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Authors: Ismail Kadare

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

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BOOK: The File on H.
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“We'd already caught on to that,”the governor said to himself as he scrabbled for a cigarette with a hand that shook from excitement. “Yes, we'd already caught on, you old crook!” he said aloud.

He needed a few minutes to be able to concentrate on reading again. As was to be expected, one of the pigeons had let on to the other, and both of them were now overcome by their “discovery."

We were both high on thoughts of all that was going to happen. It would shake the world! They would beg us to accept a chair at MIT! Definitive papers at the World Congress of Mediterranean Archaeology! And in our old Irish hometown people would shake their heads in disbelief Bill Norton and Max Ross? You must have got the names wrong. It must be some other pair…

We laughed and laughed. And then we started imagining all the consequences again. Sing, O muse, of Harvard's anger! And of the International Center for Homeric Re
search! "And of my stupid mother-in-law
, 
Diana Stratford,” Max added
.…

But we had done enough laughing. We had to leave at once for those distant parts, had to get there, to the area, to the expiring laboratory. Issue a press release right away? No, quite the opposite: keep it all very, very secret Pretend the idea had never occurred to us. All that remained was to get started, there and then. Without telling anyone what we were up to
.

We went over our good resolutions again and again, and then Max looked hard at me and said quietly, after a pause; “It is a good idea, undoubtedly, but in any event, you can't do anything without proper preparation.”

Those were the first cold drops to fall on the heat of our enthusiasm
.

“We'd already caught on to that one as well.” the governor mumbled as he stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray…"OK, let's see where the fox goes to ground…
.”

He was convinced that the plot was right there but a little more effort was needed to coax it out into the light.

…
Who was Homer? A blind poet, as millions of educated folk imagine, or a redactor, or even, as Stewart claims, an editor in chief? The ancient poems of the
Iliad
and the
Odyssey
edited and published by Sir J. R Homer, of the Grecian Academy
—
ha ha ha!

Meanwhile our minds were racing toward the Balkan peninsula. According to Stewart, there were rhapsodes still living there. Certainly the very last of the rhapsodes, the last Homeric singers. We would listen to their ballads and record them. That much was clear. But we wouldn't just record different singers; we would compare them each to each. That was also common sense: confronting different rhapsodes and comparing the different versions. But would that be enough? We entered the two types of work into our notebooks, and as we did so we realized that the adventure that lay ahead would be much more complex than we had thought at first
.

The governor reread the paragraphs he had just deciphered: proper preparation … comparing the different versions … adventure that lay ahead …

OK, let's see where you go to get your instructions he thought. Your university — or some office of the Greek intelligence service?

Once again he was disappointed. The glimmer of light that had begun to clarify his suspicions was replaced by a thick fog of boring prose.

We finally laid our hands on a recent and very complete edition of Albanian epic poetry
.
With the names of the itinerant singers whose ballads were reproduced. We could publish a collection of the songs of other rhapsodes. That way epic poetry would have a thousand faces. Like the reincarnation of a single being by metempsychosis
.

We are less interested in Albanian epics themselves than in their production process, to use a modern term. We are seeking to reach by induction a truth of universal applicability: the means by which epic poetry is generated, and as a consequence, the answer to the enigma of Homer

The comparative method is the main key to our work. Not just comparisons between the different rhapsodes. The most important comparison will be the different interpretations of the same song by the same rhapsode. In other words, his way of singing such and such a poem one day compared to the way he sings it some later day. A month later, say, or three months later.

Apparently the issue is not just a question of memorization. It is also related to a fundamental aspect of oral poetry
—
the mechanisms of forgetting, which in its turn is not really just a matter of forgetfulness but a much more complicated business. There could be involuntary loss of memory, but at the same time, conscious memory loss is
involved. An alleged slip of memory justifyng a new interpretation of the song...

The rhapsode is the main wheel in the machinery of the epic. He is publisher, bookseller, and librarian in one, and also rather more than that: he is a posthumous co-author and, in this capacity, has the right to amend his text. It's perfectly legal, no one disputes his right, and no one criticizes him, except perhaps his own conscience
.

It now seems obvious that the question which formerly seemed fundamental for explaining the Homeric phenomenon
—
to wit, how many lines could a rhapsode commit to memory (some say six thousand, others eight thousand, or even as many as twelve thousand)
—
needs to be replaced with a different question; How many lines may a rhapsode wish to forget? Or rather: Can a rhapsode exist
without a capacity to forget?

We must stress, in this connection, that we still know very little about the world of the rhapsodes. What sort of people are they? How is their gift acquired? When is their art recognized publicly? On what does their reputation rest? What causes them to return to ordinary life? How are the contests between them held? What are the different styles, or schools, or rivalries between them within this
 s
trange universe of recitation? How are the mediocre performers filtered or weeded out? How are criteria of value established?

We'll try to find out all that when we are there. With a bit of luck, we will manage to enter this universe, and then we shall understand how the yeast was made to rise in the ancient dough. As it always has done. As it did in H's time
.

Just as the governor was about to yawn, he lighted on a passage that had what seemed to him to be a rather literary touch:

For the second time this week, I've had a bit of trouble with my eyes. The first time, it was like a cloud in front of me. I thought it must be from too much reading and took no notice. Today it happened again, but it was slightly different. It was as if I was looking through a broken windowpane that would not stop wobbling. It felt as though the vibration was damaging my retina. After which my sight stayed misty for quite a while. I must go and see an optician
.

