By Arian Leka
What is the right word? Bad? The day starts badly. First of all, my wife, who on the one hand imitates the silent smile of Romy Schneider in The Old Gun, and on the other hand is constantly talking. If she doesn’t find the right explanation, she cries.
“I’ve never been free. Neither in the dictatorship nor now”, says my wife. She leaves the room and locks herself in the bathroom. “When I was little, my father kept me under surveillance. When I reached puberty, I was spied on by my brother. Then you came along. You seemed to give me the freedom, but you controlled me from a distance. Now neither my father nor my brother nor you are keeping your eyes on me. Now it’s our daughter who clings to me. My daughter”, she says, and comes out again.
“This isn’t a toy”, she said, taking it out of the box, and added, as she placed it carefully on the old tiles: “This is a Richard Salter.”
It was a scale. On the left it shows the number 120. Right 10. In the middle 0. I would have liked a barometer instead of the scale, but my wife said:
“To get the lead role, I have to lose seven pounds. Got that?”
I mount the scales. The arrow settles between 70 and 90. Have I lost weight? Not a bit. I’ve gained 300 grams. This drives my wife crazy. How can I gain 300 grams if I’ve stopped drinking alcohol and eat no heavy foods?
I alight. I don’t know why I feel I won’t live long. How do people like me die? Quietly?
"Come out! Your daughter will be late for school.”
If there’s a moment I hate, it’s this one.
“You’re not like how you used to be”, my wife says as soon as I step into the room from the bathroom. “You’re a workshop that produces nothing but bad mood! What happened to your promises that you and I would someday ... That me and you ... Where are the times when you used to soar? Aha! You’re just not what you used to be back then!”
Not only my wife doesn’t feel free anymore, I don’t either. I lie down on the edge of the bed. I look at my body. At the places where I should have grown wings, as I promised my wife, black body hair has grown like fur. I can’t fly. I’m the guy who brings the bread home, but no joy.
All that would have been enough to poison the day for good. But there was more. Evil seems almighty after glancing at the computer. A new mail appears in the inbox on the screen. I get up. I wait until the new mail is downloaded and gets lost amongst the discounts, cheap loans and “10 steps to lose weight without a dietician”. I read only the subject line. There haven’t been any invitations for a long time.
"Everyone’s forgotten you. Not only don’t you get any more invitations. Your name isn’t even on the water and electricity bill”, my mother once said.
While I wait for the text to appear on the screen and to read the longed-for word PUBLISHER, I hear my father’s words echoing in my ears as he walks down the hall:
“Be genius or ...”
I know the rest.
“... find a job ...”.
How would that sound if my dad said that in Albanian? “Look for work, or ...?”
Fuck! My father never talks dirty. I wonder how he can stand it without cursing, scolding, yelling! For my father, the story is over. There’s no room left for geniuses, let alone for people like me, who make a living translating. How? Listlessly. Just like him.
My father worked in the publishing house “8th of November”. He was the copy editor. The third eye. This meant that when a work was translated from German, the second eye compared it to the French, and my father looked through the versions in a third language. He checked the translations by political prisoners who translated for the sake of people's power, but he didn’t like to be reminded of it. Their names never appeared in the books any more than did my father’s name. The prisoners hadn’t seen their children for years, and I too rarely saw my father. He left when I was still asleep, he came back when I was already asleep. His trade was listed on the national occupational list under the number 2634 / 010-07. If he had at least once received a medal or a tribute! It wasn’t until after he had given a newspaper interview that humanity learned that my father had been the one who had translated the sentence from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte which deals with persons who appear twice in history, once as a tragedy and once as a farce, into flawless Albanian. Had he also implemented the ideals of Liberté - Egalité - Fraternité? Partly. My father receives the same monthly pension as his friends: $ 120; in bed, my mother and he have become brother and sister; he is free to chat and choose where he wants to have his afternoon coffee, in the Bar Bruxelles or in the Café London. For him, the story is over. A thorn from a thorn. A rose from the rose. I know the sequel: "A translation from a translator.”
Nobody in my family knows that what I want to do has nothing to do with translation. Nobody knows that what I want is not to translate others but to write my own book. But how? How is that supposed to work if I can’t even rest myself for twenty minutes? My wife doesn’t know that I send publishers an exposé every month. That’s why she pricks up her ears and listens for every new e-mail in the inbox. She wants to know. Whether that’s not the translator with the nice little butt from the editorial department who smiles are as hot as Penelope Cruz and stretches like Scarlett Johansson. Nothing happens. The inbox is waiting for the publisher. More precisely, for his answer.
