing sleeplessly in his bed. Pjeter was on his way to Zef Angjelini, the friar, the only man in N—— who could translate English into plain Albanian.

At precisely two-thirty. Brother Zef, after crossing himself and praying that God forgive him "yet another sin," began to work on the translation.

“Oh my God,” Bill groaned, burying his head in the pillow. It wasn't his first sleepless night, far from it, but it was unlike any other he had known. He felt ever more stressed, and the luminous hands of his watch, which he glanced at every so often, made him shiver as if they glowed with a deathly light.

The cart rumbled under his window once again at six-thirty. Bill was now quite exhausted, emptied of all his reserves.

"Good grief, here they are!” mumbled the governor, still half asleep, as he heard the horse-drawn cart trundle up to his door.

He slipped out of bed very carefully, so as not to wake his wife and went downstairs.

Pjeter Prenushi, resentment written all over his face, handed him a large envelope.

"Well done lad,” the governor said, without even looking at the agent. "Off to bed now.”

The governor went back up to his study and took out the sheets of translation, together with a short covering note: “Herewith the documents you requested urgently. P. P.”

The governor let out a heartfelt sigh. Ah, it was nothing like Bull's report writing! Nothing gave the governor as much pleasure as those reports, not even — though he would have been ashamed to admit it — not even romantic novels.

“At last!” he thought as he unfolded the sheets covered with the priest's beautiful handwriting. "Now let's see what those nuts have in their heads," he added, feeling a twinge in his heart. The pain accompanied a vague feeling of guilt at receiving reports from someone other than Dull Baxhaja.

“At last!” he said a second time, as he settled down to read.

After a while, the governor raised his head and rubbed his eyes. He had never liked books, but unlike the other officials at N----, he did sometimes read. Gossips said that it was only because of his wife, but he didn't mind. During their long, boring evenings together, over cast by that marital tension which is far more treacherous than an outright row, what he'd do to clear the atmosphere was not to whisper soothing words to Daisy, or to promise her an outing to Tirana, or to smack her around, as other husbands did, but simply to pick up the book that had been lying for ages on her bedside table and open it. He would then feel his wife's eyes on him, attentive at first, then sympathetic, as if she felt sorry to see him mortifying himself on her account. Thereafter her toings and froings between bedroom and bath would accelerate, the rustling of silk would become more audible, until the awaited moment when she would tiptoe up to him and place a kiss on his forehead. Those were the sweetest moments they had, especially when with her dainty hand Daisy closed his book and took the spectacles off his brow.

Reading had thus been long associated in his mind and in his senses with the smell of powder, so that in the absence of this stimuli it seemed doubly tiresome to him.

However, there was another reason why, on this occasion reading seemed unbearable. He had been waiting to see these pages with impatience, almost with anxiety, and they disappointed him. They were opaque, incomprehensible, and — this was the main thing — profoundly suspect.

They consisted mostly of notes written in diary form, with a few short letters interspersed. They dealt with learning Albanian and shorthand. Frequently, also, they mentioned keeping things secret. Now and again there was a note of disquiet. "We must hurry, or it will be too late.“

Why did they have to hurry? For what might they be too late?

The governor skipped through to the end of the manuscript in the hope of finding further oracular phrases, but there were very few of them, and they were always buried inside stodgy paragraphs that seemed to have been designed to hide them.

So that's that, he sighed, when he realized that whether he liked it or not, he was going to have to work through the whole text if he wanted to glean any inkling of the plot. It had been written by Bill Norton.

I remember that boring afternoon when I slouched on the sofa not knowing what to do, and switched on the radio. It seems so
far away, like in another world. The program I tuned in to was just as boring
—
Professor Stewart, giving the old routine on Homer, the dispute that's been going on for three hundred years, with version A versus version B, and version C to cap it all — oh boy, was that dreary! Was Homer really the author of the
Iliad
and the
Odyssey,
or was he just some sort of redactor, or more precisely the chairman of a committee set up to write it all down.? “Of course, if we prefer to use contemporary language
…
,” and right on cue, the interviewer chuckled to keep the professor company. Boring! I was going to get up to turn the volume down, I even thought, That's a program that might just impress a team of accountants, when, at that very moment, the classicist answered one of the interviewer's questions with a digression. A blessed digression that stayed my dial-turning hand: “Is it silly to wonder if there's a country or region in the world today where such epic poetry is maybe still being invented?” “Well, no, your question is not silly at all,” Professor Stewart replied. “Quite the contrary, it is a very interesting question….” And to my amazement (if not the amazement of accountants), the classicist explained that such an area did indeed exist, that it was not a very large area, and it was the only one in the world where
that kind of poetry was still cultivated. He said exactly where it was: in the Balkan peninsula. More precisely, it covered the whole northern zone of Albania hut extended also into parts of Montenegro and reached a few parts of Bosnia, inside the Yugoslav border. The radio professor explained; “This region is the only place in the world where poetic material of the Homeric kind is still being produced. In other words, I would say that it is the last surviving foundry, the last available laboratory, if I may use a modern expression, which can still bring back …

The governor nodded. So let's see what comes next, he thought.

The following pages described how this broadcast had amazed Bill Norton. This was where the two fools first expressed their fear of arriving "too late,"

Small wonder that someone like me, a mere post-doc from Ireland who came to New York with my friend Max Ross in the (far from certain!) hope of adding something new to the old debate about Homer, was dumbfounded. The last available laboratory, I kept saying over to myself The last surviving foundry. I was rather disoriented and kept mulling the words over as if my intellect refused to take in their meaning. On
the radio, the voice droned on, but I wasn't listening anymore. "The last available laboratory in the world,” I said aloud at last, as if that would shake my brain out of its daze. Very soon that foundry would disappear. It was already threatened. It had to be made use of before it was too late. Before it fell into ruin, before it was buried under the sands of time, before it was forgotten
.

I was startled to realize that I was pacing up and down the room. I would have preferred to think of the whole business in a state of calm, but that was out of the question. Good God, we must hurry! I thought. We must get over there as quick as we can. Discover that ancient laboratory. That thousand-year-old foundry of verse. Study it close up, as through a microscope; listen, as if we had stethoscopes, to the way in which Homeric matter, the Homeric marrow, is produced, and with that under our belts, it would be no trouble at all to unravel the mystery of Homer himself.

But shh! I warned myself. Not a word to anyone. Except Max Ross
…

“The only area …” I
kept on saying to myself The only area still able to give birth to epic poetry. The rest of the planet had passed through menopause. The only fecund region
was there. The only place that was still hot. The only place that could still he made pregnant with the very latest epic. If we waited any more, it would be too late for anything. Sand and forgetting would cover it all over, all of it even the puzzle itself ...

BOOK: The File on H.
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