As always in such circumstances the governor had the impression that he could smell his wife's powder. He could see it sprinkled on her smooth belly, just where the pubic hair began but carnal desire instead of slowing down his breathings as it usually did' filled his eyes with cruelty.

To ward off any evil imaginings, he struggled to focus his mind again on his utterly boring reading.

There are three hypotheses put forward by German scholars, who were the first to study the common motifs in the Greek and Albanian traditions, the migration of material from one mythology to another, its splicing, transferal, and cross-fertilization. The first view is that the process of the creation of epic poetry has come to an end in Albania. The second view is that the process is still alive. And the third view is a compromise; even if the age of the Albanian epic is effectively over, the embers are still hot and could throw out some last bright sparks. The same scholar
,
takes the view that even though the production of new epics is dying out, the foundry itself, however derelict it may have become, is still actually there
.

So we must hurry. Make haste before the embers go cold! Before the foundry collapses!

“Before the embers go cold …,” the governor repeated to himself. In his mind, which had been shaped by detective mysteries “embers” summoned up images of
sleepers
, agents who had been put in place long ago., then of a nunnery, then of an old conspiracy, then, suddenly changing direction, it took his mind back to his wife's sexual organ.

“Stop that now!" he exclaimed, and put his head down into the papers again. He would force himself to read them, even if they were in hieroglyphics!

How does living material, on more prosaically, inanimate raw material, bow does material in general enter the epic machinery that turns it into art?

That is another chapter, just as fascinating as the question of forgetting
.

The Germans claim firmly that you can still find Albanian rhapsodes who convert contemporary events into epic poetry (who can Homerize modern life). It would be really extraordinarily good fortune to see such a miracle happening before our eyes
.

Every time the question of this transformation arises, I think back to an old, long-abandoned tannery on the outskirts of Dublin, not far from where I lived. That's how I imagine the ancient Homeric workshop
.

When an event goes through those old rollers, belts, and vats of dark and sinister liquid, what happens to it? How do the rhapsodes' lungs, brains, fantasies, passions, and even their heredity contribute to the process?

It is all rather like an embalming process. Yet it's not a corpse that is being treated, but a piece of life, an event, most often an unhappy one
.

At bottom, epic poetry itself, seen as a whole, is no more than a kind of morgue. It's no coincidence if the climate of the epic is always cold, indeed colder than cold. The temperature is always below zero. Moreover, there is a formulaic phrase that comes back time and again, like a refrain:
This sun shines brightly but gives little warmth….

The governor reread the preceding passage and then underlined the words in the middle of the page'
dark and sinister liquid
, trying all the while to keep his mind off Daisy's body. But he couldn't because the notes became once again' just like a novel …

I can't get to sleep. The lights of the city twinkle through the windowpanes. As they go out one by one, I feel as if I'm floating in the Milky Way
.

There are billboards out there, one advertising ketchup and another vitamins that are good for the eyes. My optician prescribed that for me
.

I imagine our two names, Bill Norton and Max Ross, alongside Homer's (good God, like two assistants helping a blind man across
the street!) in newspaper headlines and on the illuminated news display
.

"Yes, go blind, then the two of you blinder than your hero!” the governor exclaimed and enjoyed the relief that he always felt when he uttered a curse.

"Well now …,” he said a few seconds later, as he came across the words
happy day
. “Let's see what made our two dickey birds so happy."

Oh, happy day! Day of surprises. And of luck
.

I could easily believe in divine intervention. Can't be a coincidence that the magical elements
magnés
and
phone,
which make up the original word for the machine, seem to come from ancient times
.

What has brought magic to this day, and to our forthcoming pilgrimage, and to our whole enterprise, is the word made up from
magnetic
and
sound,
the magnetophone, or, as the manufacturers call it for simplicity's sake, the
tape recorder.

It is a machine that records the human voice. That you can take with you, wherever you go. That not only records but plays back, as often as you want
…
Ifs exactly what we need! Like a gift from the heavens! Sent to us by providence! From Olympus!

Hmm … The governor stifled a cough. So that's all their machine could do He had been imagining all sorts of things: a cinema camera, an oilfield detector a bomb intended to blow up Parliament…

Careful now! he warned himself as his eyes fell on the name of the king:

We are also learning more and more about Albania. A small country with an ancient population. Tragic history. To begin with, a European country. Then Asian overlords. Return to Europe in the twentieth century. Half of all Albanians live-outside the current borders
.

Apart from the epic, which constitutes its principal treasure, in our view, Albania also has chrome and oil And a king, Zog, whose name means “bird.” King Bird the First
.

I had another appointment with the optician. Got a fresh prescription
.

Max is having problems with his wife
.

We're trying to get the money together so as to buy the tape recorder as soon as possible
.

We are revising all our ideas in the light of the machine. Oddly enough, bringing a tape recorder into our work is no trouble at all The device fits our project so well that it seems as if we had designed it all from the start with the machine in mind. As if, sub
consciously, it had preexisted its own invention
…

The governor skipped through several more unutterably boring sheets. His eyelids were drooping but he sat up with a start when he came across the words
minister
and
spy
.

"You're getting closer and closer, my friends," he mumbled as he reached for his cigarettes. "You're walking right into the noose."

As he read on he said those words to himself over and over, but without really knowing whether the
noose
was the Albanian Legation in Washington or Albania itself.

BOOK: The File on H.
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