Authors: Ismail Kadare
A seventeen-year-old girl had committed suicide because a mere bicycle repairman had dropped her.
“You got the message too, didn’t you? That I didn’t love you anymore!” he growled under his breath.
Hasobeu ought to have seen the light as far back as last winter. Later on as well, and then again in the last few days. So what had he been waiting for? Had the Guide’s cold shoulder not sufficed to make him vanish into thin air? Did a bicycle repairman have more power than
It made you want to tear your hair out.
From the back of the room someone shouted, “Hasobeu, stop shilly-shallying!”
“Throttle the man,” he mumbled again as he silenced the brouhaha with a wave of his hand.
You’re going to force me to set the black beast on you, he thought.
That was the name that he rather strangely gave to the intermediate night, the one he sometimes inserted between two sessions of the same plenum.
The suspended night was his own invention. It stifled like oakum. Everyone could feel it looming, but no one would dare admit it.
With the hand that he used to call for order, he now pulled on his watch chain.
He’d fingered the same ice-cold chain thirty years before, barely realizing what terror he was about to unleash. “Comrades, since it is getting late …”
Over the years, the silence at meetings had grown deeper.
Even before he had finished speaking, he felt the familiar thrill rippling around the room before washing back over him. He tarried a moment, until he had his full measure of it. The unending calm that followed that kind of ecstasy had no equal. Except maybe in distant regions of sleep, under other skies.
There was no need for a sharp-beaked eagle or for a clap of thunder. Both would emerge from the ensuing night.
At him, boy! At him! he thought affectionately as he rose to leave the hall.
He found it difficult to sleep. The first interruption left him only half awake, weighed down by some kind of impossibility. One way or another he would have liked to reward Hasobeu, but he just could not work out what to do with his ice-cold corpse or with the bullet wound in his forehead, which looked more than real, as if it had been painted on. The second time he awoke, just before dawn, it was as if, while washing according to ancient custom under the porch of a minaret, he had been suddenly beset by a question: Couldn’t they have found someone else to do this job? A Gypsy looking on said, “Don’t get so worked up, it’s what people have been doing for generations in your father’s family.” He meant to answer back: That’s a libel put out by the émigré press! — but the words wouldn’t come.
When he woke up in the morning, he recalled fragments of these meanderings and his mood darkened. If his mother had still been alive, she would have remonstrated: You only suffer those nightmares since you banned the Muslim faith!
As usual, his wife was waiting for him at the breakfast table. As soon as he caught her glance he knew there was no news on the Hasobeus front.
Snake! he thought. Impotent little goat!
As he sipped his coffee, he felt the emptiness in his breast increasing alongside the impression that something had been lost forever.
“I wouldn’t have expected this of him,” he mused.
The euphoria that had welled up inside him the day before had been replaced by an anxiety that was difficult to pinpoint.
His wife looked at her watch.
He shook his head. What had been done could not be undone. “Just wait, you’ll soon find out who you’re up against,” he mumbled, and then left the table.
By the time he walked into the assembly room an hour later, he had convinced himself that no one had ever treated him with more brazen treachery than Adrian Hasobeu. He had flaunted his disrespect as openly as a flag on a masthead. So you expected me to commit suicide during the night between the two sessions? To follow in the footsteps of Kano Zhbira, Omer Shejnan, and the Successor?
For the time being Hasobeu was sitting on his own, as on the previous day, with a similarly ashen face, but visibly delighted by his defiant gesture.
The Guide imagined him being shot on the banks of some waterway in the northern suburbs of the city and being left unburied, but even then he didn’t feel at ease. He would have managed to pass on his evil before leaving this world. The stalwart black-haired beast, the intermediate night, would have ended up yielding to him. That would have been his final mission.
Maybe it was his own fault, he thought wearily. He shouldn’t have worked the beast so hard. For all the terror it cast, it was a delicate thing.
The hush in the hall told him that the assembled delegates were waiting for him to speak.
“It’s Comrade Hasobeu’s turn to take the floor,” he growled.
