The Albanian Writers' Union as  Mirrored by a Woman


     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 facade 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 Cafe Ora, I’d seen the famous linguist E.C. 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.C. 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.C., 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.
     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 cafes, 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 dream-colored 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 naive 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.”

     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.C., who had had such problems because of the same gesture. Then it occurred to me that it was precisely because of E.C. 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.C.’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.C., 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 Arberesh, 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.

     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 Shkoder 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 Shkoder 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 Shkoder, 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 Shkoder 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.”

     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, naive, especially we female writers, but there is nothing wrong with being naive. 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.

     Most of the writers and artists were already at the Palace of Culture when I arrived with swollen, sleepy eyes. It was six-thirty, but the glass doors were still locked.
     I looked around for my colleague, who was sneaking a smoke behind a column. “I got here at six o’clock,” he whispered. “I couldn’t get a wink of sleep. And there were other people here before me.”
     It was now seven. The opening time, which had seemed scandalously early the day before, now seemed scandalously late.
     The doors of the Palace of Culture finally opened and the people thronged in and assembled in a dignified silence. The members of the presidency sat down at their tables with equal dignity.
     The president opened the session by giving the floor to the Party secretary of the Writers’ Union. There was a certain optimism in his voice, but it conveyed absolutely no hope. On the contrary, it made us even more afraid. When the next speaker, turning to possible solutions, referred briefly to a “reduction of salaries,” the audience froze, but a second later I could sense some relief. So that is what they were building up to! Let them reduce the damn salaries, or even do away with them altogether—if only it will spare us this torture!
     We were all possessed by an unexpected euphoria. We were going to give up something that was synonymous both with pleasure and with vice. In other words, we would part with our salaries as we would part from a whore.
     Amid all the excitement, one writer who had only recently made a name for himself took to the podium and, in a loud voice, much more confident than those of the speakers of the previous day, proclaimed that, regardless of the decision the assembly might reach on the question of salaries, he intended to offer the government any proceeds he received for his forthcoming novel, which had just gone to press.
     The audience applauded, although the faces of the members of the presidium remained impassive.
     Now that the pressure was somewhat relieved, I felt a quickening in my heart again. Then for some reason, I don’t know why, I thought of Marguerite. She was no doubt still asleep, exhausted by a night of lovemaking. Under the pillow beside her, a client had left a thousand-lek bill. Oh, that pillow, where I had so often imagined leaving my own salary—which was, doubtless, what had made me think of her.
     There was silence in the auditorium once again. A militant poet with a grave expression on his face was giving a speech. His words were all the harsher because he stuttered. “We have spoken here of our novels and our poems, but I have heard no one refer to the most majestic of all poems, a poem that was composed recently here in Albania.”
     It took us a moment to realize that he was referring to a speech that the Leader had given in a town in the north of the country.
     We froze again. We had just managed to catch our breaths, and now the spectre of guilt returned, more sinister than ever!
     Icy and observant, the eyes of the Leader’s wife remained fixed on the auditorium. We could not make out what was expected of us.
     A clean-shaven novelist who rarely spoke at public meetings sought permission to take the floor right after the poet. Before he even got to the microphone, he let out a cry: “It’s now or never!”
     We could not believe our ears. He had always been a discreet person, and had in fact been criticized on several occasions for intellectual hermeticism. Now he, too, was calling for a shakeup, and in harsher terms than anyone had used yet. Among them, unexpectedly and irreversibly, like a dark cloud on the horizon, echoed the word “rotation.”
     So that was it!
     The Leader’s speech, the one that had just been reinvented as a poem—it, too, had spoken of “rotation.”
     The rotation in question, which we had lightheartedly assumed was intended for Party cadres and bureaucratic officials, was actually meant for us. This, and not a reduction of salaries or any other frivolous issue, was the heart of the matter.
Slowly, everyone began to realize what was going on.