While the internet is charging, I lie down again. My wife comes in. She lies down next to me. As if it weren’t enough already – You’ve got fat! You’re a workshop that produces nothing but bad mood! – she says to me now: “Why don’t you try ...!”
I know. I'm not trying to change anything. I get up from the bed and put the headphones on. I have to fulfil the daily target for translating film dialogue. Play. The first thing I hear is what the young Bolshevik says to Doctor Zhivago: “That's right! Yuri! Adapt yourself!”
“Stop doing movies!” says my father sharply and goes into the bathroom. There’s no choice. There’s no freedom. In this world there’s room only for the ordinary. The sulky and disgruntled. For you and me.
In the hall my daughter appears. She gives me a sign. Then she asks me what the dollar rate is, how much is 8 x 7 and if she can watch the series Sex and the City in the evening. She too is disgruntled. Like us. She has her eyes on her cell phone. Headphones always on her ears. I wonder. In my day, the disgruntled were different. The only thing our daughter wants from us is electricity and 24-hour Wi-Fi.
My father shuts the bathroom door. He took the remote control with him. He may have no power to change the world, but he has the power to change channels from the loo. The press review on TV.
“Let’s start with the headlines on the covers. First to politics. And then.”
My dad makes the TV quieter from the loo. I want to scold, yell, and call down a plague on his house, but I can’t. The rights and freedoms of children. I won’t be loud in front of my daughter. But after so many years, I’ve learned something, I tell myself. No matter where we sit, whether at the computer, on the edge of the bed, on a stool or on the loo seat, we all find ourselves in front of a television listening to the same thing: we poison ourselves with the news and die, as in a room full of poison.
My father comes out of the bathroom and says to me:
“You’re not a genius? Then look for a job so you become one, otherwise we’ll all go crazy!"
I go back to the computer. The e-mail is open. It isn’t a publisher. The sender is an employee of one of the embassies in Tirana.
I’ve became even heavier. If I weighed myself now, my weight would surely be 500 grams more. My wife would finally have to grasp what it’s all about with those grams I gain, even if I’m not eating. I’m a workshop that produces only one commodity: bad mood. Three hundred grams net of it per day.
I read the e-mail. Fuck! The sender orders something that he has never wanted from me. He has previously commissioned services from me, but not yet a murder. And this by e-mail? Does he think I’m a contract killer? Am I a criminal who hides behind the beautiful words he translates?
The more I read the mail, the more xenophobic I become. I’m trying to make a connection between the mail and my xenophobia. Haha. My xenophobia isn’t fear but mistrust. I don’t hate. Hatred, like love, is sacred, I can’t waste it on everyone. But on a daily basis, my conviction grows stronger that I’m bound hand and foot and no longer live in my own country. And now this foreigner comes along and orders a murder from me! Don’t be so reckless, I say to him, but talk only to myself. Don’t you know we’re being eavesdropped on? There, I already see them, the crooks who crack passwords to blackmail and demand money from us. Yes, the former Sigurimi people, who today are experts working for the big bankers and business people, don’t you get it? They’re rubbing their hands contentedly now they’ve trapped us. Yup! I see them before me. They’re sitting in front of our open mail. With a malicious smile on their lips. Haha. They surely smell something suspicious. Are these two so naive, they wonder, or are they setting a trap for us? Haha! Is the embassy sending a coded secret report in the form of a simple message? Some TOP SECRET of which only the leadership of NATO and Interpol is aware? But surely they’re not so stupid as to announce it already today. Haha!
The taste in my mouth is as a rusty hook must taste in the mouth of a fish. I’ve been caught, but I have to muster all my courage. Will I be bugged? Me? But I'm just a normal person who, to survive, translates everything that comes his hands – old movies, children’s bibles, medication information leaflets and manuals for household appliances.
Although only a few minutes have passed since the e-mail arrived, I’ve already figured out what I’ll answer if the public prosecutor arraigns me. I won’t deny my acquaintance with the foreign diplomat, but I’ll declare my innocence by stating that the diplomat was interested in the Albanian tradition of blood revenge. It was murder in a metaphorical sense, you understand, Mr Examining Magistrate ...?
The foreign diplomat must have been confused. Of all the words available to him, he chose the falsest one. He was referring to the nature of the commission. What he wanted from me was neither murder nor assassination nor sleep nor dispatch. He just wanted the execution of the order. If only I had listened to my father! He wouldn’t even visit me in prison. And even if he did, he would just say
“I always told you: find a job!”