Hasobeu didn’t stay at the microphone for long. When a disapproving rumble rippled through the room, the Guide didn’t bother to mask his fury, and broke in:
“We told you yesterday already: Stop prevaricating, Hasobeu! That’s the last warning.”
Two minutes later, the Guide interrupted him again:
“Listen here, you swamp-fly!”
As he choked on his words, his Successor nudged a glass of water toward him.
He drank the contents of the glass, tried to go on, but because he was so upset, he still couldn’t get his voice to obey him.
The audience had turned to stone. Never before had such wrath been expressed in word or gesture by the Guide. His eyes shone with such supernatural brilliance that, according to later accounts of the scene, many of those present thought he had recovered his sight. First they felt like applauding him, then they fell into silent lamentation, then joy regained the upper hand. O Guide, O our leader, tell us what irks thee! they pleaded in their minds. Tell us all you know about that Judas, even if it’s hard for you. Feed us the poison with your own hand, watch us writhing in pain like Chimeras, watch us fall on one another, tearing our neighbors’ flesh with our teeth; then, as breath leaves us, crawl to your feet and lie there until we die.
Hasobeu had also frozen stiff on the platform. His jaw opened as if to form words, but an invisible vise clamped it shut. Hunched over the lectern, hanging onto it to stop himself from falling over, he finally managed to blurt out, “I — am — not — guilty!”
Glued to the lectern, with death in his eyes, he could hear shouts from all sides: “Traitor! String him up!” and immediately saw hands shoot up to vote in favor of expelling him from the Party.
Before he had quite recovered his senses he heard people saying, “Out you go!” As he walked toward the exit, he noticed the membership secretary standing in his way. He couldn’t make out what the man was saying to him, or what he meant by pointing toward the left side of his chest, where his heart was. His numbed mind was still able to reflect that, however much the man might have sharpened his nails, he wouldn’t manage to snatch out his heart with bare hands. But as he thought that thought, the man was putting his fingers inside Hasobeu’s jacket and into the inside pocket right next to his heart, whence he extracted the ex-minister’s Party card.
The feet that fell on the broad, red-carpeted steps seemed no longer his own. Now that his Party card had been confiscated, he was halfway to his death already.
He had already gone down many steps, but the stairway seemed endless. The cloakroom right at the bottom looked tiny, as if it were buried in some deep abyss, and the few staff seemed like so many dwarves.
When he finally made it to the cloakroom, one of the concierges took down a coat and brought it to him, holding it up with both hands. His expression was devoid of hostility. They looked each other in the eye for a good while. Not only were the concierge’s eyes entirely unaggressive, they were sparkling with unspoken thoughts. And the hands that helped Hasobeu into his overcoat were as respectful of him as they had ever been.
Are the people upstairs in the know? he wondered privately. To tell the truth, he didn’t quite understand the meaning of his own question. It got mixed up with other questions, while the concierge whispered in his ear, “Pull yourself together, boss!”
He was stroking Hasobeu’s aching back, not even seeking to mask his long-standing faithfulness and devotion.
It took the merest fraction of a second, as short as a flash of lightning, to realize that the tempest of anger that the Guide had unleashed on him upstairs could not possibly have been without cause, and that without knowing it, without even wanting it, he, Hasobeu, had probably been, for ages already, at the helm of a great conspiracy.
His supporters, unable to repress their veneration any longer, were about to proclaim him
No! he meant to cry out. Though they had both trampled on him, he would never betray the Party or the Guide.
“No!” he shouted as he tried to disentangle himself from his cursed overcoat. He had but one wish now — to rush up those stairs, to burst into the hall, and to proclaim the news: The other conspirators, my henchmen, are downstairs; they’re waiting for you with long capes drenched in blood and dirt, the better to wrap you in!
He shifted his shoulders to try to get properly free from these sly glances, but the concierge’s grip grew firmer and he found himself held tight, as in a vise. The man’s assistant, who had been calmly observing the scene, stepped forward, and with a deft movement of his arm took the handcuffs out of his pocket and snapped them on.
The fall of Adrian Hasobeu was greeted in Tirana with more indifference than scorn.
