Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Last Page

This is an excerpt from my last book, The Last Page, published some three weeks ago. It has been trasnlated and edited by Gigi Papoulias

It took a woman from China to make him understand that being happy with one woman is not enough to keep you from lusting after or falling in love with another. The secret-Jew had it all. He had an enviable position at the National Library which allowed him to read forbidden books in French – an act which was prohibited for most of the mere mortals in Albania. He often felt like he belonged to the finest caste of people and this filled him with self-confidence and great joy which led to a feeling of superiority. His life was filled with the presence of his beautiful wife and their young son. Until one day, literally out of the blue, she appeared.
She had come to the National Library for two months, as part of an “exchange of experiences between workers of the two peoples of communist countries.” Perhaps it was the French which she spoke that caught his interest. She was one of the few Chinese in Albania who spoke foreign languages. She had learned French from one of her uncles, who had studied at a French college in Shanghai, before the communists shut it down. Perhaps it was the look in her eyes, which differed from that of the other Chinese people. She did not have the look of fear or sadness.  His attraction to her grew in a strange way – in a way he could not control. Perhaps it was the fact that he found both her and her name to be exotic; Mei-Zen, which in Chinese meant Beautiful Pearl. Perhaps he was enticed by the forbidden; perhaps it was nothing more than a mutual frivolity filled with risk and pleasure. In truth, they both began to flirt with one another - with their glances, their smiles and the supposedly innocent contact in the library corridors. He began to think about Mei-Zen more and more often, even at night when he contentedly spent time with Bora and their young son. He tried to get her out of his thoughts, to avoid her in the corridors of the library, to act indifferent – however his efforts were unsuccessful.
Ironically they exchanged their first kiss in the bathroom of the library. It was the only place where they could evade the watchful eyes of their coworkers. He shared his office with the director of the department of scientific books and this colleague had the reputation of being one of the biggest rats in the National Library, so it was impossible for them to have any privacy in the office.
Two days before she returned to China, they made love in the library’s storeroom – it was late afternoon, most of the employees were gone and the storeroom was empty. Their bodies and their burning desire became one in the dimming light, surrounded by the smell of books and their fear that someone would see them. They touched each other wildly, with the kind of urgency and lust which can only be brought on by the feeling that you are doing something illegal. Albanians and Chinese were not allowed to intermingle, outside of the realm of the work exchange program and party meetings. Albanians, who were famous for their xenophobic sentiments even before communism, found the Chinese to be mysterious and  introverts. And the Chinese, known for their distrust of foreigners even before the time of Mao, found Albanians to be arrogant and unpredictable. In addition, any of their interactions were recorded with an unparalleled zeal by the ever-present informers, both on the Chinese and Albanian side – particularly since the time when serious friction between Enver Hoxha and Mao began. Isa and Mei-Zen made love with the thirst of two captives, with a madness which can only come from knowing that the relationship has no future. She would be leaving without the hope of ever returning and he was condemned to live and die in a country with hermetically sealed borders.
They got dressed like thieves who try not to leave any traces at the scene of the crime and they emerged from the storage room only after Isa checked to make sure no one was outside in the corridor. They had managed to exchange parting gifts. In his pocket, she had left a slip of paper with her address in China written on it and a phrase written in French: Je crois que je t’aime – I believe that I love you. He had given her a postcard with a picture of Tirana’s central square on the front. On the back he had written:  Je ne t’oublierais jamais. On se trouvera un jour sur la terre – I will never forget you. One day we will meet again, somewhere on this Earth.

