Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02 (The New Yorker fiction)
It was a cold day in March when the editor-in-chief, who had just returned from a meeting of the Central Committee, called us into his office. He had a sinister expression, and his words were equally spine-chilling. The Party had criticized the press and, in particular, the newspaper published by the Writers’ Union. There had also been criticism of the Writers’ Union itself, but this would be dealt with at a later meeting. For some time now, the Party had sensed a certain slackness in the newspaper, a decline in revolutionary fervor, and a passiveness that was at odds with the obligatory optimism of a Socialist society. The editor-in-chief provided a few examples and then turned to me: “Look here, in the foreign-affairs section you’re in charge of, there have been very few features on the achievements of literature and art in China, Vietnam, and Cuba, or on progressive revolutionary art around the world. Too much space has been taken up by articles, for example, on the death of the American writer Hemingway, not to mention rumors and allegations about the suicide of Marilyn Monroe. What I would like to know here is, what is your attraction, or, rather, obsession, with suicide? Even Mayakovski’s poem ‘Cloud in Trousers’ was published with a note announcing ‘the eve of the anniversary of the poet’s suicide.’ ”
I did not know what to say. On any other occasion, I would have replied that we had always reported on the suicides and emotional crises of Western writers as manifestations of the crisis in capitalist society, etc. But I’d got myself in a muddle with Mayakovski, since he had taken his life under Stalin.
The other sections of the newspaper were criticized as well: hermetic verse, frivolous short stories, reviews that seemed to deviate from the Party line.
After the meeting, we returned to our office, hanging our heads.
Later that day, we learned that similar meetings had been held everywhere: at the opera house, which was not far from our building; at the film studio; at the People’s Theatre; and, of course, at the publishing companies. An extraordinary assembly of the Writers’ Union was scheduled for the following week.
Two days before the assembly, the head of the personnel division at the Writers’ Union called me in to answer questions about an official trip to Shkodër that I had taken sometime earlier. According to information that he had received from there, I had apparently frequented some decadent establishments. I jumped to my feet to protest this accusation, insisting that I did not know any prostitutes in Shkodër and, to prove my case, I added that I had jacked off at the hotel, despite the fact that the temperature in my room was well below zero.
The chief of personnel listened to me with an ironic smile. “That’s enough,” he said finally. “Don’t bother getting on your high horse. Decadent establishments are not only whorehouses. But since you insist on an explanation, let me inform you that you were seen at a so-called ‘literary salon’ in Shkodër, one of those rat holes for the town’s aging Catholic bourgeoisie who yearn to turn back the clock.”
I could not have been more astonished if someone had slapped me in the face. All my confidence dissipated. I had actually attended a literary gathering. A comic poet called Bik N., a delightfully silly person, had invited me, saying, “We are going to a literary salon this evening, one of those traditions that only our beloved Shkodër knows how to preserve.”
I was fascinated to be able to visit an old Scutarine mansion, at the center of town, where everything was as it used to be: kilims in the living room, a fireplace and a brazier in Ottoman style, an icon of the Virgin in the corner, and, of course, the people. Aside from our host—whom everyone called Miss Bimbli although she was almost seventy, and who the clown Bik N. insisted was his lover—there was only a slender old woman, who didn’t say a word, and the blind poet Llesh Huta.
After drinking tea and Cognac, Bik N. recited his latest sonnet, “Springtime in the Fall,” which was, of course, dedicated to the rejuvenation of Miss Bimbli, though no signs of revival could be seen in her well-nourished body. Then the blind poet read a poem, which was nothing like the sonnet. In fact, it was little more than an insulting tirade about a woman who had once rejected him. It ended with the line “You who couldn’t see how to love me, may you forever see less than I.”
I remembered this in passing and must have blushed a bit, because the chief of personnel spoke up. “See how ashamed you are of yourself?”
I endeavored to counter this by saying that the atmosphere might have been old-fashioned, but I had not sensed any nostalgia for the past nor had I heard any innuendos about the present.
The chief of personnel shook his head and searched for something in the file in front of him. “It may look that way on the surface,” he said, “but you cannot know what they’re saying when your back is turned. In any case, it does not really matter what was or was not said that day. What matters is the general climate. Do you understand what I am saying? The Party has let it be known that there has been a decline in revolutionary fervor. And this is precisely what the enemy is waiting for: a relaxation on our part. So-called ‘humane’ behavior the enemy regards as weakness, and he’s looking to gain ground wherever we doze off. When the enemy sees that he has failed in overt action, he turns to covert methods: alcohol, women, music, religion, hermetic poetry, fashion. He has his eye on you—especially you young people who have just come back from abroad.”
His eyes glowed like two lumps of coal, and I thought, Just wait. He’s going to bring up the introduction to my book, which mentions the decadent influence in my poetry. But, thank God, he said nothing about it.
“There are no literary salons aside from the salons of the Party,” he continued. “Meetings, consultations with the working class, assemblies—these are the greatest salons art can know. Not those damp and dingy dumps. You get my meaning, son?”
Rising to his feet to indicate that the meeting was over, he winked at me as he often did when he wanted to stress something: “Pay a little more attention to your writing, and listen to the advice given to you by our comrades from China. Do I make myself clear?”
I nodded, quite bewildered by the flood of words and especially by the wink.
“At the assembly the day after tomorrow, the comrades will speak out on these matters,” he said as I was leaving. “You young people will get a chance to have your say, too, I believe.”
(to be continued)
(Translated, from the Albanian, by Robert Elsie, with the editorial contribution of David Bellos.)