As soon they heard it said that “Hasobeu has fallen,” city folk, as if waking from a snooze, recalled that his fate, like the Successor’s, had always been known. The only difference between the two cases was that whereas the fall of the Successor had taken but a single season, Hasobeu’s had begun a year before, or rather no, not a year, but six years, or even more, say sixteen years, or maybe even twenty years ago, when he’d been appointed commander-in-chief of the
. His fall and its cause were obvious: He’d had access to secrets.
News came quickly from Tirana’s jailhouse that as soon as he had been taken in Hasobeu had had his tongue cut out, which proved how dangerous those secrets would have been had they been let out, even in the form of screams echoing between the four walls of a prison cell.
A persistent rumor sprang up in the capital at that time, as if to fill the silence left by Hasobeu’s sectioned tongue. But to everyone’s surprise, the rumor soon detached itself from Hasobeu and became refo-cused on the Successor, before being entirely swallowed up by the latter’s unfathomable enigma.
That was when it became apparent that the mystery of the Successor would emerge as the victor and would occupy a position that the unhappy man had never managed to gain in life: that of being at the top, or, as people had taken to saying in recent times, of being “Number one.”
His long-deserted residence, where no light had shone for ages, could still just about be made out through the foliage lining the Grand Boulevard. Passersby, especially late-nighters on the way home from the National Theater after watching some self-congratulatory play full of vulgar laughs and noble feelings, were always seized by a shiver of fear that they would not have missed for anything in the world. It must presumably have been one such person who, on coming out of a show, suggested that the deserted residence was precisely where Europe began — an idea that got him called in a few hours later, in the middle of the night, to explain what he had said. At first he tried to wriggle out of it, claiming what he’d more or less meant to say was that that was where the conspiracy had started, that’s to say the curse of Albania, or in other words its perdition, until, during the third day of torture, he confessed that he was against socialist realism, that it was indeed his disrespect for it that had led him to have such a twisted idea because, if it had been in his power, he would have shut down the National Theater because it could not compete in any way with the Elizabethan residence of the Successor, the only building in Albania to have some degree of resemblance to the castles and baroque palaces of Europe.
It was a fact that the gloomy dwelling aroused increasing numbers of crazy fantasies and all kinds of fevered emotions. On that December night the dead man, his wife, and Hasobeu had paced untiringly around it, inside and out. They had made signals to each other, had sought to interpret them, as in a mime show, but they dealt with something on which they appeared not to agree. Maybe the lightning had obscured the light of the lantern that was supposed to be a signal from someone inside to someone waiting outside, or perhaps it was the opposite, someone outside signaling to someone in the house.
To this whirligig of wraiths a fourth character was added by a patient in the Tirana Psychiatric Hospital. The architect. Although he had long familiarity with these kinds of delusions, the doctor who first heard the man was dumbstruck. What was an artist with white-skinned hands doing in this murky imbroglio? With hands that only moved to take a pencil and give life to lines that in their very subtlety only served to tie everyone else in knots?
That was the doctor’s first thought, but on further reflection he saw that it was only to be expected that in such a mysterious house, with all its deceptive signs and doorways, the miraculous role of the architect must have been essential to the unfolding of the whole story.
Meanwhile, at the start of that winter, questions about the true story of the Successor’s fall, about which hand — his own or another’s — had shortened his life, swirled around more furiously than ever.
As could have been foreseen, clairvoyants, who had been lying low for a time, made a comeback. The most persistent was the Icelander. He had started by establishing contact with the denizen of the Other-world, whose death rattle was now just as awful as before, and his story just as murky. He was complaining about something missing, perhaps referring to a part of his body, but he might also have meant a part of his faculties.
As a result, apart from the presence of the two women, who were still there, if only very faintly, behind what the clairvoyant called a “curtain of snow,” the rest of it seemed impossible to interpret. It was especially hard to understand what connected the Successor to these two women, just as it was not easy, not to say impossible, to explain the squabble and the blame-casting that was going on between them. As before, the recriminations sounded like pleading, to be sure, but they also were just as much reminiscent of commands or bawling. Someone’s death was being demanded. But whose? And from whom?