There comes a day in one's life when one has the impression that one has paid one's dues to the world, the cycle is complete and there is no more reason to ruminate upon the past, in particular when one's life has nothing of value to offer. "What then?" one might ask.
Nothing. Just a confession.
One morning a couple of months ago, a friend of mine, Dorian Kamberi, a mechanical engineer and father of two children, boarded a freighter called the Partisan and sailed across the ocean with his family. If I had not had second thoughts at the last moment, I, too, might be living in some refugee camp in that dreamland called Italy, or somewhere else in Europe, together with a horde of my compatriots. But at the last minute, as we were sitting on deck squashed like sardines, I told Dori that I was getting off. It is possible that he did not even hear what I said. After the trials and tribulations of our journey from town to the ship, a veritable Odyssey, my words must have sounded absurd. If anyone other than my friend had been beside me, he would have hurled me into the sea. Dori said nothing and just gave me a blank look. All the while I could feel the warm pee of his little son, whom I was still carrying on my shoulders, trickling down the back of my neck.
My hesitation must have been obvious to everyone. I am sure at that moment that my voice and my face expressed exactly the opposite of what I was saying. Even a small attempt on Dori's part to dissuade me would have sufficed for me to abandon the decision I had just taken, not really even knowing why. It was not a question of homesickness. I felt nothing at all, and my mind was as void as the expression on Dori's face. He made no move to stop me. And I disembarked, my neck still moist from the pee of his little son. I sat down on an edge of the wharf and looked back at the final groups of refugees scrambling to get on board. When the ship set sail and had reached the point where the faces on deck could no longer be seen, I felt a lump in my throat. With my head between my hands, I began to sob and then had a long crying spell. I did not realize at that moment that it had been years since I had last cried. My soul was parched and I had long thought that nothing more on earth could move me to tears. Someone passing by put his hand on my shoulder and said not to worry, there would be another freighter coming in the afternoon...
I returned to my neighbourhood at nightfall. No one had seen me leave and no one saw me come back. Dorian Kamberi's departure with his family became known the next day. It was not the subject of much talk. Some criticized him, some praised him, and others were jealous. I paid attention to the gossip much like a thief who has taken part in a robbery and listens to the news of it spreading. For the first time in the forty years of my existence as a bachelor, I had a secret to keep within me. It was possibly the only secret that my town did not find out about. And it would never have found out, had I not decided to make this confession. No one would really have been surprised to learn that I had departed and boarded a freighter to disappear from the face of the earth. But that I should make the tedious journey, get on the ship, and then disembark all of a sudden, no, no one would have believed that. Even Dori, if he had indeed heard what I said, would never have thought it possible that I would really get off. Perhaps he thought that, with my usual sluggishness, I would have been more of a burden to him than his family, and therefore made no attempt to stop me.
Nonetheless, there I was. The next day, my feet carried me out to the cemetery. You might think that it was the grave of some loved one or some sort of nostalgic contemplation which had impeded my departure. Alas, this is not true, yet I have great respect for graves and for reverie. Indeed, I am envious of those for whom such notions are important and provide stability, like the force of gravity, as a basis for action. For myself, I feel I am somewhere beyond gravity, cast off and abandoned in a black hole of disdain. Reverie was an ephemeral luxury for me. Such were not the motives behind my aborted departure or behind my visit the following day, for the first time in my life, to the cemetery. For everyone and from every point of view, I was and am a loser.
* * *
Grey clouds hovered over the town the next morning. My thoughts were with the refugees at sea. My parents - I live with my mother and father in a two room apartment plus kitchen - did not even bother to inquire where I had been the day before. They were used to such absences and had long stopped asking me where I was going and what I was doing. My return home at night was sufficient for them to get a good night's sleep. Thus, my thoughts were with the refugees. I was worried about them because of the bad weather, but certain biological processes within the human body take place despite one's emotions. I was starving. I got dressed and after a brief and muffled "morning!" from the doorway, leaving my parents to their cups of coffee in the kitchen, went out.
