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Authors: Ismail Kadare

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

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BOOK: The File on H.
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We just got back from Washington, where we submitted our applications for Albanian visas. I can't bide the fact that we were rather disappointed by the way the Albanian Legation treated us. Not at all warm. On the contrary, the atmosphere was all suspicion and mistrust
.

The plenipotentiary, who saw us in person, took our breath away. The representative of this partly archaic and partly grotesque little monarchy turned out to be intelligent, crafty, and witty, to have an extraordinary knowledge of world literature, to speak all the main European languages (including Swedish). He was even the friend and patron of the French poet Apollinaire, and he pokes fun at
everything, most especially at his own country and its people. Although we were trying to be as vague as possible about the reasons for our visit, we couldn't help mentioning the name of Homer
—
and the diplomat interjected:

“Did you know that some people claim that in the first line of the
Iliad, “Menin aeide, thea, Péleíadéo Achiléos”
(‘Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, the word
ménin,
as you can see for yourselves, is the Albanian word
meni,
meaning ‘resentment'? Which means that of the first three or four words of world literature, the first and unfortunately the bitterest is in Albanian…. Ha ha!”

Then he went on talking about Albania with such cutting irony that in the end Max said to him:

“Your Excellency, I find it hard to know when you are speaking seriously and when you are joking. For instance, what you said about the word
mení,
which you find in Homer — is that a learned jest or is it
…
?”

The diplomat's eyes flashed with a fearsome mixture of intelligence, cynicism, bitterness, and malice
.

“As far as the word is concerned, I believe that what I told you is in effect correct, and yet..."

He fell silent and his face darkened, with only a twinkle of humor left in the corner of his eye, while his pupils shone with a fierce glow. After the words “and yet,” there was a long pause, which became ever more menacing, so that for the second time, unable to bear this lapse in conversation, Max interrupted:

“And yet, Your Excellency?”

“And yet” — the diplomat came to the point at last
—
“the Albanians of today maybe have nothing at all in common with the way you imagine them.”

“We don't imagine anything at all, I answered. “So far, you are the first Albanian we have ever met, and I can't hide the fact that we are, well, overwhelmed
."

The diplomat began to laugh again, while the consul, who had been present throughout without saying a word, stared at us with an obviously suspicious eye. When he glanced sideways at the maps that Max had taken out of his briefcase to show the plenipotentiary, I suddenly thought: Good God, of course
—
the consul takes us for spies!

“The consul assumed we were secret agents,” I said to Max as we walked away from the legation. “I realized that too,” he replied. “But what do you think of the plenipotentiary?”

"Amazing!"

"Amazing?" said Max. "That's an understatement...”

The notes ended there. The governor rubbed his eyes. Funny business, he thought. His mind felt a complete blank.

Something attracted his attention to the window. It was the rain that the wind knocked against the pane from time to time. Dawn had risen on one of those really filthy days that give you somber thoughts, like a debt to settle next week or the fear of having a cancer you've not yet mentioned to anyone.

“'The consul assumed we were secret agents,' I said to Max...” The governor read these words over and over, shaking his head. “What crooks!” he mumbled. “They think they can cover their tracks by planting words like
agent
and
spy I
Like pyromaniacs who give the first alert! What they're trying to say is, As we are as white as the driven snow, we are not afraid to say the word. But they can't pull the wool over my eyes! They must really be spies, and maybe far worse. All this nonsense about Homer and the rhapsodes is only camouflage, hiding their true, murky mission. They wrote those notes up on purpose and left them on purpose in their suitcases, so that even a dolt like Pjeter Prenushi would have no difficulty getting hold of them.

“You cretin!” the governor said aloud to himself, bursting with anger. “You utter idiot! You gave me the envelope, proud as Punch, as if to say, See what Í can do! Ah, you poor misguided fool! They ran rings around you, they took you for a ride, you blockhead! But it won't work with me. Oh no. I can see that all these scribbles are just eyewash. Let's wait and see what Dull has to tell us…
.”

As usual, the thought of Dull calmed the governor's nerves. It was not for nothing that he liked to say Dull was his balm, the secret of his restful nights. Every time he felt a sudden anxiety, the kind of anxiety that is all the more troublesome for being without obvious cause, he would think of Dull squeezed into some chimney or squatting on some blackened beam, and his nerves would be calmed down. He is listening, the governor would think; he is tracking down evil….

"Whereas you, Pjeter, birdbrain that you are, you've swallowed it hook, line, and sinker!" The governor roared out loud. “They shoved a load of paperwork under your nose, and you said. Thank you, that'll do nicely! Filthy spies! Bastards! …”

The governor was overcome with waves of anger, rising from his gut. He thought he could hear the shutters banging again, but it was the door, which had just opened. Startled, he saw that Daisy had come in.

Still warm from bed, wearing only her transparent nightdress, Daisy had crept up to him on tiptoe. Good God, what softness she exudes! He was right to tell her that she was much prettier half asleep than in any of her fancy outfits….

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

He covered up the documents with an almost automatic movement of his hand, even though her sight was still too clouded with sleep for her to make out any words.

“As you can see, I'm working …”

“You gave me a fright. Has anything happened?

He stroked her hak “Go back to bed. It's still very early in the morning."

The wind rustled and hissed outside. The governor watched his wife's hips swing provocatively as she left the room, but his eyes glowed with an icy stare.

Somewhere in those papers there was an allusion to fecundity, or fecundation, something about getting on with it before it was too late. … There was even something about Homeric seed!

He riffled through the papers in a frenzy, Ah, there it was. He had remembered correctly, except that the word used wasn't
seed
, it was
marrow
. But didn't that come to the same thing, really?

