Authors: Ismail Kadare
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
Max nodded gaily.
Above the half-dismantled and rain-sodden haystacks, black birds were wheeling, their wings seeming weighed down by the enormous raindrops.
“The farther away the inn is from here, the better for us," Bill said. “We'll be able to get on with the work in peace. Otherwise we'll have half our time taken up by small-town society calls."
“I bet they'll come out all this way to get hold of us.”
“You think so? Then we'll just have to be absolute bores.”
“Easy to say," Max replied. “But I think we have to do the opposite and be extremely accommodating. They could give us a load of trouble.”
“Maybe if we told them more about the work we're planning to do, they'd leave us in peace," said Bill. “After all, it's in their national interest.”
“Do you think they give a damn?”
“How should I know? Maybe you're right. Looking at a country from afar, you imagine that every inhabitant is eager to slave away for it, but when you get nearerâ¦ Actually, I guess it's the same with us. Hey, look, more haystacks.”
“I've never seen such haystacks â they look like ragged beggars,” said Max.
“Maybe because they've been in use. It
the end of winterâ¦. What were we saying?”
“About local societyâ¦”
“Oh, right! If we get involved with those people, that's the end of our work. I think I even heard them talking about a ballâ¦.”
Max burst out laughing. They joked about being invited to a provincial ball, then Max teased his friend about the governor's wife.
“I thought I saw her making eyes at you.”
“You think so?” Bill rocked with laughter,
“Buffalo Inn â¦ Buffalo Inn," Bill chanted, to the rhythm of the carriage's creaking wheels. A proper medieval name for an inn. The longer the journey continued., the safer they felt from the dangers of bridge games and dances. The ruts and potholes on the road, which bounced the carriage about, offered supplementary protection against provincial cardplayers.
The inn stood by the roadside. Even before the carriage had come to a halt, they noticed the roof of flat stones, then a blackish balcony with a wooden balustrade, and finally the main door, which the wind blew back and forth on its hinges.
A tall boy with a jutting chin and wet, chilblained hands hobbled out on wooden clogs, whose clacking made it seem that he was moving faster than he really was.
Then a man came out to greet them. “I am the innkeeper,” he said. “My name is Shtjefen. And this is my lad, Martin," he added, pointing to the boy. “I am happy for my inn to house such unusual guests.”
His eyes looked sincerely glad, even if his mustache drooped at the tips as if mortified by some unknown offense.
“Inn of the Bone of the Buffalo,” Bill spelled out from the sheet-metal sign nailed onto one of the swinging doors. “That's a very old name, isn't it?”
“Indeed it is,” the innkeeper replied. “It's been handed down from generation to generation. They say it's been in existence for nearly a thousand years.”
Max whistled in admiration and cast his eyes over the soot-blackened beams above their heads.
They ascended the dangerously creaking wooden staircase in single file. The innkeeper pushed open the door to one of only two upstairs rooms.
“Here is your room, gentlemen. The bedsheets are clean. If you wish, you may make a fire in the fireplace. At night the wind blows a lot, but if you close the shutters you won't hear or feel a thing. They're thick, made of oak, and bulletproof. And here are some slow-burning candles for the night.”
The innkeeper's eyes lit up, and then he furrowed his brow in thought.
“It's very odd, but two weeks ago I dreamed that I had two guests who were very different from my usual clientele. They came on horseback, and their mounts had, in place of manes, unlit lanterns hanging around their necks, I thought in my dream: Let's hope that is a good omen! And then, two days later, news of your visit reaches meâ¦.”
The foreigners exchanged glances.
“Does it happen that rhapsodes sometimes lodge at your inn?” Bill asked.
“Rhapsodes? Hmm...Of course they do. Even though â¦”
The innkeeper made a wide gesture with his arms, as if to express deep regret.
“They used to come much more often. These days there are not all that many of them left.”
“How come? That's not what some people reported to us. Apparently your inn is at the point where all their routes cross."
“That is right, sir. And I am glad that you know. It is perfectly accurate information. Perhaps I said more than I meant. What I meant to say was that in the old days there were more players of the
the long-necked instrument with one string, with which you may be familiar."
“That goes without saying,' both travelers said simultaneously.
“So....But if you want to see these singers." the innkeeper continued, “then there's nowhere apart from here that you'll find them, except perhaps at the Inn of the Two Roberts, where
players still drop in, but that's a long way away.”
“We'll talk again about that," said Max. “We really do want to get in touch with them.“
“I'll be glad to help, gentlemen," the innkeeper said, as he stood to one side to let in the lads who were bringing up the luggage.
Late that evening, the governor was busy at his desk, drafting a report for the Minister of the Interior, and he glanced from time to time at the account that his informer Dull had written on the two foreigners' first day at the Buffalo Inn.
He does write well, the old devil, thought the governor. He may be a mere informer, but his prose is better than what you find in the
He had long secretly envied Dull's style, especially turns of phrase like “leaving aside the fact that this task is not incumbent upon the present writer," or all those “notwithstanding"s that he sprinkled around his sentences with such elegance. The governor himself used to try inserting the latter word wherever he could in his letters, even when it did not really fit, and on rereading his texts, he always found himself obliged to cross it out.
“Barely had they arrived at the Buffalo Inn and after exchanging a few words with the innkeeper (leaving aside the fact that this task is not incumbent upon the present writer, I am obliged to point out that some of the innkeeper's words, specifically when he told the newcomers that he had seen them in a dream, appeared to the present writer to be not only meaningless but quite inappropriate in the mouth of a citizen of our kingdom when speaking to foreigners) â after exchanging a few words, then, the foreigners remained in their room.”