     It was an incredible week. There had never been so much coming and going at the Writers’ Union. From our office window we watched wet umbrellas being turned inside out by the wind.
     The president of the Writers’ Union and the Party secretary consulted with us one by one to find out where in the country we wanted to spend our period of rotation. They were convinced that, despite the unanimous vote for rotation, only a portion of the writers would actually be banished from the capital. The others would be thanked for their willingness to go but would be told that they were still needed in Tirana.
     During the interviews in the president’s office, the writers, after announcing which village or town they wished to go to in order to learn about real life, also took the opportunity to bring up the various personal problems that would make it impossible for them to leave their homes at the moment, in the hope that the Party would be generous and understanding.
The personal issues that impeded the writers and artists from going away were quite astounding. It seemed inconceivable that such a quantity of vigorous, sunny works of art—the mellow harvest of Albanian socialist realism—could have been produced by people who were so ill and debilitated. Prostate problems, hemorrhoids, hernias, and nocturnal incontinence seemed harmless next to the more serious illnesses—running sores, pustules, buboes, scabies—unseen in Albania since the years of the Ottoman Empire.
     Those who came once often asked to be interviewed again. In the second session, they enumerated even more serious illnesses, which they had concealed during their first interview because of their “damn neo-bourgeois pride.” Some even undid their pants to prove that they had genital eczema, or an ulcerated scrotum, or some other horror. One man expounded on the problems of his wife’s infertility, broke into tears, and then revealed that she had been cheating on him with a neighbor. Another was being beaten by his son, and a third individual brought forth a document certifying that he was mentally ill.
     A rumor that the Western press had referred to the rotation of writers from the Albanian capital led to the hope that only a third of us would be banished. A second rumor, clarifying that it had been not the Western press but simply the Albanian emigre press, caused that hope to fade. Nonetheless, it was still generally believed that even in a worst-case scenario no more than half the writers would be expelled.
     But another rumor soon spread: neither the Western press nor the Albanian emigre press had written a word about the calamity that was about to befall Albanian writers and artists. Indeed, one emigre newspaper, not without a certain satisfaction, had let it be known that the whole thing would do Albanian writers good. This was the system they had clamored for; let them enjoy it to the fullest.
     By the end of the week, we had realized that it was pointless to swim against the tide. Everyone was to be rotated, even the president of the Writers’ Union. There was to be an endless convoy of known and lesser-known individuals, Communists and nonCommunists, people who had committed political errors and people who hadn’t, accompanied by those who were destined to commit errors in the future, those who would never commit errors, and even those who might possibly commit errors.
     The last people to be summoned to the office of the president of the Writers’ Union were those of us who worked there. The president looked calm, but the bags under his eyes were more ponderous than ever. He asked us to take a seat on the sofa.
     “Well, now it’s our turn,” he said freely. “I suppose you have heard. I’ll be going to Rubik, to live among the miners.”
     My colleague and I nodded to show him that we had been informed. As I listened to him speaking, I wondered why I had always avoided contact with this man. He had studied in France in the thirties, was always well dressed, often with a French beret and a pipe, like the French writers we had seen in photographs. I found all of this quite captivating and, in fact, two weeks earlier, on one occasion when I was daydreaming about Marguerite, I had thought of how wonderful it would be if he were to lend me his beret and pipe for my first visit to her.
     But from our very first meeting, when he’d invited me to have coffee with him, as he often did with newcomers to the Writers’ Union, I’d felt that close relations with him would be difficult. Despite the beret and the pipe, the conversation between us was stilted. I had the impression that this was my fault, but that only made me more nervous. I have never been much of a talker, but suddenly I was more tight-lipped than ever. Faced with my silence, he also became uneasy. His pipe went out several times, and he fiddled with it for a while, changing the tobacco. Then he asked me a second time about my studies at the Gorky Institute and told me a little about his younger days in France.
     Later, thinking over our meeting, I felt that I understood the source of our unease. This fellow had abandoned the West to adapt himself to the East. I, on the other hand, had just returned from the terrifying East, with an incipient desire for the other side. We were meeting at a crossroads known as Albania, each of us carrying signs pointing in the opposite direction. It was almost as if we were each saying to the other, “Where do you think you’re going, you poor fool?”
He was destroying my dream, and I suppose that I was doing the same to his. It was obvious that we wouldn’t get along.
     “That’s it, boys,” he said now. I took a look at his beret and at the pipe that he had propped on a corner of his imposing desk. Even he didn’t seem to think that these things would save him this time. “That’s it, boys,” he repeated and shook our hands. “May fortune be with you wherever you go.”