I do not think there is any place on earth quite as dusty as our little town. There is dust everywhere, on the flat cement roofs of apartment buildings, on the tiled roofs of private houses, on the sidewalks and on the flowers poking up in the only park in the centre of town. It is everywhere, like icing sugar sprinkled on a layer cake in the baker's showcase window. It powders your hair the moment you go outdoors, deposits itself in your ears and nostrils, gets into your lungs and follows you everywhere, to the cafe, the restaurant, and even into bed. I was about ten years old when they constructed the cement factory on the riverbank on the outskirts amongst the hovels of the gypsy population. It was a construction from centuries past, said those in the know, and produced more dust than it ever did cement. The old people said that it was at that moment that the town's slow death began.
"You could already be across the ocean," I thought to myself with a shudder as I strolled down the sidewalk. The whole place looked incredibly dingy on that grey March morning, so dingy that I almost broke into tears. "You fool!" I said to myself, "what have you done?" I went straight to the cafe. Normally I would first have gone to the Riverside Snack Bar to still my hunger, but there had been rumours circulating recently that its owner, Arsen Mjalti, a onetime foreman at the cement factory, had been using meat of dubious origin for his grilled sausages. There was a lot of gossip about it, ranging from rotten meat taken from dead cows to dog meat, and the gossip was confirmed by numerous cases of diarrhea among his customers who, unable to come up with proof to give Arsen Mjalti a good thrashing, simply boycotted the establishment. As a result, the snack bar was now only patronized by a few good friends of his and by the occasional traveller passing through. It is possible, however, that the rumours were being spread by a few envious individuals, for it was said that the onetime foreman was making a fortune and that, if he continued, he would have enough money to buy the famed Hotel Dajti.
The cafe was empty. To my good fortune, behind the espresso machine on the counter there was a row of bottles of Scanderbeg cognac which I had not indulged in for quite some time. The waitress at the bar knew exactly what I wanted before I could even open my mouth. She handed me a double cognac to start with, and then made me a coffee. I went over to the window with a glass in one hand and the cup of coffee in the other. Here, customers drank standing up at little elevated tables. Without further delay, I downed the glass of cognac in one swift gulp. I felt terrible and was on the verge of tears, hardly able to stifle what would have been a ridiculous scene in front of the waitress. It was only the third double cognac that saved me. Calmer now, and confident that the beast clawing at the depths of my being had been vanquished, I ordered a fourth cognac which I began to sip slowly, together with the coffee that I had not yet touched. There were few people out on the streets. Either the heavy clouds of the morning sky had discouraged them from going out, or, as it was a Sunday, they were still sleeping or lying in bed staring at the ceiling, certain that there was nothing of interest to venture outdoors for. Everyone seemed to be sleeping the sleep of the dead. I wanted to go down to the town square and scream at them: "Wake up, my fellow citizens. Everyone else is gone and you have been left behind!"
I stayed put, sipping away at my cognac until the glass was empty. I ordered a fifth one. I now felt that smooth, velvet sensation under my skin. If you have never tried it, you cannot understand what it is like. The world is back in keel and your mind grows sharper. A clarity about right and wrong wins the day in your soul, or rather a feeling of righteousness, and you are in a position to make clear decisions without complexes and without trepidation. It was at that moment that I decided to take a walk out to the cemetery. I had never been there before, but at that moment, it seemed like the most natural thing, something I just had to do and indeed should have done long ago. I was shocked at the thought that I had never been. I did not know, as I was finishing my fifth glass, that it was there that I would meet a person from town known as Xhoda the Lunatic. If I had, I would not have gone.