Mei-Zen left.  He was the only one to feel the emptiness in the library corridors which her absence created.  And for a moment, along with the emptiness he also felt a stab of guilt for betraying Bora. But not for long. He wondered if what happened between him and Mei-Zen was something more than just a game of lust.  As if he wanted to answer his nagging doubt, the next day he secretly descended to the library’s storeroom. He looked at the place where they had made love, between two large wooden shelves, piled with books – lying on top of scattered books, in a moment of madness, pleasure and fear.
Exactly ten days after Mei-Zen’s return to China, they informed him that a few unknown comrades had come looking for him at the Director’s office. As soon as he saw them, it was obvious that the three “unknown comrades” were security officers dressed in civilian clothes.  They looked like such jerk-faces, even the  jerk-face Director looked like an intellectual when compared to them.  Without any introductions, they curtly told him to follow them. The Director, from the moment he came out of the doorway, gave Isa a look of disgust, so the security officers would have no doubt as to what his feelings towards Isa were. Isa felt the blood escape his veins. He tried to talk, but he couldn’t even move his lips.  He followed them, they got into a black Soviet jeep and 20 minutes later he found himself alone in an interrogation room.  They kept him waiting for at least half an hour. It was an ugly and very cold room, with white walls, a table in the middle, three chairs and it smelled of dog piss.  Every now and then the sound of someone screaming reached his ears; most likely the person was in the next room, in the interrogator’s office. It sounded like the voice of a broken and macabre radio. Until that day, he had not heard about, or rather to be exact, he had not paid attention to the stories people whispered at the cafes – about people who were being tortured.  He had figured that such stories had nothing to do with him.
Waiting for the unknown, he wanted to believe that he was the victim of some misunderstanding or some kind of plot or set-up. For the first time, thoughts of the trip they had made from Thessaloniki to Kavaja came to mind. He felt the same danger that he had felt back then.  He felt both terror and surprise when that odor reached his nostrils - the stench of the bodies which he had seen lying in the ditch as they fled from Thessaloniki.  He closed his eyes, as if he was afraid that perhaps the bodies would invade the interrogation room.  He opened his eyes and surveyed the room with a frightened look. He wanted to ensure that he was not overcome by hallucinations.


It became clear to him for the first time, sitting there in that office, that for his entire life he carried with him the annoying feeling of some kind of guilt. He wondered why and how it could be that someone should feel guilty even though he isn’t.  He was flooded by the feeling of fear.  It began in his chest and spilled down to his feet like a freezing torrent which left him paralyzed. He wished at that moment that his father was alive or at least his mother was alive (she had died of a stroke two years after the death of his father).  He fleetingly thought of the wife of one of the Party’s leader exponent. She had disappeared, along with her husband. He had learned that they had been executed two years ago for “sabotaging the development of socialism.” At that moment, as never before, he felt completely orphaned and abandoned.  He could no longer lean on anyone for support. Only on Bora. And then he felt the sharp stab of guilt.  He thought of his presence in that despicable place as a kind of punishment for cheating on Bora with another woman.  Afterwards he thought that under no circumstances was his detention in an interrogation room related to the incident with Mei-Zen.
After about half an hour, when he saw the interrogator enter the room, the feeling of surprise was added to that of fear. He was not a stranger. It was Akil O., an old high school classmate – but mostly he was an old rival.  They had both tried to claim the same woman: Bora. 
Akil O.’s apartment building was across the street from the Philological School, where the History Department was located. That’s were Akil O. would wait for Bora every afternoon; he’d be on her heels, insisting on walking her home. When he realized the presence of the secret-Jew in her life, he became even more insistent. However his long-lasting romantic siege was a failure.  “He’s a disgusting guy,” Bora had said on the one occasion when Isa had asked her how she knew Akil O.
Now here was this old rival, who he had not kept in contact with over the years, and had always strongly disliked, entering the room with a lanky police officer who carried a typewriter and with a woman who was about 50 years old and had dyed her straight hair jet black and who promptly took the seat next to Isa. No one spoke.  The only thing that could be heard was the sound of the interrogator placing his objects on the table and the thumping of the typewriter which was placed in front of the woman who was around 50 years old.

“Comrade Isa, do you recognize the woman in this photo?”

He turned towards the table and with surprise, he saw a black and white passport photo of Mei-Zen.  Like lightening, a thought flashed through his head – that Mei-Zen had been arrested and perhaps was being held in the next room.

