Thursday, January 04, 2007



Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02 (The New Yorker fiction)

Posted 2005-12-19


To compare the Albanian Writers’ Union to a whore seems extremely vulgar, like so many overused metaphors, particularly the ones that have become common since the fall of Communism. Yet my plan to put together an accurate history of the Union (or, at least, its history from 1962 to 1967) has always awakened in me the vision of a certain woman named Marguerite. I am unable to dissociate one from the other; they are bound together like a fragrance to an almost forgotten memory.
Marguerite was a prostitute. She lived in a little alley off Dibra Street, more or less opposite the alley at the end of which the Writers’ Union was situated in those years.
I’d heard that an architect in France had constructed a modern building with an all-glass façade designed to reflect the classical cathedral across the street from it, and that, since then, such appositions had become quite fashionable. Still, it was difficult to imagine any particular link between the Writers’ Union building, or the institution it represented, and the woman who lived across the way. It was all the more difficult given that the Writers’ Union, before taking up residence here, in what had been, under the monarchy, the villa of the Minister of the Interior, had been situated in Carnarvon Street, in a courtyard it shared with the former palace of the princesses, as well as the National Library. (Later, when the Union was moved again, this time to the building in Kavaja Street where King Zog had celebrated his wedding, in 1938, people began to suspect that some mysterious royalist shadow was looming over that ultra-Communist institution.)
What was beyond doubt was the fact that I had come to know of Marguerite for the simple reason that her home was situated in an alley across from the Writers’ Union.
On Dibra Street, there was a little coffee shop where the young reporters who worked at the Writers’ Union often downed beers when the weather was hot. Next to it was a privately owned fruit stall. It was there that I saw Marguerite for the first time. I was just coming out of the coffee shop when a friend from the Union whispered, “Look, there’s Marguerite, the woman who lives across the street.”
I’d heard about her, but so vaguely that I’d forgotten everything—I knew only that she was one of “those women” of an earlier time, who was said to live with her aged mother in a little house in the alley.
Despite what I’d imagined, she was in her mid-thirties, and the light summer dress she was wearing made her look even younger. She had a pale complexion and chestnut-brown hair that fell in loose curls to the nape of her neck, and she didn’t look the least bit vulgar. A sort of Anna Karenina, but without Vronsky or the screech of carriage wheels—in place of which she had assumed the fate of a fallen woman in a Communist country in the Balkans in the sixties.
As we returned to the Writers’ Union, I listened attentively to what my colleague had to say about her. She was the classiest prostitute in all of Tirana, and apparently the only one of her kind. It was amazing that she was still here in Albania. Her clients were a select group of gentlemen who learned of her by word of mouth. She used the forbidden form of address, “Sir,” and let them stay all night. At three in the morning, her mother would serve coffee, and the client would slip payment, a thousand leks, discreetly under Marguerite’s pillow.
Rarely had I listened to the details of a story with such fascination.
If someone had told me earlier that I would be captivated by a woman of the old ways—like one of those ladies in muslin hats and veils, glimpsed perhaps in a gondola, whose likenesses you could still find in family photo albums in Tirana’s bourgeois households—I would have died laughing. You’re a ridiculous old man after all, I would have told myself, nothing but a sentimental fool hiding behind your stylish bell-bottoms, your sweater with “XX” on it to symbolize the twentieth century, and all the other fatuous accessories you use to attract girls.
Still, as if rising through a crack in the ice, a truth surfaced in my mind, one that had long lain dormant there: the girls I knew—the ones with perfect stomachs toned by long hours of sports, manual labor, and swimming—suddenly seemed sterile and lacking in mystery in comparison with Marguerite’s body, as I imagined it.
It was long after midnight—I don’t know what time exactly, but perhaps the very moment when Marguerite’s mother was bringing a second cup of coffee up to her bedroom—and I was lying awake imagining Marguerite’s black garters hung over her bedpost, her weary silk undergarments crumpled by lovemaking.
The black garters of the ladies of another age Cast shadows over my thoughts like
It was hard to tell how long this passion had been pulsating within me. It seemed as though it had not one but several sources, like rivulets that join together to form a stream. I believed that I’d seen photographs of such old-fashioned women, mounted on gravestones in Tirana cemeteries. And one day, on a street corner near Café Ora, I’d seen the famous linguist E.Ç. greet a lady by raising his hat. This was such an unusual sight in the Albanian capital that I’d followed the scholar for a little while, hoping that he would repeat the gesture. But ladies, it seems, were rare in the streets of Tirana.
I knew that because of a similar gesture—because he had kissed the hand of a female scholar from a country now regarded as hostile to ours—E.Ç. was no longer allowed to attend international conferences. As I was walking behind him, I thought what torture it must have been for him to have to unlearn such customs. We young intellectuals had the advantage of never even having known how to kiss a woman’s hand. If we’d tried we would most likely have been as ungainly as chimps, or, worse, we would have scarred those dainty fingers with our protruding teeth.
It occurred to me that Marguerite’s clients were probably men like E.Ç., although I couldn’t quite imagine the old professor knocking on her door in the alley. No, her clients must have been different. Different, but how?

Although I was pleasantly preoccupied with the thought of visiting Marguerite’s house in the alley, the plan was shrouded in fog. How could I make contact with her? How could I meet whoever it was who procured her clients? Simply to turn up at her house uninvited was unthinkable.
My attraction to Marguerite might have faded with time, as so many things do, had I not run into her once again at the fruit store. I was standing on the sidewalk coming on to a young woman poet, with whom I was very likely to get somewhere, since she was the type that’s particularly susceptible to men who treat women with indifference and speak to them with incomprehensible pretension. I was going on about the castrated Hindu students I’d met at the Gorky Institute, in Moscow, among other equally absurd subjects, but the moment I saw Marguerite I forgot what I was saying. She was making her way timidly—almost fearfully—across the road, like someone who never left home.
Having lost my train of thought, I began to babble nonsensically. Following an appeal by Jawaharlal Nehru and a U.N. commission of inquiry into demographic growth, I asserted, Indian students were being castrated in their own country, to the accompaniment of music that was intended to stir their patriotic fervor. That is, I elaborated, the men stood in line outside a series of temporary operating facilities, inhaling the odor of antiseptic, while marching bands played on throughout the day and the night. The girl finally interrupted me to tell me that my subject was probably most interesting, but she couldn’t see how, since I didn’t seem to be paying attention to what I was saying and had the air of being elsewhere.
I wanted to respond, “Do you have any idea what’s going on, you idiot? Marguerite is here!”
Eventually, the poet understood what was going on. Out of the corner of her eye, she followed the progress of the woman walking toward us, then made a slight movement with her lips, as if to say, “O.K. I get the picture.” But I couldn’t have cared less what she thought. All my attention was focussed on the woman crossing the road. A cement-streaked truck was hurtling down the street with a great commotion. On it was written “Long Live the Five-Year Plan!”
Marguerite finally reached the sidewalk where we were standing. She was wearing the same summer dress as the first time I’d seen her, and she blinked her eyes in a faraway manner that reminded me of a stork. Her hair was neatly coiffed, in a way that was neither traditional nor modern. She reminded me of Greta Garbo, but a Greta Garbo as seen through the prism of provincial boredom in Albania.

(to be continuer )

(Translated, from the Albanian, by Robert Elsie, with the editorial contribution of David Bellos.)

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