He was emerging from the graveyard by the gate built into the hole-pocked red brick wall, which was almost as high as a man. For this reason, I did not see him in time. Otherwise I would have avoided him. Suddenly there he was in front of me, much like a vampire appearing in a nightmare. He was unshaven, his hair unkempt in the wind. Xhoda was wearing a military cloak which was open at the front, revealing his hairy chest. For a moment, I froze under his piercing eyes. He was holding a long iron bar in his hand. He stood there before me, looking as if he were in deep thought, and gave me an angry glance. As I looked into his bloodshot eyes, I remembered the old saying that even a madman gives way to a drunk. But I was obviously not drunk enough or he not mad enough. At any rate, I could only get into the graveyard by passing him.
I had recovered from my initial shock, but I was afraid that he was going to lash out at me. If he had done so, I could only have ducked and raised my arms to protect myself, as I had done on several occasions in the past when he, then the school principal, had been on the lookout for a victim among the pupils upon whom to vent his rage. I had been among his preferred targets. This time he did not strike me, either with his hand or with the iron bar. He did not call me a bastard or a scoundrel. He just glared at me with his bloodshot eyes and I, unable to resist his glance, took flight.
- 1 -
Xhoda the Lunatic was the first person ever to call me "incorrigible." I will always remember the scene in his office when he hurled this accusation at my father who, for his part, as a sign of agreement, gave me a slap in the face to convince me that I really was the person the principal accused me of being. If the principal had gone further, alleging for example that I was a born criminal, although I had only just turned fourteen at the time, my father would have agreed and slapped me in the face again. My father was not really a bad fellow, but at that moment I hated him more than I did anyone else, even the principal.
I do not remember the circumstances under which Xhoda first struck me with his cane. It was probably for one of the usual reasons at small-town schools for which caning is quietly accepted and for which the teachers know full well that the parents will not make a fuss. The beatings took various forms, but all of them involved care being taken not to leave any marks on the pupils' bodies. I did not get beaten until the fifth grade for the simple reason that my teacher for the first four grades did not believe in physically punishing her children. In the fifth grade we got new teachers whose habits were quite different and, after being passed around from one to the other, we came to realize that we had been really lucky during our first four years of school. Then it began. I had never been beaten at home because, as I wanted to say, my father was a placid fellow. The real head of the family was my mother, but she was not in the habit of beating children either. My classmates, most of whom were the children of simple working families, got beaten all the time, both at home and at school.
I now have a lump in my throat when I think back at the horror with which I faced the moment I was to be caned. I had no doubt at all that the time would come. What I did not realize was that my first punishment would be doled out by the principal himself. He was a terrifying man, the only one whom even the rowdiest boys would run away from. When he stood before the school, the teachers could sense the unease and fear among the mass of pupils and I often had the impression that they were more frightened of him than we children were. I imagined their fear as being more or less like mine, that is, a fear of the cane in the principal's office where I had never been and where I hoped never to be taken. I was well aware of the fate awaiting any boy to be sent there.
My first caning was traumatic. I do not remember the reason for it so it had no particular punitive effect. It could have been a complaint from one of the teachers about my being too loud, or a protest from one of the girls whose braids I might have pulled. There might have been other reasons, too... anything. I might, for instance, have grinned at the wrong moment or moved from my place in line when the principal was holding a speech before the school. But it may also simply have been my turn because I was one of the rare boys in town who had not yet felt the principal's cane on his back.
After being yanked by the ears and the hair around my temples and having been slapped several times, an experience I would often undergo, I left the principal's office without a tear. Dazed, I rushed home to complain to my father. I was at the age when children believe that their father is the strongest man on the planet, the person who will protect them and solve all their problems. This was the origin of my trauma. I had not really known my father up to that time and had imagined him different than he was. It would take a few more years for me to come to realize that his wimpy, servile reactions, which struck me to the core, were not simply a result of his sluggish nature.