Then he understood the real cause of his muffled fury. Every time he heard mention of sterility or fertility, he felt as if allusions were being made to his wife. Or even worse: he imagined that whoever used such words desired Daisy and was yearning to pour his own sperm into her. To make her with child … before it was too late … before menopause set in … before dusk.

Hadn't one of those foreigners made eyes at her during the soiree? It was plain as a pikestaff, he realized, plain as a pikestaff. He was quite prepared to believe that they had come from the other end of the earth for the sole purpose of sleeping with his wife.

Curiously, the governor's jealousy was tinged with a strange kind of desire, which welled up so strongly that he nearly fainted from it.

The distant bell of the Franciscans” chapel spread its gloomy resonance over the rain-sodden town' as if to insist on its own repentance for some past failure. He imagined Brother Zef celebrating the morning service with eyes all red and swollen from a sleepless night; perhaps the image of one of the nuns had crossed his mind briefly. That would account for his having translating the Irishmen's passionate language with such ardor.

The governor's thoughts returned to Daisy's alabaster body, which doubtless made him an object of envy. Surely people dreamed of possessing his wife and making her pregnant. …

He was disturbed by a feeling, different from his usual desires that ran through him from head to toe. Getting up from his desk, he went noiselessly into the bedroom and gazed at Daisy. She appeared to be sleeping peacefully again, and despite her seeming more desirable than ever he did not dare wake her.

Daisy was not sleeping. When she heard the door creak on its hinges, she shut her eyes and slowed her breathing. She must have had an erotic dream in the first light of morning; she still felt limp.

A gloomy day had dawned outside. Even the chapel bells sounded as if they were in pain.

She wanted to cross herself, but she was quite numb in the bed's warmth and had lost all wish to execute the slightest physical movement. Instead of making the sign of the cross, her hand glided lazily over her breast and then her belly. She was on the brink of tears.

Bill, three hundred yards away, did cross himself. He was only half awake, but even though he barely heard the church bells, his hand moved automatically to his forehead, his chest, each shoulder…

It had been a truly hellish night for him. Only in the small hours had the anxiety that had racked every part of his brain finally subsided and given him some peace. In the faint light of dawn, he could make out the dull gray mass of the metal case containing the recording machine. Hi there, buddy, he thought, with a feeling of calm and joy. He liked the peace that the day's dawning brought him. Even the bugs seemed to be drowsing; they were certainly less ferocious now.

Bells are rung differently here, he managed to think just before he dropped off again. But the lonesome and lugubrious chimes, such as he had never heard anywhere else in the world, continued to reach his ears even while he slept.

4

A
SMALL CROWD WAS WAITING
on the pavement to watch the two Irishmen emerge from the Globe Hotel, or rather to get a glimpse of their luggage. Blackie the porter had sworn by all the gods that there was sure to be some nasty surprise when the cases were loaded. Maybe the hotel staff who had been given the job (Blackie had waited in vain for the manager to hire him) would stumble under the weighty maybe they would fall, maybe they would even break their backs. He hinted that the carriage could easily veer off and end up in the ditch. Apart from the terrible weight of those accursed trunks, there was that peculiar sensation the porter had felt in his head between the bus station and the hotel, which — he was sure of it now — came from the foreigners' cases. Well, then, he surmised, if a human brain could be affected like that, just think what might happen to horses” heads. Without his actually saying so out loud, it was obvious that Blackie reckoned the nags might very well bolt and hurtle the carriage, the driver, and his passengers into a ravine.

Lym the coachman had heard the gossip, but he turned up nonetheless at the appointed hour at the steps of the Globe Hotels demonstrating that he was prepared to test the porter's sinister prophecies. The word was that when he had been told of the porter's assessment of the relative mental strengths of man and his main helpmeet, he had retorted that his horses were at least brighter than Blackie. All the same, when the foreigners appeared at the hotel doorway, the onlookers, who had been there for several hours waiting to see how the whole business would end, definitely noticed an expression of worry on the face of the coachman and in the trembling of his horsewhip.

Large raindrops were falling irregularly. However the two travelers would not get inside the coach until they had seen their luggage properly stowed. The hotel staff, including the porter and even the manager himself, who had tried to lend a hand, had wobbled now and again as they brought the luggage out, had even nearly stumbled, but none of them actually fell. (They'll collapse on top of each other like dominoes, I swear by Allah they will, Blackie had promised; they'll fall on each other like pieces of meat on a shishkebab, then they'll scatter like chickpeas.) On the other hand, something happened that neither Blackie nor anyone else had foreseen. One of the travelers looked up at the sky anxiously, whispered something to the other foreigner, then both seemed to be about to make some point to the hotel boy who was carrying one of the trunks, then the first foreigner slipped off his raincoat and put it over the trunk, while the other nodded in approval.

"Ah, I see, they seem to want to protect that trunk from the rain. It must be full of… full of …”

“Full of what?” a voice asked.

No answer.

“What do you think could be in it?” the voice

insisted.

The first speaker stared at his questioner with wide eyes. “If you're that eager to know, why don't you ask them yourself?”

The second speaker just shrugged his shoulders.

Meanwhile the coach had set off, and the onlookers' necks all turned in the same direction, as if connected by an invisible string.

Within fifteen minutes the coach had left the little town and was rolling along an empty country road. Max and Bill looked out of the tiny openings in the side doors, onto the desolate plain, which looked even wilder at its edges.

Bill rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands.

“Is there fog on the plain, or am I just seeing things?” he asked.

“It really is foggy,” said Max.

Bill sighed with relief. I must stop worrying about that, he thought. Ever since they had left the town, it had seemed as if his sight was veiled once again by a wispy shroud. But the shroud was covering the plain, not his retina. It cheered him up, and he began to whistle.

“Beautiful, isn't it?” he said after a while. “It feels as if today is the real beginning of our adventure.”

BOOK: The File on H.
2.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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