Friday, January 05, 2007
THE ALBANIAN WRITERS’ UNION AS MIRRORED BY A WOMAN
By I. Kadare second part
Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02 (The New Yorker fiction)
Before she entered the fruit store, she noticed that I was watching her and gave me a gentle look, as if through a window. I thought I saw the gleam of a smile in her eyes; she looked like someone who knew a secret she wasn’t going to tell.
Various thoughts raced through my mind like cars about to crash. Just as we had heard of her, she had likely heard of us—we young men who had recently returned from studying abroad and were now working for the newspaper at the Writers’ Union. She probably read books. How else would she spend her days while waiting for night to fall? Perhaps she was eager to know what the men of the younger generation were like—writers and artists who, unlike their predecessors, had learned not French or Italian but the languages of the East: Polish, Mongolian, Russian, Hungarian.
Marguerite came out of the shop with a bag of apples in her hand. Perhaps she would share them with her client before the 3 A.M. coffee. . . . She gave me another gentle but brief glance, without any of the nuance I hoped to see in it.
When she’d finally made it safely back to the other side of the road and disappeared into her little alley, I took a deep breath, as relieved as if I’d been leading her there on a leash. I believe I gave the poet a smile, but it was no doubt so insincere that she did not react. Her look made it clear that although my pedestal was still standing it might not be for long. Marguerite’s departure, however, had given me back my self-confidence, and I began once again to ramble on about the castration ceremony, which, as I described it, took place in iodine-scented barracks as a band played and Nasser, Tito, and even Chinese observers looked on.
She listened to me attentively, but without the blind adoration she had shown earlier. My eyes wandered vaguely off toward the crossroads where Marguerite’s mauve toenail polish seemed to have left a dreamy hue.
“Listen,” I said suddenly to the young poet, “did you ever happen to hear from your grandfather, for example, or from an uncle, about women of easy virtue—I mean, streetwalkers, though the term doesn’t really fit, since they almost never go out? What I mean is, have you heard of any women like that who have a select circle of clients? I mean, about how their clients contact them, and how . . .”
I had to repeat the question several times before she understood what I was getting at. It was the first time I’d seen her frown, an expression that strangely suited her, and then she got angry.
“What do you take me for?” she responded indignantly.
I wanted to tell her that she had misunderstood, that I was asking about certain social conventions that interested me as a writer and journalist, but she was not listening anymore. She said goodbye and turned to leave just as a cement-streaked truck, no doubt the same one that had passed by earlier, made its way noisily up the road. The young poet did not look back the way she usually did whenever we parted.
“Silly socialist-realist cow!” I said to myself and put her out of my mind.
I decided that, no matter what it took, I had to go and see Marguerite. The decision seemed to take possession of my entire being, from my brain to the depths of my gut. Whenever one part of my body let up, another part would push me onward. And, to my surprise, it was not always the flesh that incited me.
Unlike what we call love affairs, in which the preliminaries—the dates and the outings in parks and cafés, the writing of letters—are easy but the finale, the actual possession, is much less predictable, in this case the hardest, the almost impossible, thing was simply making contact. What I needed was an alternative map of Tirana, one that could show me the secret codes and addresses I had no way of uncovering.
One evening, I drank a beer at the Barrel Bar with a colleague of mine from the editorial staff, the one who had first told me about M., as we now referred to her. Afterward, our steps led us inevitably toward where we believed her house to be. From Barricade Street we turned into Dibra Street, where I had carefully noted the entrance to the alley in which she and her dreamcolored toenails had disappeared.
It was a quiet night, bathed in a faint moonlight that seemed to have been created just for such alleys as this, alleys at the heart of the city which seemed to lead a life of their own, away from the radiance of Socialism. We observed the wooden doorways with decorated lintels, and the little gardens behind them where persimmon trees grew. The houses had two stories, some with overhanging eaves, and most of the windows had flower boxes. Each time we saw a light shining in a window, we were convinced that it had to be Marguerite’s house.
I slept badly that night. Bits and pieces of dreams, like debris through which I could barely make my way, left me more exhausted than a sleepless night would have. I woke up frequently, and almost every time I relived the same scene: I was walking down the abandoned little alley, this time as Marguerite’s client, looking for her doorway. I began to feel nervous. I wondered whether the alley was actually as removed from the rest of the city as I had imagined. Was it possible that the supposedly ubiquitous eye of the Sigurimi could have overlooked Marguerite and her visitors? Or was she perhaps part of its network of informers?
It suddenly seemed crazily naïve to believe otherwise. This was almost enough to cool my passion, to make the mauve nail polish, the black garters, the coffee at 3 A.M., and the sound of the forbidden “Sir” lose their charm. Relieved, I fell asleep, only to wake up again an hour later as if a loud bell had rung. I abruptly recalled the words of my cousin who worked for the Ministry of the Interior: “You think we see everything? Let me tell you the truth. It’s exactly the opposite. We aren’t seeing shit. We were the ones who created this myth, in order to frighten everyone. And, surprisingly enough, it worked. If you only knew what is really going on in this country.”
I weighed his words over and over, and my heart caught fire again. If you only knew what is really going on in this country. I was now sure that the most complicated thing going on in the country had to do with what lay between Marguerite’s legs.
I persuaded myself that my fear of the Sigurimi was groundless. After all, even if Marguerite were discovered, the state would be perturbed to learn that some minister or general had been sleeping with her, but not particularly concerned about a young scribbler. Especially given the poetry this writer had published—he was clearly not someone to be taken seriously, and it would be no great scandal if he’d fallen for a whore.
Almost spitefully, I recalled the manuscript of a novel I had written while studying in Moscow, and outlined my defense in front of an imaginary jury: “I have never concealed the fact that I am attracted by whores. Indeed, my first novel, which I am not able to publish because of you, is full of them. You can keep company with whomever you wish, with the ladies of the executive council of the Women’s Federation or with deputies from the Party Plenum, etc. As for me, I keep the company I deserve: that of whores.”