I step onto the balcony. From here I see the Café Zurich, where strangers and residents of the settlement meet to bet, drink the local cognac and local beer. I go down the stairs. I mumble, because everyone is whispering. Paranoia grows. Everyone believes they’re being bugged. No one talks loudly any more. They mumble. A faint crackle in the telephone receiver is enough, and everyone sees themselves caught in the coils of a conspiratorial net. Intelligence services? Embassies? Secret agents? On the third floor landing I meet my neighbour. Although we’ll soon be in the square in front of the house, he wastes no time and whispers to me to be careful.
“You better watch out, especially for the street hawkers. Even if they look like social cases, they’re the ones who spy on us the most. They scan what we put in the bag. Why do you think plastic bags were invented”, he monologizes. “Because they are cheaper? No! Plastic bags were invented to control us: the CIA invested with the industrialists. Now they know who we are. Through our purchases. Right, Professor?”
I arrive at Café Zurich. I enter, and even before I sit down I already hear what’s being said ...
“Before, only the Sigurimi was listening to us. Now everyone is listening to us. “
I recall my wife who complained about never having been free.
“Just look at him”, someone says and looks at the waiter. “Do you think you can bribe him? No matter what you give him, it won’t be enough. The waiter gossips, slanders you, stirs things up against you. Watch out! Especially for the elderly.”
“The beggars are the worst. They work in three shifts. The beggars are non-stop spies.”
“What do you think the beggars talk about when they meet in the neighbourhood house in the evening? He’s loaded! He has nothing! He gives! He gives you nothing!”
I don’t know why it seems to me that everyone is talking to me. What should I do? Tell them that I am under suspicion? That they have me on the hook? That I’ll be arrested?
I get up and make my way to the editorial office. As we wait for the last page of the paper to be finished, I tell my colleagues, off-handedly, about the paranoia that has befallen us all.
“In every vendor and every beggar people smell a spy”, I tell them.
Instead of being surprised, they stare at me.
“Do you really don’t know, or are you just playing dumb?”
“We know what’s going on. Or are you now going to wag your finger and talk about the right-wing extremists? About racial abuse and homophobia? You know the little Roma and the Egyptians. Yes those, who keep us from sleeping and ask for scrap metal and waste paper? Do you really think they’re doing badly? The Roma and Egyptians aren’t Egyptians and Roma at all. They’re secret agents. Get it now? And don’t say I did not warn you”, the typesetter tells me.
"And don’t be fooled when they’re feet-up in the dustbin!” says the translator who smiles like Scarlett Johansson. “You feel bad when you see them running around with empty prams? That’s just masquerade. They’re not collecting bottles and cans, they’re watching what we throw in the trash. They’re paid for it. Yes, singing and laughing, they rummage through our rubbish, read the bills, contracts, payments, piecing together torn letters, collecting the price tags. In short, they inventory our households and inform ... “
"Whom? Whom do they inform?" I ask angrily.
“Criminals, who else? That's how it is!”
“The criminals then inform the criminal justice system and the contract killers: when they’re caught by the police, they spill the beans. The state gets their reports, and thanks to the Roma and Egyptians they know everything about us.”
“But the state is part of the Euro-Atlantic organizations and writes very different reports.”
“CIA, NATO, UN, OSCE, KFOR, UNHCR. All of them. Do you get it now, where our rubbish lands?”
“At the international institutions. They know everything about us. Also what condoms you use, expensive or cheap, with strawberry or rose scent”, says the translator who smiles like Penelope Cruz.
“Pull yourself together”, says the typesetter. “I'll tell you the last secret, too, so that you can take precautions. If you want to live undisturbed, do your shopping far away from your flat. Where nobody knows you. Mix your rubbish with the rubbish of your neighbours. Throw it away where it won’t be found by the Egyptians, the waiters, the beggars, the police and the internationals. And one last word: give up plastic bags. Buy a cloth bag so they can’t see what’s inside and what you’re carrying home. We’re surrounded, brother! We’re spied on from all sides. But when I tell that to people, they think I’m crazy.”
I have to go back. Home. The e-mail that came this morning is waiting for me. I want to remove it. I have exactly four options: Delete, Spam, Archive or Trash. But just as I think I’ve made up my mind, I’m terrified as never before. What if there’s a Roma or Egyptian clan lurking in the electronic wastebasket, there in the trash folder?
I arrive home. I enter the room. Everyone is sleeping. I have to continue work where I left off. I put on the headphones. 01:30:56 minutes. I hear the young Bolshevik say to Zhivago: “Yuri! Adapt yourself!” Watch out, Yuri!