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Robert Elsie

Albanian Literature | Modern


Ylljet ALIÇKA, 2003 (Photo: Robert Elsie).

Ylljet ALIÇKA, 2003
(Photo: Robert Elsie).





    My father passed away in July, of perfectly natural causes. At his age - he was over eighty - any little thing is enough to kill you. In my father's case it was the heat wave that year, which did away with quite a number of people younger than he was.
     Because it was so hot, the people who had come around to pay their respects advised me not with good reason not to leave my dead father in the house overnight up until the funeral the next day. "Put him somewhere freezing cold because otherwise..." my distant cousin left the rest of her suggestion open. In fact, this very logical advice came as a surprise to me.
     "Where am I supposed to put him?" I asked.
     "What do you mean, where?" she replied."You put him where the dead are supposed to be put - in the morgue."
     "But," interrupted my stepmother, who had lived with my father for the last thirty years of his life, "how is the boy going to get into the... what do you call it... the morgue? I mean, how is he going to take the body? We have no idea about the regulations and don't know anyone there at all!"
     The discussion did not last long because a doctor, who had arrived to pay his respects, recommended that I contact Adonis, the keeper at the morgue.
     "It is only a question of one night," advised the doctor, "and it might be a good idea to give him a little something."
     "Sure," I replied, relieved.
     That evening, we lifted the coffin into a car which my employer had put at our disposal, and I drove off alone.
     The morgue was a one-storey building separated from the hospital. It had cream-coloured walls and was patchy-looking from the fallen plaster. It was surrounded on all sides by weeds, most of which had withered in the heat. The windows were fortified with rusty iron bars. The only thing which added a hint of life to this dreary picture was Adonis.
     Adonis was slouching around the grounds, smoking a cigarette. His stubby fingers were stained from tobacco or from the solution used to disinfect the corpses. I was surprised at the extent to which he resembled the rigours of his profession.
     His unkempt hair rose vertically and his eyes were deeply entrenched in their sockets. He was thickset, had bushy eyebrows, and his white shirt was covered in yellowish stains. His jacket hung loosely from his shoulders and his trousers were mis-buttoned.
     I introduced myself and explained my problem to him. He sighed and replied:
     "I have great respect for the doctor, but it is rather difficult to find room at the moment. Who is the deceased?" he continued, in a low, respectful voice.
     "My father."
     "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," he went on in an official tone, "but, as I said, it is a real problem. We have been getting a lot of bodies over the last few days, not only from the hospital, but also from poor people like yourself."
     I remembered what the doctor had told me and took out a five-thousand-lek banknote. The gesture did not go unnoticed, and Adonis hastened to add:
     "But we can give it a try. We'll find some solution."
     "Thanks," I replied.
     Adonis was right. It was very difficult to find a free space. He opened the freezer and began shuffling the bodies around. This he did in a quiet, reverent, almost ritual manner and noted earnestly:
     "I am not the type of person who likes to take money for nothing. I don't just pretend to freeze the bodies and then have them melt on you like ice before you get home. I am accustomed to doing my work properly. What I mean is, I freeze the bodies to perfection."
     To prove his point, he again opened the freezer door and pulled out a wooden tray on which was lying the corpse of a young girl whose face was pale either from death or from being frozen.
     Adonis grabbed the body by the shoulder and, suddenly, as if he were checking the ripeness of a watermelon, gave it a whack on the forehead with his hammer. There was a strange metallic vibration.
     I was stunned. Adonis invited me to give her a whack, too.
     "Go ahead, she won't bite you."
     No thanks, it's alright. It's obvious she's frozen. But, tell me, how did she die?"
     "The girl? I'm not too sure. She probably committed suicide."
     "How should I know?" he answered coolly and switched to his favourite subject:
     "The best thing is to clarify things from the beginning so that there are no problems. Your father is going to be as well frozen as this girl by tomorrow morning."
     "I am quite convinced of that," I stated, hoping that the discussion could be brought to a swift conclusion.
     "Bring your father on in," said Adonis in a resolute manner, once he had made room.
     "Here's a spot for him," he added, pointing to a rusty freezer. It was not clear whether it had been cream-coloured from the start or had paled with age. It contained three shelves.
     "There's an old-age pensioner here that they brought in a week ago, who they still haven't picked up, and there's woman they brought in this morning."
     "That's alright," I said, and we loaded my father into the freezer. As I was closing the door, my eyes fell upon my father's hand. As a child, I used to stare at his hands when I was trying to get money out of him. He never refused me. He suffered his whole life long for having left me without a mother.
