In April 1994, my brother called from Tirana to tell me my mother was not expected to last.
Helena and I left on the first plane from Paris, hoping to arrive before it was too late. We found her still alive, but unable to understand anything. She lay in a coma in my aunt’s apartment on Qemal Stafa Street, where she had been brought a few weeks before.
My cousin Besnik Dobi had carried her to her sister’s in his own arms. He told us why he’d chosen to move her in this way, over the short distance from Dibra Street to the foot of Qemal Stafa, adding, ‘Besides, she was very light.’
He tried to explain in more detail, repeating more or less the same thing. ‘Incredible, how light she was! As if made of paper.’
Like a paper doll.
I wasn’t sure if he had uttered these words or I had thought them myself, but they came as no surprise, as if I were hearing something I already knew.
A familiar scene passed through my mind: our daughters playing Doll with my mother. She would sit patiently between them while they fixed all kinds of ribbons and pins to her hair, saying the whole time, ‘Granny, don’t move.’
These scenes distressed Helena, but our daughters wouldn’t listen. ‘Granny doesn’t complain,’ they kept saying. ‘Why should you?
’Lightness. The wooden stairs of the house, usually so sensitive, never creaked under her feet. Like her steps, everything about her was light – her clothes, her speech, her sighs.
Around the neighbourhood and later at school, we learned all those poems about mothers. There were also poems, and even a song, about children who didn’t have mothers, with heart-rending repetitions of the phrase ‘without a mother’. I didn’t know of any classmates who didn’t have a mother. Perhaps there were some, but they didn’t mention it. According to one school friend, not having a mother was shameful, but a friend from Form B said that not having a father was shameful. Two of our girl friends, Ylberja and Ela Laboviti, laughed at both of them, and said they were mixing up the words ‘shame’ and ‘pity’ and didn’t know what they were talking about.
This question of a mother involved more than just whether you had one. You might sing all day about your beloved mother, ‘the nest in the world, how sweet her fragrance, tra la la’, but still this wasn’t enough. Some children worried, although they wouldn’t admit it, that their mothers didn’t look as young as others, orwere even old. But this was no great disaster compared to the case of the school in the next neighbourhood, where no fewer than two mothers were separated from their husbands, or the case of Pani X., who arrived in tears because someone had called him a ‘son of a whore’ on the way to school; he could only be consoled when Ylberja and Ela Laboviti explained that this meant nothing, because people who used these words about anyone’s mother were themselves possibly no better than they should be.
I realised very quickly that I too had a problem with my mother, but of a very different kind. It had to do mainly with her fragility, with what would later strike me as her resemblance to paper or plaster of Paris. At first dimly, but with increasing clarity, I understood that the maternal things mentioned in the poems and songs– milk, breasts, fragrance and the warmth– were hard to relate to my own mother.
It was not a matter of coldness. Her sensitivity was evident, and her caring nature too. Something else was missing, and I came to realise that it had to do with her self-restraint, her inability to cross a certain barrier.
In short, from an early age I felt that my mother was less like the mothers in the poems and more a kind of draft mother or an outline sketch which she could not step beyond. Even her white face had the frozen and inscrutable quality of a mask, especially when glazed with panstick as she had learned from Kiko Pinoja, the famous make-up artist of the brides of Gjirokastra, whose house was almost adjacent to our own. Later, when on a trip to Japan I saw a performance of kabuki for the first time, the whiteness of the actors’ faces seemed familiar to me. They contained the same secret as my mother’s, a doll-like mystery, but without terror.
Similarly, her tears flowed like those in cartoon films. I rarely knew what lay behind them, just as I couldn’t understand how for years I never once saw her entering or leaving the toilet, as if she never went there.
Mothers are the hardest creatures to understand, Andrei Voznesensky said to me at Alain Bosquet’s in Paris, during a dinner which Helena and I had been invited to. I had asked the Russian poet, among other things, about a famous poem of his, written partly as an anagram. It included a line in which the Russian for ‘mother’ – mat – was repeated three times, matmatmat, but left unfinished on the fourth repetition – ma – which at the end, associated with the t of the third mat (‘mother’), made the word tma, meaning ‘darkness’.
Voznesensky was in very low spirits at that dinner, and to me this seemed to influence his interpretation of these lines. It was my first and last meeting with him, so I had no chance to further explore what he meant. But his explanation, more or less, involved a connection between the words ‘mother’ and ‘darkness’, because a child emerges from its mother’s womb as if out of darkness: an endless cycle of matma, ‘motherdarkness’, in which both the mother and the darkness remain beyond understanding.
If I found it difficult to understand the cause of my mother’s tears, this was not the case with her boredom. She told me the reason herself in a phrase that terrified me the first time I heard it, and it still makes my skin creep to recall it: ‘ The house is eating me up!’
I soon realised that this was quite an ordinary way of saying that you’re bored at home. But I had long been obsessed with working out the meaning of words, and I tormented myself with the most horrible visions. How dreadful it would be if the house you lived in ate you up.
My mother, otherwise so hard to fathom, made no secret of her absolute dislike for our house.
