Saturday, January 06, 2007
THE ALBANIAN WRITERS’ UNION AS MIRRORED BY A WOMAN
Ismail Kadare (third part)
Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02 (The New Yorker fiction)
The next morning, I had breakfast with my friend from the Union and told him what I had dreamed. We had a good laugh about it. Then he said that, all joking aside, I was quite right about one thing: there had been a certain political relaxation recently and such matters were no longer treated as they had been in the past.
It was true. In fact, two weeks earlier, the Leader himself had surprised everyone by making that old-fashioned gesture, long forbidden in our country: he had kissed a woman’s hand. And he’d done it in public in front of the cameras, right in the middle of the People’s Assembly!
That kiss on the hand of a representative of the Greek minority in parliament gave rise to a wave of enthusiasm among intellectuals: what a gentleman Comrade Enver was! Compared with him, not only Khrushchev and Gottwald but even Thorez, in Paris, looked like peasants.
When I was watching the news that evening, I thought about the linguist E.Ç., who had had such problems because of the same gesture. Then it occurred to me that it was precisely because of E.Ç. that the Leader of the Party had remembered the custom. On the surface, my hypothesis seemed unlikely, but if you looked deeper it made sense. Sometime earlier, at a meeting with intellectuals, the Leader of the Party had praised E.Ç.’s work for the first time in seventeen years. In the days preceding the meeting, the Leader, looking for ways in which to initiate the thaw, would probably have asked to see the file on E.Ç., which most certainly contained multiple references to the famous kiss on the hand. Repressed jealousy, a copycat reflex, and nostalgia for the years he had spent in France—all inextricably mixed together—may have led the Leader, when the time came to signal the thaw, to mimic that kiss himself.
I was convinced of this, just as I was convinced that frequenting Marguerite would not be nearly as dangerous now as it had been in the past.
The thaw in the political climate was accompanied, strangely enough, by a closing of the borders. At Rinas airport, planes became increasingly rare. But because the cancelled flights were all coming from Eastern-bloc countries people hardly mourned them: “So there are fewer flights from the Soviet Union and East Germany. You call that bad news?”
Although no one said so openly, many people dreamed of other, better flights coming in to replace those from the East.
As air traffic decreased, there were also fewer citizens from other Socialist countries to be seen. We no longer knew what to think of the few who did turn up. Until then, we had been one big family, but now we were somewhat estranged.
Marguerite remained apart from all these shakeups. Her body was and had always been more exotic than those of the Hungarians, the Russians, the Latvians, or the Jews with whom our generation had had contact. It belonged to a different galaxy, and dreaming of it was like crossing an abyss.
The editorial staff of the literary newspaper occupied two rooms on the second floor of the Writers’ Union. In one of them, the smaller of the two, sat the editor-in-chief; in the other one were the journalists. From the widest of its three windows, one could look across the garden and down to the wrought-iron gate. The garden was beautiful, both on sunny and on rainy days, and the window was equally well suited for good moods and for morose ones.
From this vantage point, we could see everyone who entered and left the building. Viewed from above, they all looked either a little crooked or comical, and, whether they were dawdling or hurrying, it was impossible to tell if they were going away satisfied or frustrated. The comings and goings were particularly frequent in the autumn, which was the season for sending delegations abroad. There were far fewer delegations this year than there had been in the past. Aside from China, the only possible destinations were, of course, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and a couple of African countries. The dispatch of a delegation to the Arbëresh, in Italy, was now as rare as the appearance of a comet in the sky.
As I daydreamed, gazing down at the garden, which autumn had already laid bare, I found myself contemplating the dilemma that is often faced in fairy tales—of having to choose between two equally attractive wishes. In my case, the choice was between a trip abroad and a night with Marguerite. I would, of course, have chosen the former, but not without a certain quickening of the heart at the loss of the latter.
Neither my colleague nor I had seen her again. We seemed incapable of finding the path that led to her house. Or had our subconscious slyly kept us from discovering it?
After the November holidays, the winter got drearier and drearier, especially at the Writers’ Union. Nothing happened—at least, nothing that we’d hoped for.
I had begun writing a novel with a title I very much liked, “The Bedridden Gypsy.” The problem was that, aside from the title and a bright idea that had cost me a sleepless night and seemed exceptionally innovative at the time, I had no clue what I was going to write about.
The idea related to the rhythm of the narrative, which I had decided to adapt to the illness of the protagonist. In other words, when his temperature rose or his pulse raced, the rhythm would speed up accordingly. But when, for example, the Gypsy fell into a coma, the exact opposite would happen. And so it would develop, all in accordance with his fevers, his kidney stones, etc.
I had written only the first chapter, in which the Gypsy was examined by a physician, and the beginning of the second chapter, in which he was waiting for the results of his tests. I had left off there because I could not decide what disease my Gypsy should have. My colleague, the only one with whom I had discussed my idea, had pointed out that this decision was crucial, since everything else in the novel would depend on it. If I was planning on a long novel, in two volumes, say, as had become fashionable lately, I would have to come up with some long-term wasting disease. For a short novel, on the other hand, the Gypsy would have to be afflicted with a malady that would take him to his grave in no time at all.
As I agonized over this decision, I stopped writing—although this caused me to agonize even more.
One day, my colleague announced that he had discovered how to get to M. The method for making contact with her was more or less what we had supposed it would be, but not quite as mysterious. The prospective client had to go to a neighbor of hers, who knitted sweaters and did alterations. There, he would mention a particular type of stitch that only Marguerite and her mother knew. The neighbor would then call the two women over to meet the client, or would take the client to their house. At that point, an arrangement might be made, and the date and the other conditions fixed.
So that was how it worked. Marguerite could thus select her clients. We were excited, because we were sure that she would grant us a visa, so to speak. We were also pleased by the thought that we would each be getting a sweater knitted by her in the bargain—one for me with the two “X”s of the twentieth century on it, and one for my colleague with the symbol of his choice.
Because work at the office continued to be as gloomy as it was wearisome, we often found ourselves dreaming of our “knitting afternoon,” as we referred to the visit to M.’s neighbor. In order to show that we were serious people, we decided, it would be best to wear ties and white shirts. This brought us around to the question of age. Because we feared being rejected as too young, we discussed different ways of combing our hair in order to look older. It occurred to us that we should perhaps wear hats or nonchalantly light up one of those cigars which were now being sold at Hotel Dajti. I also considered pulling out, as if by accident, the book of poems I’d published when I was studying in Moscow, whose foreword stated, in black and white, that I had been influenced by certain kinds of decadent literature. This option, although risky, seemed especially appealing. But, after our initial excitement wore away, we came to the conclusion that that might be a little too much. It was rather like mentioning rope in the house of a hanged man. Even conversation about Greta Garbo, the terrifying Kafka, or Benedetto Croce, which we had at first thought would be perfect, now began to seem inappropriate. We might give the impression that we were agents provocateurs or worse: candidates for prison. It would be better to let things develop by themselves.
translated by R. Eslie