Authors: Ismail Kadare
Suzana listened to him with her head hung low. A wordless flash of light as cold as steel had suddenly made transparent what ought to have taken her days or weeks to grasp. When she felt she could not hold back her tears much longer, she looked up and nodded her assent. Her father looked fuzzy, as seen through a haze, still standing as she turned to leave. At the door she burst into sobs, and as she ran up the stairs to her room she thought she could hear her tears dripping to the floor.
That was how her one and only affair had ended. When she met her lover for the showdown, she had tried to maintain a degree of discretion. She did not mention that he was in danger of relegation, nor did she mention her own quarrel with her mother. All the same, after making love, and still in the thrall of her pleasure, she had not hidden the fact that she was sacrificing herself for the sake of her father’s career. He listened to her with furrowed brow, without really grasping what she meant to say. Later on, when she came back to the matter, he must have gotten the gist in the end. He didn’t say a word, but, after a long pause, he muttered something about such sacrifices reminding him of ancient tales that he’d assumed were things of the distant past.
Those were the last words they spoke to each other.
“So that’s how it was …” Suzana’s fiancé kept his eyes fixed on her as she told her story. “Did I make you angry, darling?” she asked as she stroked the back of his head. “There’s no reason you should be, that’s all ancient history now” … No, curiously he didn’t seem to have been distressed by the story. As she spoke, something had changed inside him. She could not quite identify which detail of the story had prompted his transformation, but, suddenly, leaning his lips toward her ear, he interrupted her in a whisper and said, “Are you going to show me your dark mystery again, then? …”
Glowing with joy she tore off her clothes with trembling hands. “My love, my love,” she murmured when he first touched her between the legs. Her screams turned into a muffled sob before reawakening as a succession of spasms. When the young man withdrew, she kept her eyes half closed. “How beautiful you are!” he whispered to her. Without opening her eyes she replied “It’s you who make me so.”
Still panting for breath, she covered him in kisses and smothered him in endearments. “Shall we do it again? We’ll do it again in the evening, in the afternoon, at dawn, won’t we?” “Absolutely,” he said, as he fumbled around for a cigarette.
Suzana snuggled under the blanket, relaxed her body, and tried to get back to sleep. Never had she felt so exhausted by an act of recollection. Her cheeks were as wet as before. So was her pubic hair.
Outside, dawn was breaking. The whole abomination seemed to be coming to an end. The autopsies, the white-coated judges, the instruments and the measurements would surely have an effect in due course. Poor Papa, honor would befall him late in the day. But at least his soul would rest in peace. As for them, her mother, her brother, and herself, life would go on. Without him, of course, without his dangerous eminence; they would go back into their shells with their heads down, and hope to find warmth to share inside.
That was the advice they got from their aunt Memë, the only person who came to see them in the days of desolation right after the tragedy: Stick together and keep each other warm.
She’d turned up before dawn from the remotest part of the south on a train that seemed to have been invented specially for her, wearing a black headscarf bespattered with drops of snow or sleet garnered in unlikely locations.
As surprised as she was anxious, Suzana stared at the unfamiliar old woman, who had been knocking for some while at the door.
“I’m your aunt Memë, I’ve come to visit,” the caller said, raising her voice.
Suzana shouted up from the bottom of the stairs, “Mama, Aunt Memë’s come to see us!”
She had thought that her mother would be somehow glad that after their protracted isolation someone had at last come knocking at their door. But her mother’s eyes, puffy from insomnia or else from deep sleep, looked the old lady up and down superciliously, as if she didn’t recognize her.
“You’ve forgotten me, but I won’t hold it against you. Since God has not yet called me to him, I was just wondering: For what trial has he spared me?”
