Writers' Union as Mirrored by a Woman
by ISMAIL KADARE
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
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
The black garters of the ladies of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The other sections of the newspaper were criticized as well: hermetic
verse, frivolous short stories, reviews that seemed to deviate from the
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
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
“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
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 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
The wife of the Leader nodded in approval, and several others on the podium
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
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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