(Tomorow I Kadare will be in Athens)
by ISMAIL KADARE
Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02 (The New Yorker fiction)
5. (fifth part)
The assembly was held in one of the auditoriums of the Palace of Culture. In contrast to earlier occasions, the Party leaders taking part wore sombre expressions. And the text of the main speech was harsh indeed. With the country under bitter siege, at a time when the Albanian people and their Communist leaders were working and struggling to break through the blockade, the writers and artists of Albania were, alas, behaving in just the opposite manner. The jargon flowed on and on: alienation from the working masses, living in an ivory tower, bourgeois ways.
“A tainted spirit that has nothing in common with Communist ideals is spreading in our midst,” the president of the Writers’ Union declared. Everyone was waiting for names to be called, and the tension in the auditorium became unbearable. Apparently, before getting to the names, however, the Party leaders had decided to list the sinful influences to which we had succumbed. Drunkards, sexual obsessives, homosexuals, moral and political pimps, gamblers, nostalgics, mystics, and hermetics were not only infiltrating our ranks but apparently using their influence to spread the afflicted spirit mentioned earlier.
My heart was beating slowly. I had committed at least three of the sins the leaders were referring to—not to mention my preoccupation with suicide, which the editor-in-chief had recently denounced, and my obsession with black garters.
The speaker, it seemed, had got too close to the microphone, so that when he said the word “shakeup” it generated a veritable tremor in the auditorium. “The Party is calling for a shakeup among writers and artists,” he repeated. “That is why this assembly has been convened. And that is what we have come here to discuss.”
We pushed our way to the exits, bumping into one another like a bevy of the blind.
The afternoon session was even more depressing. The first speakers outdid one another with bitter invective, ranting on and on about the tainted pride of intellectuals, their egotism, their thirst for praise, money, and excess. Before calling for the obligatory “shakeup,” one of the speakers shouted twice, “Shame on us!” The next speaker, finding nothing original to say, simply shouted, “It is time for another shakeup!”
“How did we get ourselves into such a mess?” It was with these words, spoken in a trembling voice, that one of the veteran writers began his speech. Since the First World War he had been writing plays for children in which the forces of good always won in the end; this had insured his success through several regimes. We were the bottom of the barrel, the scum of the earth, he announced.
At that moment, there was a small commotion at the entrance to the auditorium. The wife of the Great Leader had arrived to observe. I exchanged a fleeting glance with my colleague.
After the veteran writer, it was the turn of a literary critic and then of the female poet to whom I had pontificated on the subject of Hindu castration some months earlier. The emotion in her eyes, her feverish tone implied a dangerous sincerity.
“We, the writers of the younger generation, who are entering the world of literature with the purest of emotions, have been saddened by the behavior of our elders, but until now we failed to understand the origin of the spirit that had tainted them. This assembly has opened our eyes!”
My heart missed a beat. Just wait till she mentions your name as an example, I thought, cursing myself. What an idiot I was, what an imbecile! Why had I insisted on telling my castration story to her?
The young poet continued to speak with a steely resolve. “We young writers embarking on the road to literature are, indeed, naïve, especially we female writers, but there is nothing wrong with being naïve. What is wrong is when someone tries to take advantage of the gullibility of others.”
I was flabbergasted. The silence in the auditorium became absolute. Because almost all the young writers at the Union had tried to get the girl into bed by offering to publish her poems, we were convinced that our names would be mentioned. I had not directly solicited her favors yet, but anyone who had overheard me speaking to her about castration would have been led to believe that it was just a prelude to seduction.
The discussion became more and more aggressive. “What have we come to, comrades?” one of the women on the podium called out. “Others are doing great deeds on the work front, freezing in the snow, diving into the flames to save their comrades, while we are hanging around in the kitchen doing nothing.”
The wife of the Leader nodded in approval, and several others on the podium followed suit.
The room was filled with a heavy sense of guilt. Some of us were red-eyed. I thought I could hear a couple of people sobbing quietly.
How could we cleanse ourselves of such enormous failings? Where was the way forward? As if reading our thoughts, the president of the Writers’ Union, before closing the meeting, tackled precisely this question. “It will help no one to sit around and weep. We must find a solution. The meeting is adjourned,” he declared. “The next session begins tomorrow morning at seven o’clock.”I exchanged another quick look with my colleague. An assembly at seven in the morning? No need for comment.
(Translated, from the Albanian, by Robert Elsie, with the editorial contribution of David Bellos.)