     Touched by Adonis's kindness, I took another five-thousand-lek note out of my pocket and passed it to him without saying a word.
     Lurching towards me with the expression of someone about to make an historic decision, he grinned and said: "You know what, lad? I'm really touched. Look, we are going to store your father in a special freezer. It's actually full, but we'll find a solution. What do you say?"
     "I'm not sure. You know better than I do."
     "One thing is certain," he added, "you freeze to the bone once you're in there. Your relatives wouldn't even recognize you."
     I thanked him, although I was not too happy about his detailed explanation.
     He shuffled over and opened the special freezer. It had four shelves, all of which were occupied.
     "I'll remove the one on the bottom. He's frozen solid. Not even a furnace could melt him," muttered Adonis, speaking more to himself than to me. I'll then stick this other fellow on the bottom tray and..." He stored the second one on the bottom shelf and, having taken a deep breath, looked at me and said, "Or do you think I should move the agronomist they brought in yesterday and put him on the upper shelf so that it'll be easier to get him out tomorrow? Let's see. Alright. Give me a hand, will you, and we'll shift the old-age pensioner. He's been here for a whole week and no one's given a thought to picking him up."
     Within five minutes there were four bodies on the floor, spread out stiffly in different directions. Adonis lost his train of thought for a moment and turned to me:
     "Where'll we put this one?" He was referring to the old-age pensioner.
     "I really don't know," I hesitated, with a hint of guilt in my voice.
     "Alright, alright" he said. "I'll put him in with someone else. It's better to get 'em into the other fridge rather than leave 'em out here."
     And so it was done. We snagged the pensioner and heaved him onto another body in another freezer which, it seemed, was not functioning particularly well.
     "Listen," he then suggested resolutely, "I think it'd be a good idea to put your father on the bottom shelf because you are going to be back tomorrow morning, whereas they're going to come and pick up the agronomist in the afternoon."
     "Fine," I agreed.
     Thus, we were forced to lug the agronomist around again, me grasping his head and Adonis his feet. But the head was frozen so firmly that the moment we had raised him above us to slide him onto the upper shelf, he slipped out of my hands and, as a result, out of Adonis's, too, despite the latter's skilful attempts to hold onto him. The body of the agronomist crashed to the cement floor, causing a terrible thudding din. He was now lying face down, and one of his arms was out of joint.
     "Sorry," I gasped ruefully.
     "Why've you gone so pale?" he inquired calmly. "It's nothing serious. Don't worry about it. If you knew how many times this has happened to me! And you know why? It's because I really freeze them properly."
     "What about the arm?" I ventured.
     "Which arm do you mean? I'll get it back into place in a minute. No one'll know about the fracture." Adonis set to work. It was not an easy task. At one point, he had to stand with one foot on the fellow's chest in order to wrench the arm back into place. I could hear the agronomist's bones creaking and cracking as Adonis huffed and puffed.
     "Can I help?" I asked.
     "No, no, just stomp on it for a moment, will you, so that it doesn't slide away. It's no problem. Such things happen," he continued. "And do you know why?"
     "Because they are frozen solid," I replied.
     "Bravo, that's it," he affirmed, breathing heavily.
     "I think we're finished," he added.
     To raise the agronomist this time, he seized the head himself.
     I was shaken to see that the corpse's nose was misshapen. Adonis noticed my shock and asked impatiently:
     "What's wrong now?"
     "Look at the nose," I stammered.
     "So what's wrong with the nose? Maybe it was like that from the start. There are lots of people with crooked noses," he declared, "but, I must admit I don't remember the agronomist's being quite that out of keel."
     We finally hefted the agronomist carefully onto the right tray.
     I felt completely empty.
     I went over to my father's body. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Adonis fiddling with the agronomist's face. As soon as he noticed that I was watching him, he smiled reassuringly at the corpse as if to say "Everything will be alright now," and then leaned towards me, saying:
     "I think we're done."
     I had the vague impression that in his mind he was straightening out my nose, too.
     After much struggle, we hoisted my father onto the second shelf of the 'special freezer.' As the door was closing, I had a final look at his face. I was leaving him all alone in that cold, dark chamber, in the company of persons unknown.
     While I was pondering on the eternity of our separation, Adonis, holding the door ajar, gave me an inquiring look and asked an unusual question:
     "Who did your father?"
     "Who what? I don't understand the question."
     "Your father, who did him?" he repeated, trying to make himself clear.
     I was confused, and replied:
     "My grandmother. She gave birth to him."
     "I don't mean who gave birth to him. I mean, who made up the body?"