The following day, he accompanied me to the principal's office. Had I suspected that he was going to degrade himself to that extent, I would never have told him about the beating. I would have preferred being beaten ten times a day rather than see the terror in my father's eyes. Such humiliating scenes would repeat themselves often, with the only difference that, later, my father, who had never struck me, would become accustomed to doing so and would exercise this activity with passion every time he was summoned to school by Xhoda the Lunatic to learn of my mischievous deeds. This went on until I reached the seventh grade when Xhoda pronounced the fatal word "incorrigible" and I really got caned. From that time on, I think I became incorrigible for good.
But let me return to that day when, after the first beating, I made the fatal discovery: my father was not strong at all. My father was a coward just like the rest of them, like the teachers and everyone else who quivered in Xhoda's shadow. I was twelve years old at the time, and still in the fifth grade. Now, almost thirty years later, I can state with conviction that I wept more tears that afternoon than I did for the rest of my life. And I ran away from home. They found me in Tirana the next day asleep on a bench in the park across from the Hotel Dajti. I was in a state of exhaustion, starving and frightened. I did not know that this naive disappointment was to be but the first of a whole series of disappointments. Yet I experienced none of them with such tragic intensity as this one because, for me, my father was now dead, and the damage done could not be repaired. Xhoda had destroyed the vision I had cherished of my father, and so I decided, in my manner, to take revenge.
* * *
We were living at the time in the same apartment - two rooms and a kitchen - where we live now. I had and have one sister who is five years older than I am, but she plays no role in my story, if I can even call the mediocrity of my earthly existence a story. The chronicle of my life is, to be certain, mediocre. It is the story of a man who never was and never turned out to be anything, an anonymous existence melted into the anonymity of a obscure neighbourhood in an obscure town, even though it is not far from the capital city. My sister spent most of her time away from home. When I was little, she was at a boarding school of the teacher training college and, later, when she got a job, she was appointed as a teacher in a village in the north of the country, where she remained.
My apartment building is situated near the centre of town. Across the road, on the other side of the park and the paved square, there is another apartment building, on the ground floor of which are various food stores, a fabric shop, a tailor and a cafe. The cafe has made the apartment building and the whole square well known in town. It is here that the most spectacular brawls between individuals and rival groups have taken place. The town did not take them particularly seriously, probably because the inhabitants considered such brawls to be a normal part of everyday life, just as it later became normal to sit around and watch films on television. There was no television in town at that time, and yet there was no lack of news. Most of the inhabitants were of the impression that dust played a decisive role in all newsworthy events. In conjunction with the vapours of alcohol, it drove my fellow citizens to folly. They are a passionate bunch and are excessively jealous - two things which do not fit together in an atmosphere of peace and quiet. In addition to this, most of them are workers with strong arms and ready fists. What else could be needed to make headlines? The news in town was, however, never put to writing. Interested sociologists are advised to contact the local authorities, who, I hope, might still keep records of such events. Perhaps they even have a file on a certain Thesar Lumi. That is me.
I say "perhaps" because it seems to me that I am making a bit too much of myself, thinking that there might be a whole file on me. I was and remain thoroughly insignificant and, in deeming possible the existence of such a file, I certainly do not dare compare myself to those who are worthy of such an honour. I, however, take pride in believing those who insist that one does not have to be important to have a file. All one has to do is cast a shadow on this earth. I would be more than happy if this were the case, for it would mean that, at a time when I considered myself non-existent in this world, there were others who were of a different opinion. And I am grateful to them.
To give myself a pat on the back, I will thus assume that there was a file on me. I do not know what could possibly have been written in it and most likely I will never find out, but I one thing I can say for sure: the real facts, which might in one way or another be construed as criminal activities, are missing. They cannot be in the file because, when I committed them, I was still a child. I committed them at the time when, for no comprehensible reason, my father suddenly submitted to the will of Xhoda the Lunatic and I lost all my respect for him. Thus, I decided to take revenge.
At this point in my narrative, I should mention Vilma, or rather my memory of her. Vilma no longer exists. She has been gone for a long time.