     I had been in the little town of B. for a week. I was there in two capacities: first as a young writer getting to know life by going to the textile factory every day, and second as a journalist, a local correspondent for a weekly literary newspaper.
The mornings I spent at the factory were pleasant enough. There were quite a few engineers and bookkeepers there who had just come from Tirana and who had done their studies in the East. They spent much of their time at the factory club, gulping down glass after glass of Cognac. I enjoyed their company from the first day. They were full of fun and were delightfully irreverent about everything. I was particularly fond of the way they addressed one another by nicknames related to the countries where they had studied. Taxh Paholl, who was the head of the group, was called Pan because he had been in Poland, and Liko Ibrahim they called Herr because he had studied in East Germany.
     I was the only one who had been in Moscow, but in their eyes, I don’t know why, Moscow was considered somewhat backward. Thrilled as I was by their company, I did nothing to defend the Russian capital, nor did I deny being involved in an especially backward field: literature. The only problem I had was keeping up with them in their drinking. This, at any rate, served to confirm their conviction that literature was behind the times.
     Rainy afternoons in the little town were particularly boring. The evenings were even worse, especially Saturday evenings, when my new friends the engineers were stuck in never-ending meetings.
     I was in no mood to write. The manuscript of my “Bedridden Gypsy,” which I had brought with me, remained untouched at the bottom of my suitcase. I sauntered up the main street to the only hotel in town, stopping at the cinema in the vain hope that they had changed the weekly film, and then strolled back down the street.
     Passersby were rare. The dingy restaurant where I had dinner was not yet open. Two sisters, who were considered to be of dubious moral character, owing to their weakness for men—especially for those who had just arrived from the capital—were walking arm in arm down the road, swinging their hips. Seeing them made me only more depressed. “Bloody fat-assed whore!” someone muttered from the sidewalk.
     The restaurant finally opened its doors. I took a seat in the corner and asked for one of the two dishes on the menu: meat stew with kidney beans. A man sat down beside me. “Go fuck yourself,” he shouted to someone, or perhaps to himself. He ordered a double raki, which he downed in one gulp.
     Why the hell am I here? I thought.
     I was relieved to get back out on the street. A light rain was falling. It was almost nine o’clock, but I didn’t see any of the engineers. My hope of lightening up the evening with a game of cards was diminishing bit by bit. Last Saturday, the engineers’ meeting had lasted until midnight.
     The two sisters were making their last rounds through town. As I passed them, sensing their longing for the big city, I was filled with a powerful feeling of superiority. If you country bumpkins only knew what I left behind! An intoxicating void opened up within me. If you only knew. But what was there to know? What had I really given up? To my surprise, what came to mind was not the smell of the mimosas on the Grand Boulevard, or the Cafe Flora, where I used to meet my friends, or the Art Gallery, or the Writers’ Union, or some love affair. Instead, I was reminiscing about an event that had never happened, a non-visit to a high-class whore named Marguerite.
     Perhaps it was because she shared a dubious moral character with those girls, or perhaps it was just the spiritual void in me, but the imagined event suddenly seemed real.
     I couldn’t interpret my own thoughts. More than any other symbol, it was a whore who made me feel that I was from the capital. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