     I finally grasped what he was getting at and recalled how young girls were made up with cosmetics as brides when they got married.
     "Oh," I replied tentatively, " probably the women... I don't know."
     He stared at me gloomily for a moment and added in a brusque tone:
     "Because they didn't do a very good job. In fact, I don't think he's even been made up. Of course, it's your decision. I'm not forcing you. It's your father after all, but to show him proper respect and not to do him up... but it's your choice..."
     I now realized what he was driving at and handed him another five thousand leks.
     "It would be kind of you if you could do it."
     "As you wish," he said, pacified. "You go and get yourself a cup of coffee and I'll finish the job. Come around afterwards and give me a drive home, will you?"
     I returned an hour later. He had finished with my father and had put him back into the freezer.
     Adonis lived on the outskirts of town in an apartment on the second floor of a grimy, dust-covered tenement building. He insisted that I drive him right up to the entrance and he did not get out right away. Having made certain that the whole neighbourhood had noticed his arrival, he emerged from the car with great commotion and shouted, "Come around and pick me up at tomorrow at seven. Right here!" Then he lumbered up the stairs under the respectful and no doubt jealous eyes of the neighbours.
     I drove back home utterly exhausted and did not sleep well either. Every time I woke up, I thought about my father lying in that freezer, slowly turning to ice.
     The next morning I went to pick up Adonis. I had to honk several times before he appeared at the window in his underwear. After surveying the entire street, he hollered: "Oh, you're already here! I'll be down in five minutes, as soon as I've finished breakfast."
     He slumped into the car with a "how are you doing?" and spoke not a word all the way to the morgue. When we arrived, Adonis glanced around the yard, and I had the impression that he was on the lookout for bodies.
     Of a passerby he inquired:
     "Have you come to see me?"
     "You? Who are you?" asked the man.
     "I work here at the morgue," replied Adonis.
     "No. I have nothing to do with you. I am here to repair the walls."
     "Oh, sorry," retorted Adonis, turning to me. "Let's go and get your father."
     He yanked open the freezer door in a casual manner. My father was inside, completely frozen.
     Adonis broke my silence, saying matter-of-factly:
     "Well, what do you think?"
     "What can I say?" I asked, dazed.
     "Go ahead, touch him."
     I did so. The body was terribly cold. It had lost all its human warmth once and forever. Adonis waited for my reaction.
     "It is very well frozen, I must say," I mumbled and requested that he help me carry the body out to the car. At that moment, however, another corpse arrived, so I had to ask the mason to assist me. I thanked Adonis once again as we were departing, with my father's coffin on our shoulders.
     He gave me a cursory wave, as if to say, "come around anytime!" and went on explaining the merits of his character to the relatives of the newly-arrived deceased, stressing that he never took money without doing a proper job, and would never cheat anyone. As he spoke, Adonis led them over to the freezer which contained the body of the young girl, ready to confer the same demonstrative whack he had given her frozen face the previous day.

[Adonis, from the volume Tregime, Tirana 1997, p. 99-106. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]



    Whenever an old couple from the countryside, dressed in their finest clothes and smelling of mothballs, is invited to attend a wedding in the capital city, it is because the organizers of the wedding are obliged to do so for custom's sake. In this particular case, the old couple in question fully merited the invitation because they were the only surviving paternal relatives of the bride.
     The wife was delighted at the invitation and said so openly, although it was not her direct relatives who were getting married. Her husband, the head of the household, reacted solemnly:
     "Get my good clothes out, will you?" It was more than evident from his reply that he wanted to attend alone. His wife contradicted his plan immediately:
     "If you are worried about the costs, I have enough money for the journey into town. And what would you do in the big city all by yourself anyway?"
     "What concern is that of yours?" he retorted. "The wedding is going to take place in a restaurant and there will be no need for your help. In fact, it is not really customary..."
     "What do you mean by 'not customary'?" she countered angrily. "They don't invite women there just to help in the kitchen, as they do in the countryside. In fact, it is not customary for a man to attend without his wife. In the city, they all go as couples. Didn't you know that?"
     He was a taciturn and rather stoic individual.
     "No, I didn't." he muttered, and asked for the key to the chest where they kept their money.
     Knowing him well, she began sobbing and wiping her tears with a white kerchief conveniently at hand.
     They had both been born in the same village and had got married there. Their only son had since departed and they had been living by themselves for some time. The couple were liked by the rest of the village. They were a hard-working pair and got along with one another, most of the time without saying a word. In fact, they rarely spoke - only the essentials.
     The wife satisfied her female passion for gossip with the other women of the village, with whom she worked in a brigade.