- 2 -
My brain tends to confuse time periods so that I am not sure whether Vilma was already every boy's dream when I was a child. I do not know whether she had already been destined at that age to play the role of an apple of discord in a town of rowdies. My sluggish mind has difficulty piercing the layers of past years, that curtain of fog behind which the universe of my childhood and my vision of Vilma lie. I was but a child when I got to know her, although I thought myself a man. Boys grow up quickly in a little town like that.
I can see her beyond that curtain of fog. There she is, standing behind the wrought-iron fence. She always used to stand there, watching passersby out on the street. Today, behind that same black fence, passersby can now see Xhoda the Lunatic sitting on a bench with the wild eyes of a madman. He stations himself there like a guard dog. His madness consists of the fact that he believes his daughter is still behind the fence and, with an iron bar in his hand, he is poised to attack any potential foes. Poor fellow. He did not realize that Vilma was untouchable. He did not know that his petrifying shadow would not have been able to defend her against anyone. There was something else that protected Vilma, and woe to him who dared to touch but a strand of her hair. Even if he had deployed a hundred guard dogs around the house or had sent a hundred hounds out to follow her in the streets, they would not have protected his daughter as well as Fagu.
It is exasperating. It drives me mad. I want to talk about Vilma, yet it is the spectre of Fagu which rises before me. I want to recall her shining eyes, the colour of the deep blue sea, and before me I see those other, black eyes, always full of anger. With difficulty I manage to forge my way through the thick fog in search of that placid, intelligent face, and I only come across Fagu's eternally gloomy countenance. The two faces will be linked to one another for the rest of my days. Every time I imagine the one, it is the other which appears and drives it away. And then, there is the terrible moment when I see the two faces superimposed upon one another. A Vilmafagu or a Faguvilma. Everything becomes distorted and vague. The faces are mutilated and lack expression. Death and decomposition could not do more to disfigure a face. Sometimes, though not very often, this vision tortures me in my sleep and makes me painfully aware that I will never be able to drive it away. Bathed in sweat, I wake up, my heart almost bursting in my breast. Then, transfixed under the spell of the nightmare, I spend all day hanging out at the cafe. Things only get moving after the first double cognac which seems to act as a lubricant, making its way through my blood vessels to my brain and greasing the rusty shell of my sub-cortex. Then things start to happen. More glasses follow and precipitate my slow liberation. But it is still too early. The movement stops there. Most of Vilma's mouth and her closed lips remain stuck between Fagu's teeth. Her nose shifts a bit, her eyes, too, and then the contours of her face. From experience I know that after the first glass, half of Vilma's face is still covered by half of Fagu's face, while the other halves are free. I have to be quick with the next glass because I cannot bear this part of the vision. Once the third double is down the hatch, the two faces hardly touch one another and, by the fourth, they are completely separated. I need a fifth for Fagu's scowling face to disappear and, finally, to be alone with Vilma.
There she is, behind the bars of the wrought-iron fence. She is wearing that white dress, a belt around her waist, and with waves of her long hair flowing down over her shoulders. She is blonde so, in the sun, her hair shines like the golden fleece. I am quite sure that her dress is made of the same material as bridal gowns. The plan I conceived to take revenge upon Xhoda was not to kidnap her and make her my bride, although, dressed as she was, she looked very much like one. I stared at her with the eyes of a common thug, someone with criminal intent on his mind. What my exact intent was, I will reveal later. First of all, though, I must make clear something which all the guys of my generation in town knew, that whole pack of twelve and thirteen-year-old rascals: Vilma belonged to Fagu. As such, she was closely watched over by his gang, who were among the toughest kids at school. Vilma was aware of this, too. She was twelve, as I was. Fagu was thirteen, a whole year older.