     We rarely got to Tirana. When we did, we tried to maintain a low profile. In the press, Party leaders called on those in rotation to strengthen their attachment to their grass roots, i.e., the working masses, rather than yearning for the capital. We were all scared that our families—our only link to Tirana—would be banished, too.
     In the autumn, we were summoned to a meeting in the capital. This was the first time we’d all found ourselves together again. We stared at one another in amazement, as if we were discovering our own image in the mirror. We were not only thinner, we looked older, too. Our clothes didn’t fit us, our eyes had a servile tint, and our voices were rusty.
     We had come to the meeting with a certain hope: You, comrade writers and artists, who have now passed the test, have suffered more than you should have in the countryside. Return to the capital now with your heads held high! When we realized that the climate was exactly the opposite, we despaired. We were like mothers-in-law, unwanted, in the way. Not only was there no sympathy for us; the hostility toward us seemed to have blossomed.
     Those who had prepared speeches of veiled criticism stuffed them back into their pockets and proclaimed the opposite. They thanked the Party for having opened their eyes, and revealed their plans for the future. I was horrified to hear that two of the projects mentioned resembled my own: short stories with working-class protagonists, full of joy under a blue spring sky, with none of those clouds or that damn rain that had characterized my earlier attempts.
     Nobody knew anything about “The Bedridden Gypsy.” I was pretty sure I had kept quiet about it, although one evening at the Barrel Bar, as a few young poets and I were drinking and talking about literary innovation, I’d started boasting that they would be bowled over by the chapter of my new novel in which the Gypsy begins to scratch, and the sentences get so muddled as to confuse even a dermatologist.
     Despite all our promises to produce a more genuinely Socialist literature, the faces of the members of the presidium remained sombre. We realized why when one of them, the Secretary of the Party Committee for Tirana, took the floor. He stated that the Party remained dissatisfied with the country’s writers and artists. It had extended a loving hand to them, but they had not shown their gratitude. Two playwrights had once more written plays full of ideological errors. One novelist had blackened Socialist reality again in his latest work. The colors used by certain painters were decadent. This showed that the class struggle in the art world had to be intensified even further. Among the examples given was the linguist E.C. Instead of showing gratitude for the generosity of the Party and its Leader, who had forgiven his past transgressions and had sent him once again to a linguistics congress abroad, he had repeated his former error and had again kissed the hand of that female delegate from a hostile country.
     During the recess, while trying to find my colleague at the bar next to the auditorium, I made a surprising discovery. Not everyone was as depressed as I’d thought. There were even some smiling faces and merry voices. Who are all these unfamiliar people? I wondered. The new literary talents from the working class whom we had heard so much about lately? How could there be so many of them so fast? But it had to be that. I’d heard that, in such circumstances, the Sigurimi lost no time recruiting agents among the new writers, telling them, no doubt, “You are the future of literature! You are going to replace all those scoundrels the Party sent to study abroad and who returned full of vanity and corrupted by evil.”
     The more I observed them, the more I felt I was glimpsing covert and sarcastic smiles. Just when I thought I saw the young female poet among them, the bell announcing the start of the next session rang and everyone rushed for the doors.
The meeting continued until midnight. The next day, before returning to B., I walked around Tirana for a few hours. The yellow leaves were falling en masse along the Grand Boulevard. The outdoor cafes were now closed, but, even shuttered, they filled me with nostalgia. I thought of that sad restaurant in B. where I would be having my miserable dinner in solitude and asked myself, What is this madness?
     The whole system came crashing down on me once again with a terrifying din. Why this never-ending lunacy? Why all the submissiveness and mute response? Not one voice of dissent, not one act of courage. We were disappearing just as silently as the yellow leaves of the Grand Boulevard. Just as inexorably.
     As I wandered along Elbasan Road, I heard a female voice calling me. It was the poet, who was waving at me from the other side of the street.
     We met. Unlike in our earlier encounters, everything about her now seemed assured: her deportment, her speech, her laugh. She must have felt a sense of superiority. In her eyes, I was nothing because I was languishing in the country. She would now have a wonderful opportunity to castigate me for the crazy stories I used to tell her.
     All this flashed through my mind, and I was numbed. But that silly cow was wrong if she thought she could mess with me! That I had fallen was obvious, but I now had one advantage over her: I no longer wanted to seduce her.
“I thought you would be taking part in the discussions at the meeting yesterday,” I said. “Your speech last time was very good.”
     “Did you think so?” she replied, batting her eyes. I had the impression that all the confidence she had gained had suddenly melted away, only to be replaced by her former naivete.
“You know, there are still a lot of people out there throwing sand in the gears, and they never give up,” I continued. “You know what I heard today? Some fool who is setting up a condom factory had the gall to propose the name of our national hero Scanderbeg for the first Albanian-made condom.”
     She blushed, not knowing where to look.
     “I don’t understand all this nonsense,” she muttered. “How can they profane our national hero? Will they never learn?”
     “That’s exactly what I said when I heard about it. But he justified the name by saying that a condom had to be strong and resistant, and since there was no better symbol of resistance than Scanderbeg . . .”
     She continued to blush. Somewhat confused, she shook my hand and we said goodbye. For a moment, I watched her walking away, then I regretted the little trick I had played on her and headed off in the opposite direction.
     That afternoon, I took the train back to B. The first frost of the year was covering the fields, and I tried to concentrate on nothing at all. Just when I thought I had achieved this, my thoughts returned to the venomous accusation made by one high official: “We who made writers of you are the guilty ones!”
     In a moment of anger, they had let it be known what they really thought of us. Strangely enough, instead of being furious, I felt a sense of relief. Perhaps we were not actually writers but only writer-substitutes, just like the ersatz powder that had replaced coffee during the war years. Just like the hundreds of other cheap imitations we had got used to since then.
     The monotonous clanking of the train had almost put me to sleep. A cup of coffee at three o’clock in the morning tried to penetrate my dream, but didn’t succeed. Something was preventing it.