     The husband was wont to return home after work, light himself a cigarette, have a glass of wine with some cheese, and ponder on the order of things in this world.
     "I am going to pass away and will never have been to the capital," she lamented. This charged statement caused him to stare at her for a moment. Then he said: "Alright, come along, if you must." She jumped for joy and hastened to get her finest dress out of the closet.
     At the village store they asked for the "best and most expensive present for a wedding in the city," which turned out to be a vase of artificial flowers that looked almost real. The present was duly enveloped in transparent wrapping paper with little blossoms on it, which rustled as they carefully carried it home.
     With all the preparations and excitement, it was late before they got to sleep on the night preceding their departure.
     The next day, a Saturday morning, they set off before dawn, and had hardly slept a wink.
     They journeyed into town on the back of a pick-up truck. The wind had dishevelled their hair and they were soon covered in a thin layer of dust. From time to time, they endeavoured to shake it off, but the journey was long and the road was extremely dusty from start to finish. The old fellow stood in front of his wife, protecting her, his face turned to the wind, as if he were looking out at the distance. Once and a while, he wiped the dust out of his eyes. She huddled against him, screened from the wind.
     When they got into town, their faces were pale and their fine garments were filthy. The wrapping paper had been torn to shreds.
     The first thing they did when they got off the truck was to clean themselves up. She took out a kerchief and spit into it to wipe off her husband's suit. This she did with swift and dexterous movements, as he stood there, looking away from her.
     He had turned his eyes to the distant mountains.
     "Aren't you finished yet? That's enough, woman," he muttered.
     "Wait a moment. No one is watching, and we've got the whole day on our hands." she replied, continuing her work with devotion. "Just look at your shoes. Go and get them brushed off at the shoe shiner's over there." He agreed and sat down at the stall of a nearby shoe shiner, while she wiped her face in the window of a kiosk.
     The couple arrived at the bride's home four hours early, and were received courteously. Rather embarrassed, he plunked the vase with the shredded wrapping paper onto the table and took his place ceremoniously in the armchair assigned to him.
     "Oh, you shouldn't have bought a present," stammered the bride's father in routine fashion.
     The couple murmured an appropriate response, not without pride in their voices.
     A young girl then entered the room. She picked up the present with due care, in order not to soil her clothes, and held it in her outstretched fingers where the wrapping paper was not too shredded and dusty, pacing towards the other end of the parlour, where she placed it on a cupboard. The rustling of the paper could be heard all the way into the other room.
     "So when did you get into town?" someone asked.
     "Just today," they replied in unison. After a further half hour of silence, the old lady gave her husband an awkward glance and turned to the other women:
     "Is there anything I can do to give you a hand?"
     "No, nothing at all," replied a young girl. "The banquet is going to be held at a restaurant." There was silence once again in their corner of the room. Other guests arrived and were made welcome. Two hours before dinner, the couple decided to stretch their legs and go out for a walk.
     They arrived at the restaurant one hour before the appointed time and got in everyone's way.
     Someone showed them to two seats in a corner. Thereafter, everyone forgot about them.
     The old lady tried to spark a conversation with her neighbour, a rather portly woman. The latter was, however, more interested in joking around and dancing than in conversing with two old people from the countryside.
     He ate a little and drank a bit of raki, retaining an air of distinction. From time to time, he listened to the imprecations of a good-looking and elegantly dressed young man who, in choice vocabulary, was expounding on the necessity of psychological and social analysis to reach an understanding of the phenomenon of crime in Albanian society.
     As he expounded on his theory, the young man dexterously waved his impeccably white hands and pink nails, which made it more than apparent that he spent much of his time caring for his outward appearance.
     The young man with the fine hands continued, "It is senseless to try to condemn and castigate social evils nowadays. I think, and I am quite convinced of this, that crime in our society derives from the lack of a social contract. Only this would provide us with a definitive solution to the ills of our society and nation."
     The people listened to his ideas respectfully and nodded. A young girl, sitting a short distance away, stared at the handsome gentleman with sorrow in her eyes. It was unclear whether the sorrow derived from the 'said' ills of our society and nation or was the result of some fleeting emotion she felt as she listened to his impassioned words.
     After a while, the old man lost interest. There was no more hint of feeling to be seen in his face.
     The old couple said nothing throughout most of the dinner.
     They ate as much as they could, and, when they had had their fill, the old woman took out a plastic bag to stuff it with leftover meat.
     "What do you think you are doing?" he admonished angrily. "What are you doing? You are going to put us to shame in front of all the people. We are here in the city."