In outdated language that Suzana only half understood, Aunt Memë rattled off her advice. Most of it began with a negative: “Do not.” Do not open the door, whoever calls; do not remember anything, not even your own dreams; do not try to guess whose hand struck down your unhappy father; for although one hand may hide another, behind the other there is always the hand of God. “As for you, my child,” she said to Suzana, “stop thinking you’re the cause of it all.” “Nor should you, my boy,” she added, turning toward Suzana’s brother, “nor should you think you have to take revenge. But above all,” she said to Suzana’s mother, you who are a mourning widow, you must not think about it anymore. “What’s done cannot be undone, and what’s undone is not for mending. Forget so that you may be forgotten.”
Suzana’s mother kept her eyes on the old lady as she made her speech, staring blankly except for moments when panic welled up in them.
Faint nostalgia for family members relegated to obscure rural outposts came back confusedly to Suzana’s mind — relatives who sometimes resurfaced under the guise of remorse, but quickly disappeared again.
Aunt Memë didn’t blame them, nor did she let fly with all the resentment she felt. She recited her list of “do not’s,” and was visibly satisfied not only to see that they had caught the young man’s imagination, but that after coffee he took her aside to talk about them further, in private.
“Forget so that you may be forgotten,” Suzana muttered to herself, going over her aunt’s advice. Easier said than done, even if you restrict it to dreams. Henceforth half of her whole existence, not to say the most substantial part of her life, was made up of memories and dreams.
It was still April, but the inescapable and sparkling month of May, with at its head the first of the month — a day revered like a god — was about to cross the border and make its grand entrance.
Never before could she have dreamt that the hardest day of her life would be invaded by marching crowds, big drums, placards, little red flags, and brass bands broadcast over the loudspeakers in the street. Pictures of her father were more numerous than ever before, waving amid the procession, right behind the portraits of the Guide.
She was on the platform, staring at the unending tide of people in the procession. At times it made her dizzy. A pang of anxiety went through her as she wondered if the man was still expecting her to come to the apartment on Pine Street. Which of her words was he thinking over? If I’m not there by eight-thirty that will mean we will never see each other again. I shall love you all my life. And if I live twice, I will love you both my lives.
From time to time she stole a glance at the central platform where her father stood to the right of the
, waving at the crowd, accompanied by the crackling of photographers’ flashbulbs. She waited a few minutes, then discreetly looked again, as if to make sure nothing had changed, and she didn’t know whether to be glad or saddened that it was all still there, with her father in exactly the same place, at the Guide’s side, two paces behind him. Her tired-out brain ran disjointed dreams before her eyes: her father stepping two paces backward, herself pushing through the dignitaries toward him and saying: Father, sir, so you are in the end not the designated Successor? You just said that to deceive me, didn’t you? If that’s right, then you must release me, Father, sir, so that I can go back to my lover, tear off my clothes, and melt in his arms.
The commemoration banquet was just as awful. The lavish table, the toasts wishing her father ever greater success, and which he pretended not to hear, putting on that distant smile that was meant for no one in particular, plunged her into a state of numbness, where scattered fragments of scenes and sentences mostly unrelated to each other floated around in her drowning mind.
The distinguished assembly at her table made her see it more and more as the altar on which she would be required to lie, to be sacrificed, surrounded by candles. Her eyes sometimes caught her mother’s glance. Father, sir, let all this be at least of some use! That’s what she believed she was thinking as she watched her father’s face, looking like a young bridegroom flabbergasted by his own good fortune. He had disposed of his daughter’s fiancé so as to proclaim
the groom at this nightmare banquet.
Quite unexpectedly, it turned windy and rainy in the afternoon of that first of May. Suzana spent the whole of it locked in her bedroom, sobbing.
It was the same bed as the one in which she was now awakening, without quite managing to figure out to which level of time she was returning.
At last she got up. Her eyes were swollen, but this time the thought that had always first come to mind these past few months — what’s the point of looking pretty? — didn’t even occur to her.
The residence was quiet. It seemed scarcely credible that only a few hours earlier men with guns and instruments had been tramping from one room to another. Her brother had gone out, as he usually did. Her mother was probably out as well. She went up to her father’s bedroom door, as she had done so many times before, and tried the handle. It was locked, as it always was.