     The winter was more depressing than ever. It wasn’t just the damp and the chill that got to me. The long story I was writing seemed stillborn. Like someone who changes his religion, I had turned my back on the winter climate in order to worship at the altar of spring. But the old god reigned supreme and, insulted by my betrayal, he wreaked his vengeance upon me: I had a series of colds and bronchitis attacks, one after the other.
     The afternoons were interminable, as were the evenings, with the usual comings and goings of the two sisters, the freezing-cold restaurant, and the occasional game of cards before bed. But the engineers had been warned that it was not their job to organize social evenings.
     The news we received from the capital was distressing. There was no mention of the fate of Albanian writers in the international press, or even in the Albanian emigre press. The last private cafe in Tirana had been closed down. A new wave of rotations was being prepared for the end of December.
     One night, I woke up quite suddenly. I thought that someone had woken me, but there wasn’t a sound—no one was knocking at the door. Through the window, the full moon gave off a strange, harsh light, like glass, as if, inert for millions of years, it were now coming back to life. I went to the window and studied the sky.
     It was three in the morning. Without thinking about what I was doing, I began to get dressed. I opened the door quietly and tiptoed down the stairs. It was the first time that I had ever gone out alone at this hour of the night. The town stretched out before me, lifeless and glittering, like a tombstone. The moon was still bright, but it seemed friendlier now than it had in my room.
     I walked down the road toward a little stone bridge, which was silhouetted in white like an abandoned stage set.
A sudden sense of lightness filled me, a drunkenness I had never experienced before. It was an unusual intoxication, the cause of which I couldn’t quite make out. It flitted through the recesses of my mind only to shy away again like a frightened doe. But the hope it left behind filled my chest with fresh air. The hard times we were going through would certainly end one day. The last cafe in Tirana may have been nationalized, but there were other emblems and symbols that would continue to resist and survive.
     I stopped short and asked myself, “But what emblems and what symbols?”
     I couldn’t think of any. But I was somehow aware of their existence, hidden in the fog, waiting for their time to come. People and places were perhaps just shadows, but behind them there were figures who were following other principles and codes. Yes, the last private cafe had been shut down, but at three in the morning one coffee was still being served, to someone still addressed as “Sir,” at Marguerite’s bedside.
     In a flash, I saw in my mind a flag being hoisted over the President’s residence, emblazoned with all sorts of symbols, from an eagle to a lady’s black garters. This chaotic vision slowly organized itself. There in Tirana, in the capital of the country of which I was a citizen, instead of a flag waving above the President’s house to show that the head of state was present, instead of the emblems of the Dukagjin, Kastriot, or Angevin dynasties, with all their white, black, and blue one-headed and bicephalous eagles, I saw a new symbol that coincidence had raised before my eyes: Marguerite’s black garters flying in the wind.
     All the tension in me melted away, and I returned to my room and my bed. I didn’t even have the strength to close the curtains and, as I was falling asleep, I felt the rays of the alabaster moon caress my face as if forming a death mask.