I cannot say what opinion Vilma had of the status she had been accorded by the others. I never really thought much about it. There was a convention which I accepted, as did everyone of my age, playfully learning the mommy-daddy game, that every boy should have a girl. For my part, I was reserved and did not take a role. Actually, I thought they were all crazy and that it was undignified for a boy to spend his time in the company of girls. If Fagu wanted to carry on playing that ridiculous mommy-daddy charade with Vilma, it was his affair. I regarded him as compromised and was surprised that all that gang of ruffians at school should accept Fagu as their leader. To put it briefly, Vilma would not have entered my life to that extent and in such a manner, had I not seized upon the idea of taking revenge on Xhoda.
I often tried to convince myself that it was all a game of coincidence, of fatality, but alas, like everyone else in my generation, I was raised without any religious education. I have heard say that religious people take comfort and find peace of mind in expressions such as "thus it was written." A religious person believes in a predetermined fate. But how was I, who believed in nothing, to find consolation? I do not think that the wicked will expiate their evil deeds in the flames of hell, nor do I believe that those who are good will be compensated in heaven. I would, however, like to believe that there is something like a last judgment. I cling to this ephemeral hope, for it is the only thing that keeps me going in the unending futility of my existence.
I was soon convinced that taking revenge on Xhoda would not be easy. Initially, I decided to smash the windows at his house, a free-standing building a distance away from the centre of town and surrounded by a high wrought-iron fence laden with plants and creeping vines. There was an alley nearby and it was from there that I could shatter all the glass in the windows. I abandoned the idea, however. During the day, due to all the passersby, it was impossible to act without being noticed, and I was afraid to go out at nighttime because the town was infested with roaming packs of wild dogs. I also gave up the idea of hiding a snake in the drawer of the principal's desk, not because it was impossible to find a snake - the gypsies who lived down by the river would have caught one for me anytime - but, firstly it was virtually impossible to get into the office, and secondly it was even more impossible to yank the drawer of his desk open. Three such attempts had been made at school and all of them had failed. I would therefore have to come up with some other method of taking revenge. And I did.
I happened upon the idea quite by coincidence. One day, in the school yard where Fagu's gang had gathered, I witnessed a scene which was nothing particular in itself. Fagu was beating up a boy who lived down by the river, while the members of his gang were looking on. All the other boys were watching the scene from a distance and everything was taking place in silence. The gypsy boy put up with the thrashing without saying a word until Fagu had had his fill and let him go, giving him a final kick in the ass. It was unthinkable that anyone would come to the help of a gypsy. He was a stubby, apathetic lad, one of the few children from the riverside who attended school regularly. His name was Sherif and he was in the fifth grade, in class A, whereas I was in class C. I knew something else about him that was important. His father, a stubby gypsy, as apathetic as his son, was given the task at various times of the year of exterminating the wild dogs. It was said that if he did not do it, the dogs would overrun and destroy the whole town. To this end, he utilized poisoned pieces of beef liver, which had an immediate effect.
The bell rang and recess was over. The schoolyard behind the building emptied. Only Sherif remained behind in a corner. I am not sure what moved me to go over and speak to him. Either I pitied him or I just despised Fagu. And I definitely did despise Fagu. He was a brutal braggart. At any rate, I learned something I would not forget. Fagu had beaten Sherif up because the latter had teased Vilma in class the day before, and she had complained to Fagu. What a beast she was, just like her father! In fact, all three of them were beasts, her henchman father, Vilma and that street tough who debased himself all the more by giving into her whims. It did not take much convincing to make Sherif my accomplice.
* * *
I played the game with exemplary hypocrisy.
I stress the word hypocrisy. At the time, I did not know what the word meant, but sometime at that age hypocrisy got under my skin and into my blood. If someone had explained it to me, I would perhaps not have become the way I did. No one explained it to me. From the first grade at school we had had lessons in moral education, but I do not remember any teacher ever explaining the meaning of hypocrisy to us. I do recall something else - that the teachers acted differently in the presence of the principal than they did when he was not around. They often lied blatantly to him in our presence, but none of us said a word. We hated Xhoda just as much as we feared him. In this respect we felt much the same about the teachers. I had noticed that whenever a school inspector turned up, the principal would act peculiarly. He was kinder and more polite, and lied to the inspector, just as the teachers lied to him. And things turned out alright for him. We were raised to believe that we were the happiest children on earth. That was what the songs we learned taught us.