She went back to her mirror, moved a lock of hair out of the way, examined a spot on her face, then took up her hairbrush. She felt she had forgotten even what it really meant to do her own hair, a practice tied up in so many ways with being beautiful.
Her brother’s bedroom door was ajar. She looked in at the table untidily piled high with books. It was here, where no one was allowed to go, that her brother had shut himself up for ages with Aunt Memë.
She had seen them come downstairs afterward and then wander around the house, in and out the back door to the garden, with him leaning over and with his spidery arms around her, so that her twisted figure all in black looked like his secret torment.
Aunt Memë left in the afternoon, but her shadow and her words stayed on in the house. Suzana’s brother made no effort to hide his interest in the dark mysteries of their family’s past — for instance, in the curse that people in Tirana would not stop gossiping about. He wanted to know which part of the curse related to the house, and which part to the family, or to the layout of doors and thresholds. As well as the precise spot where the misfortune had arisen.
On that last point brother and sister didn’t know what to believe. If a curse really existed, was it to be found in the old part of the residence, or in the new-built section? In other words, on which of the house’s two levels did it fall?
As they went on discussing the matter, Suzana could not get the architect’s face out of her mind. She was almost certain that the curse emanated from the rebuilt part of the residence. She’d always been told, since earliest childhood, that before being requisitioned by the new government, the house had belonged to the pianist who played the first waltz at the royal wedding. So even if the pianist had had blood on his hands, it would not concern them at all.
Her brother smiled sourly. He wasn’t too sure what the elders would say on the question of a house going from one owner to another. Aunt Memë had been evasive on that point too. “I’m not at home in the present,” she sighed. “We used to have other customs, like spells and curses; but now there are rituals I can’t make head or tail of. People talk about con-cresses, blinums, and what have you. Ay, ay, ay!”
When Suzana suggested that the new part of the house probably did not yet have any history, seeing that only her engagement party had ever taken place in it when the plaster was barely dry, her brother shook his head in disagreement. He took the view that crimes moved house with people, until they found walls within which they could hide. If the crimes hadn’t been committed within these walls, then they had taken place elsewhere. In the highlands, for instance, during the last war. They called it the War of Liberation, but many people said it had been more like a civil war. In other words, a really dirty dogfight.
“Do you think Papa might have committed any crimes?” Suzana asked, almost wailing.
He didn’t hear the question, or pretended not to.
What he said next made her hair stand on end: A wedding snuffed out long before would suddenly demand what was due to it if talk of a new engagement woke it from slumber. So many engagements had been broken by the so-called class struggle!
“You’re crazy!” she riposted. “Mad and bad.”
He replied that he was neither mad nor bad. But when Suzana burst into tears and protested that she could not bear herself and her engagement being highlighted as the cause of all that had happened, he took her in his arms and stroked her hair at length.
“Let me cry a little longer,” she begged when her brother urged her to stop weeping.
The graying wisps of their mother’s hair that they had seen on the morning of the tragedy, as she screamed at the deceased, so as to be heard throughout the house — “Woe! What have you done to the Party?” — had as it were gotten stuck in their minds for days on end. She was grieving for the Party’s sake, Suzana’s brother whispered in her ear. Not for her own sake. Nor for ours.
Later on, harking back to that scene, it seemed to Suzana that the mystery of their parents’ bond with the Party would forever remain inaccessible to her and her brother. It was a bond stronger than the ties of blood, and by the same token stronger than the knot of marriage.
“In the highlands …,” she repeated after him. Atrocities must have been committed up there. And that peculiar bond must have been forged there too.
The nature of such a bond was presumably still little understood, because it was too new. Unlike religious allegiances, it was in competition with the ties of clan and family, because it too was a tie of blood — but with a difference. It wasn’t based on inner blood, the blood in your veins, identical to the blood of your family going back a thousand years, according to genetics, but on the other kind, on outer blood. That’s to say, on the blood of others, blood they had drunk-enly spilled in the name of Doctrine.