     I returned to Tirana two days before New Year’s.
     The city seemed alien and off kilter to me. I walked down a few side streets hoping to run into someone I knew, but encountered no one. Everyone was probably in hiding.
     I went to a post office I had never entered before and called my colleague, hoping that he, too, had returned to spend New Year’s with his family. At first his mother—I recognized her voice—told me that he wasn’t there. But when she realized who I was she called him to the phone.
     A little later, we were out on the street together in our long winter coats, panting in the cold and exchanging the latest news, primarily about banished colleagues and friends. “There is no sign of a thaw,” he said. “On the contrary.”
     As I was lighting a second cigarette, he asked me, “Did you hear what happened to Marguerite?”
     “No,” I replied. “What happened to her?”
     Quite a bit of time had passed since we’d spoken of her, and I had a bad premonition.
     “They expelled the two of them, mother and daughter,” he said. “They expelled everyone from Tirana whom they considered immoral: prostitutes, gamblers, homosexuals. But that’s not all,” he continued. “Their expulsion ended in tragedy.”
     “Tragedy? What do you mean? What tragedy?”
     “Marguerite and her mother,” he said. “They both committed suicide.”
     I was speechless, unable to react at all. Without waiting for me to question him, in a weary voice he told me what had happened.
     “The two of them were loaded onto a truck with all their baggage and sent to some backwater in the province of Lushnje. There they were told that they were going to be reeducated by working for a cooperative, and they were given a little cabin to live in. They didn’t say a word. They put their baggage in the cabin and went out that same afternoon to buy some things at the kolkhoz store. Apparently, they also bought some detergent and a rope. That evening, after they had finished dinner and had their coffee, they hanged themselves. Marguerite probably helped her mother before hanging herself.”
     As he spoke, I began counting the days, trying to figure out exactly when they had died. My brain went numb. I was convinced that they had killed themselves the very night I’d had my revelation in the moonlight. Yes, it must have been that night, as the full moon was spilling its light across all of narrow Albania, from west to east.
     I thought about the emaciated bodies of the writers in their loose shirts on the last day of meetings and how none of them had committed suicide.
     A woman had done it for all of us.
     Some mysterious thread linked the loose knots of our ties to her marble-white neck, which allowed me eventually, in my imagination, to hold the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists up to her naked body like a mirror.
Soon thereafter, as if it could not withstand the reflection, the Writers’ Union moved its headquarters to Kavaja Street, where it has been ever since.

     Years later, as I stood in front of the modern building in the glass facade of which was reflected the Cathedral of Amiens, I thought about that woman in distant Tirana.
     I had long been preparing myself for this moment.
     Like everything that needs a soul to live, this dead building was making use of the cathedral’s outer shell. It changed its moods with the passage of hours and seasons. It was not the same at dawn and at nightfall, in April and in autumn or in winter. It opened and closed like a living organism.
     Any other house that stood opposite a building inhabited by poets and artists would have derived its light and soul from the latter. But in the case of the Writers’ Union it was Marguerite’s abandoned home that was the cathedral.
It is difficult to imagine that, in her moments of quiet solitude, Marguerite ever took any comfort from Albanian literature. On the contrary, as a woman who had learned only to give, and who did so to the very end, she bequeathed something to it.
     This belated tribute is for you, Marguerite.

(Translated, from the Albanian, by Robert Elsie)

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