I, nonetheless, had reason to doubt whether we were indeed the happiest children on earth. I cannot speak for the others, but at home, I often witnessed scenes between my parents which were so violent that they would send shivers down my spine. To avert any misunderstanding, I must note that my father had no particular vices. He did not indulge in alcohol or tobacco and I am convinced that he was not much of a ladies' man. It was my mother who wore the pants in our family. Father was head of the bookkeeping division at work and mother was a seamstress. I knew they tried not to fight in my presence, but they did not always succeed. What surprised me on most occasions was that the disputes were set off by completely insignificant matters. I would never have fought with my friends over such absurdities. Anyway, the storm clouds would gather, bringing with them insults, accusations and counter-accusations. The first to grow weary of the disputes was my father. Deprived of a worthy opponent, my mother would sniff in defiance and calm down, too. Then, when the room was filled by a deafening silence, I would hear my father lament: "God, what a dog's life!" I thus concluded that one could not live as the happiest child on earth, as we were told in the songs we learned, and, at the same time, live a dog's life, as my father declared. This conclusion of mine confused me to no end and brought me face to face with another curious phenomenon - the theatrical talents of my parents. It is difficult for me to speak about this, but it is true. My parents were actors.
There was a certain fellow named Hulusi who lived in our apartment building. He is dead now. He was a short fellow and used to come around quite often. I remember that he could eat an enormous amount and it often happened that he would not budge until he had downed a whole bottle of raki. From the way my parents talked about him, I was of the impression that, at the first possible moment, they would seize him and throw him out the window. That is what I heard my father say at any rate. But the scene to which I had long waited to witness and believed would take place, that is, my father chucking Hulusi, half his size, out the window, never happened. On the contrary, while I waited eagerly for my father to seize Hulusi by the neck the moment he entered the room, my father and mother would beam hospitably at his presence. Hulusi helped himself to the raki and stayed as long as he wanted. As soon as he was gone, the smiling masks on my parents' faces vanished. Father stuck his fists into this pockets and began to pace up and down the room like a tiger. Mother fell silent. Hulusi, so despised and looked down upon as he was, turned out to be our family's guardian angel. Without his assistance, my sister would never have been able to attend the teacher training college and, later, I would never have had a chance to go to university. But I did not know that at the time. I was not aware that our neighbour, Hulusi, who lived one floor above us, was the real power behind the throne in our town. Nor was I aware that to gain the good graces of our guardian angel, my parents had to pay eternal tribute - the loss of their dignity. There were many other things I did not know, things which life would later teach me, one by one. In those years, my brain offered me a very simple and easy, indeed I would say conformist, explanation for all these great dilemmas - everyone around me was an actor, both my teachers and my parents. They would don and remove their masks whenever it suited them. Accordingly, I would have to find masks of my own, just as the grown-ups had. This was, thus, the definitive solution to the quandary. Concerning the dilemma as to whether we were the happiest children on earth, I had come up with an explanation which one might even call original. We were and were not. It was like the mangy dogs roaming around town. I could not conceive of these animals being happy. They got kicked around wherever they went, not to mention the poisoned liver which Sherif's father set out for them. Pet dogs, on the other hand (most families with houses and gardens kept a dog), in particular lap dogs, I considered to be the happiest species on earth. Even Vilma had a lap dog. It was white and had curly hair.
Vilma was the apple of Xhoda's eye. The lap dog was the apple of Vilma's eye. I decided to poison Vilma's dog.
[extract from the novel I Humburi, Tirana: Dituria 1992, p. 1-24. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]