     "I thought we could take a little something with us for lunch tomorrow. Look, everyone is doing it," she pleaded. It must be said that all the other guests, even those from the city, were indeed filling their bags with food and drink.
     "You see," she said as the other guests were leaving, "we are the only ones who got nothing."
     "They can take whatever they want, but we are not taking anything," he interrupted. They stayed until the early hours of the morning because they did not want to spend money on a hotel room. At dawn, they finally departed at the same time as the rock-and-roll group.
     The bus back to the village was due to leave at four in the afternoon. For fear of thieves, they went into a cafe on the outskirts of town. There, they had coffee and sat around to pass the time.
     At eight o'clock, they got up and left or, more precisely, were complimented out. The waiter pretended to have to sweep the floors around their feet and in doing so, raised an inordinate amount of dust with his broom.
     The old lady was about to protest to the barman, but her husband rose to his feet.
     "Don't bother," he said, "it is probably custom here."
     "What sort of custom is that? They are just trying to get rid of us because we are from the countryside. I am going to give him a piece of my mind and, on top of that, he did not hand us our change. There are ten leks missing. You can see it in his face, he's a heartless thief." They set off, not knowing quite where to go.
     The old couple meandered through the streets, looking at store windows until the afternoon. When the heat was at its zenith, they resolved to take a city bus to the overland bus station.
     They waited and waited. The city bus was late and the heat had become unbearable.
     "Come along, we'll walk it," he rasped, setting off.
     "Where? It's too far!" she protested and followed behind him, taking little steps. In no time, they were drenched in perspiration. He wiped his brow with a folded handkerchief and continued down the road in a noble manner. She panted and shouted at him, having difficulty making herself understood.
     "Slow down. Do you want to kill me? I'm exhausted." He continued in large paces.
     "Hold on for a moment, will you? You're not listening. Stop!" she shouted.
     "What's wrong?" he eventually asked.
     "What do you mean, what is wrong? Can't you see I am exhausted. You are acting as if someone is chasing us. We still have three hours until the bus leaves."
     He slowed down, and stopped at a crossroads, not knowing which direction to take. Gasping, she eventually caught up with him and uttered:
     "It must be that way, to the left."
     He set off to the right with his mouth wide open because of the dryness of the air. She plodded on, several paces behind him.
     "Hold on, I can't go any further," she protested. "If I at least had a glass of water. There is not even a public fountain here. Get me a bottle of water, will you, or I am going to collapse here on the spot. Go, leave me. I am not taking another step!" The old fellow stopped at a store and bought his wife a bottle of water, handing it to her without saying a word. She gulped it down as he waited, looking into the distance.
     She left the bottle half full for him. He took one sip. "Have it all, I don't want any more," she insisted, but he refused. She put the cap on the bottle and stuffed into her purse.
     Once again, the couple set off slowly. The heat was oppressive. They had not even got halfway down the road when she began complaining. The old fellow refused to listen this time and continued his march.
     She gave him an ultimatum.
     "I am not going another step. You go wherever you want. I can't walk anymore. Do you understand? I cannot go any further. Are you listening? I think I am going to faint." She would not give in, and went and sat down on the curb near an iron fence.
     He continued walking, but then looked back. Seeing that she would not budge, he returned to her.
     The old fellow stood there for a while and looked around hesitantly before sitting down on the curb himself, two or three metres away from her.
     She approached him. He said nothing and continued staring into the distance.
     There were few people out on the road. Rare pedestrians passed by indifferently.
     The old woman initially leaned against his shoulder, seemingly exhausted.
     He murmured something or other.
     "What?" she asked in a daze.
     "Nothing," he replied. She snoozed. He murmured something once more.
     "What did you say?" she inquired again.
     "What are you doing, woman? Can't you see that people are staring? You should be ashamed of yourself," he blustered.
     "Ashamed of what? What am I doing? I'm exhausted. We didn't sleep a wink all night." Saying this, she did something that shocked her husband deeply. She rested her head on his knee.
     He blushed and griped: "What are you doing, woman?"
     The old lady had fallen asleep and was breathing deeply. He gave her a glance and then continued staring into the distance. He took another look at her and pondered on the order of things in this world.
     She snored lightly and snuggled against him. Her head was about to fall off his knee.
     Embarrassed, the old fellow then did something he had never done before. He showed affection to a woman in public. Placing his rough hand on her head, he stroked her grey hair ever so gently. She seemed to sense the gesture and gave a sigh of satisfaction. She was now sound asleep.
     The sun shone mercilessly, melting the pavement in front of them.

[Çifti, from the volume Parrullat me gurë, Tirana 2003, p. 17-23. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]