The governor skimmed through the report and stopped at the point where Dull Baxhaja described the opening of the suitcases and especially of the trunks that contained the machinery, not to mention the thousands of file cards that the Irishmen took out of various card boxes with great care. Actually, the spy went on to say, the visitors did not seem particularly concerned about hiding the cards; quite the opposite, in fact, since they used thumbtacks to fix some of the cards and especially maps to the walls, to the extent that within fifteen minutes there was not a bare space on any of the partitions or even on the inside of the door.
The governor skipped the pages where the informer described in every detail the testing of the tape recorder, the sound of which he was hearing for the first time in his life. According to Dull, the Irishmen had recorded their own voices, though the playback had a different tone from that of a natural human voice. This difference notwithstanding. Dull continued, he was able, by dint of his vast experience, to satisfy himself that it was indeed the foreigners own voices, since the distortion made by the machine was identical to the alteration of a voice overheard from behind sheet metal, down a chimney, or through a decrepit wall.
What a sleuth! thought the governor.
He decided that the passage in Dull's report about the maps pinned to the wall was the part most worth mentioning in his own report to the minister. “The present author,” Dull had written, “after having fulfilled the duties required of him in his posting under the eaves, managed to get a clearer view, from several angles, of the maps and of the markings made on them,"
The governor reread several times the passage describing the maps. According to Dull, they looked like weather maps, such as he had seen on the only occasion that he had been to Tirana airport, when he was entrusted, as the governor will perhaps recall, withÂ the surveillance of Mme. Maria M----, traveling toÂ Malta and suspected of taking with her two ancient icons from the great church of ShkodÃ©r as well as a secret missive from MonsÃgnor S----.
“There's really nothing this lad doesn't know,” the governor said to himself with something approaching admiration. “Nothing escapes him; he only has to see something once, or, even more, to hear something, and hes got it. If he lived a hundred years, two hundred years. Dull would still have it all stored up in his memory. He is more precious than a great library, than the National Archives or the British Museum, and all other such things.
According to Dull's thorough description, the maps were marked with a host of arrows, some of them circled, some curved, some straight, similar to the signs that indicate rain and wind in meteorology. Above or below the arrows were letters, or numbers, or both: A, CRB, A4, etc. On some of the maps, roads were marked by unbroken lines, as were the built-up areas alongside them. Even the Yugoslav border was marked on two maps.
Hmm. That's serious, the governor thought. These customers could not even be bothered to camouflage their game. Either they still think we are fools, or else â¦ or else there's something even more important underneath.
Dull went on to give even more interesting clues. According to the spy, some of the maps were marked with large circles labeled “epic zone A” or simply “epic zone" or “authentic epic zone”; there were even areas labeled “epic subzone” and “semi-epic zone".
It was all extraordinarily precise. The governor would have liked to copy this part of the report word for word, but he was reluctant to do so. It was not just a matter of pride â after all, nobody would ever know that he, the all-powerful governor of the town of Nâ, had plagiarized the report of a mere informer â but something of much greater weight: he was afraid of making a blunder. All these facts were laid out in the open, as if they were being displayed precisely in order to be seen. What if that was merely a trick designed to divert suspicion?
“Hmm â¦,” he said aloud. For a moment he was quite still, hesitant, his pen in his hand. He would do well to cast his report to the minister in such a way as to protect himself, however things turned out,, against accusations of gullibility, on the one hand, and, on the other, of having been overeager to suspect the foreigners at any cost.
He started scribbling again, and as he added fine-sounding words to his unpolished sentences, he felt once again a pang in his heart. He was jealous of Dull. The more he thought about it, the angrier he became with himself. He tried three times to get “notwithstanding" into his report, but however hard he tried, he could not manage to insert it in the right place; it stuck out from the other words like a foreign body, like an unacceptable and even comical intrusion, and he crossed it out three times with a stroke of the pen that was more like the lash of a whip. “Oh, oh,” he groaned aloud, “a vulgar little spy who can write better than I can! Well, anyway," he added by way of self-consolation, “flowers grow better on dunghills.”
After much effort, he finally managed to deliver himself of a paragraph in which he informed the minister that in view of the maps and the arrows marked on them, and notwithstanding the foreigners professed interest in the movements of rhapsodes across northern Albania, there was every reason to suspect them of being involved in intelligence activities. It was still unclear how they intended to use the rhapsodes to transmit or receive information or coded messages. For the time being, and as per His Excellency's instructions, the foreigners had been placed under twenty-four-hour surveillance, but (and His Excellency would please forgive his raising this problem a second time) he was obliged to confess that the surveillance was, in effect, from the aural point of view, quite deaf.
He checked his last sentence against the informer's report, and his contentment at having found such a happy formulation evaporated instantly. Apart from the expression “Your Excellency,” which had replaced “the governor” in Dull's version, his sentence was in all respects identical to his agent's words. He realized he had become enslaved by Dull's style, “To hell with the whole business!” he sighed, suddenly exhausted. He had begun to ponder something else. Should he ask the minister to send an English-speaking informer, or would it be better not to annoy him with a request of that kind? When he had raised the question in one of his letters a fortnight ago, the minister's office had refused point-blank: there were only two English-speaking operatives in Tirana, one of whom barely managed to cover the British Legation, and the other had an ear infection and was thus, in effect, unavailable. Under the circumstances, the ministry wrote, the governor would have to accept that however important it might be to keep a close watch on the foreigners, he could not have the services of the only currently active English-speaking agent in the capital The office would try to find one for him from some other part of the kingdom, but the governor should take note here and now that it would be no easy task, because quite apart from the shortage of intelligence operatives with foreign languages., the whole issue of informers had recently been complicated by the results of a medical survey, which showed that for years a number of agents had been hiding the fact that their hearing was very poor.