“Nothing gets past the watchful eye of the Party, Mr. Alber. She confessed the whole story. Now it’s your turn,” added Akil O., with a sadistic smile.  It was the first time he heard his childhood name again – the name that he himself had forgotten and had erased from his mind. The words coming from the interrogator seemed like words coming from a nightmare, that “the Party knew about his background very well and that he had not appreciated the Party’s trust or the hospitality of the Albanian people,” that “Mei-Zen was a Chinese spy,” that “the Chinese are preparing to betray Communism,” and that “class enemies lurk everywhere.” He wanted to awaken from this nightmare and find himself at home, in bed, next to Bora.
But he did not wake up. He continued to be in that room, stuck in the nightmare. He had to answer the interrogator’s questions and after every answer, he had to listen to the clacking of the typewriter, and then another question, which demanded another answer.  “Where did you meet Mei-Zen?” – “How many times did you meet in secret?” – “What did you discuss?” – “What is your opinion of Mao?” -  “What is your opinion of Israel?” –“What is your opinion of the Leader of the glorious Worker’s Party, comrade Enver Hoxha?” – “What do you think of capitalism and socialism?” – “Why do you read forbidden books?”
He gave concise answers. He told the story about his relationship with Mei-Zen. He said that it was a crazy, momentary fling.  He added that he regretted it. He said he had no opinion of Mao,  that his homeland was Albania and not Israel, that he loved comrade Enver and that his father had fought alongside him, and that he firmly believed in the overwhelming superiority of socialism over capitalism, and he denied reading any forbidden books, even if he knew very well that that was a lie. Then he became silent. He heard the sound of the typewriter again.  About two hours had passed.  To him, it seemed like two lifetimes.
He was anxious and grinded his teeth.  At that moment, he heard screaming from the next room. The interrogator took the pages from the hands of the woman who was around 50 years old.  The interrogator and the woman stood up – the police officer had been standing the entire time – without saying a word. He didn’t move. The three of them left the office, again without saying a word, and this rekindled his bad premonitions. He remained alone in the office, listening to the screaming from the next room, or from some other room which he could not discern the exact location of.  He waited for practically three hours, with his freezing hands and feet, feeling sure they would come back to torture him.  Interrogator Akil O. appeared again, this time alone.  He handed him the white pages which they had filled with his confession.  He tried to lift his head towards the interrogator.

“I know what you want, but there is no time for you to read it. I advise you to sign it. It’s nothing, you will simply confirm the truth which you just admitted.”

“Do not destroy me,” he begged the interrogator, speaking to him in the familiar, informal usage of the language.

He felt like crying, like asking for forgiveness right at that moment, he wanted to remind him that at one time they used to be classmates. He felt his self-assuredness and sense of male pride disappear. Tears choked his throat, fear made his blood run cold, and between the tears and fear he said “I have a family, I have a small child…”

“If you don’t sign, I will have to leave you here… You will be left alone, with the police officers, and they are not at all polite. Then another interrogator will come. I only want to do my job and do it without hurting you,” continued the interrogator, who insisted on speaking to him in the formal, polite usage of the language.

“What will you do to me if I do not sign?” he asked with a drained voice.

“You will really be a fool if you don’t sign your confession,” answered the interrogator. His demeanor was that of a person who enjoys the coveted humiliation of his rival.

With all the strength that you can muster from false hope and especially from cowardice during situations like this, he did not insist on reading his entire confession. And he was such an avid reader… He signed.

Interrogator Akil O. took the pages and left. “I always envied your success with women, Alber,” he said suddenly before he shut the door, with a faint smile on his face which made Isa’s blood run cold.
As soon as he shut the door, he heard the screaming again. It sounded a bit different than the previous screams. It’s odd that the differences in people’s voices can also be heard in their scream, he thought. He remained still like this for another two hours, thinking about his entire life. His head was spinning. A police officer entered and with a rough voice, told him to leave.
Exiting the police station and entering the twilight of the city, he thought that his old classmate had saved him. He even felt gratitude and he smiled, feeling both fearful and hopeful at the same time. He didn’t know what to do. Should he go straight home? He felt numb, he was cold and dizzy. He cast a fearful gaze around the street, looked behind him in case someone was following him. He didn’t see anything suspicious. He went into a run-down bar that smelled of sweat and smoke. He asked for a glass of raki and he drank it in one gulp. It was September and the evenings were beginning to feel cool. He drank another four glasses of raki, as if he were drinking water. The warmth of the alcohol enveloped him and gave him a sense of unexplainable optimism. He even felt like laughing about all of his fears. Nothing bad could happen. Nothing!  As many times as he said “nothing” – he drank as many glasses of raki.
When he returned home, his entire body was shaking. Bora was surprised when she saw him. It was the first time she saw him drunk.

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