This was perhaps an understandable reaction for a seventeen-year-old bride entering this vast building. Her first thought, if only in passing, would have been that a house like ours would take such a lot of work – especially for a girl who, as I later learned from her sisters’ stories, had often been scolded for a lack of housewifely zeal. Besides, she was the sole young wife, with no prospects of a second bride in the household, because my father was an only son, and fatherless.
The house was not merely huge, but ancient and oppressive. Moreover, her mother- in-law, my future grandmother, had a reputation both for tight-lipped severity and for wisdom. It would be a long time before I understood the profound reasons why reputations for great wisdom so irritated my mother.The hostility arose from the impossibility of comparing the two families, starting with their houses, which were so different that it was hard to believe they belonged to the same city.
The first chilliness between the young bride and her mother-in-law was probably caused by the bride’s lack of interest in the house, or rather her failure to be awed by it. But the true cause lay deeper, making their coldness unavoidable.
It was well known that when the families of Gjirokastra formed marriage alliances, they immediately rede ned their relationships to each other. Besides the usual forging of a bond between two clans, there was an extraordinary kind of deafening din in the period before the wedding. This was an opportunity for the old houses to behave with their well- known swank, pride, swagger and vanity, so that the two families being joined in marriage could be set on the scales and compared. During the long winter nights, the future brides, and indeed the grooms, would hear all kinds of insinuations about the other party: ‘They think they’re a cut above us,’ and the like. It was a kind of cold war that burdened both sides, especially the young brides and their mothers-in-law, with feelings of contempt for one another.
So, whether or not my future mother expressed her disdain for the Kadare house, or my grandmother pursed her lips at her, an inescapable frostiness set in between the two.As the years passed, and with great difficulty, I would come to understand – or more accurately, think I understood – the senseless history of the supposed animosity between the Kadares and the Dobis.
This ill will that initially seemed quite inevitable became complicated and later beyond comprehension. en the opposite happened: the fog lifted of a sudden, and everyone said, ‘So that’s what this business was all about! We were too blind to see it.’
The hostility arose from the impossibility of comparing the two families, starting with their houses, which were so different that it was hard to believe they belonged to the same city.
Our house was old and grim, but that of my grandfather on my mother’s side was the opposite. It was large, but it had neither deep cellars nor a cistern, nor fancy wooden stairs, not to mention uninhabited rooms, a prison, secret subterranean passages and useless corridors and vestibules. The Dobi house had its particular character because it stood on its own, not on a street or in a neighbourhood that would require it to fit in with other houses. It occupied an empty space beside the castle and a swift-owing stream. In the absence of secrets, it possessed a patch of land that might be considered a garden, which also contained a small house known as the outbuilding, in which there lived a Roma family, former servants of the Dobis.
But instead of restoring the equilibrium between the houses, everybody made matters worse. The Kadares and the Dobis, as I learned later, differed from one another even more than their houses did. The most striking contrast was that most of the Dobi family were alive, while most Kadares were dead. Now and then I would find an old photograph tucked away in the house and run to my grandmother to ask who this person was and where I could find them. Her answer always saddened me. ‘What about this one?’ I would ask a few days later when I found another photograph. But the answer was the same: they were no longer of this world.
There were plenty of other differences. The Dobi house had trees and birds, violins and Roma. There were the Greek peasants on my grandfather’s former properties, and my maternal aunts and uncles– tezet and ungjët – but the problem was that these things were not in any way comparable to what we Kadares had. Could you compare, for instance, skill with the violin to the two rooms that we were not allowed to enter – or the dungeon, as the prison was called? And I knew that we couldn’t have tezet and ungjët, because, according to my grandmother, in our house they wouldn’t be sisters and brothers of our mother, but of our father, and the o spring of our grandmother herself, and we would use different words for them.Against this menacing pile of stone, the Doll had her own army of trees, birds, violins, sisters and former servants.
Later, when both Dobi uncles went abroad to study, one to Budapest and the other to Moscow, the difference between them and us was more evident in the letters that they sent from far away than in their actual absence. In our house, letters never arrived from anybody, and to me this seemed normal, because everybody knew that the dead didn’t send them.
The Doll (for this sobriquet was now, if not replacing the word ‘mother’, at least relegating it to second place) would have found it hard to put into words, but she had known that she would have to face up to the Kadare house, with its high windows, cupboards, porches, secret chambers, carved wooden ceilings and famous dungeon, and all those forebears with sonorous names, Seit Kadare, Avdo Kadare, Shahin Kadare, and the most renowned among them, Ismail Kadare, my great-great-grandfather, who, as I liked to recall, had become famous in a song, not for killing Turks, as one would expect, but because of his clothes, or rather his pursuit of fashion.
Against this menacing pile of stone, the Doll had her own army of trees, birds, violins, sisters and former servants. At first sight she appeared fragile and naive, but she too had her secrets. The Doll did not know many things, but she was clearly aware of the truth behind the mundane but slippery phrase ‘financial situation’. The Dobis were well-to-do – that is, rich – and the Kadares were not.
This fact was never mentioned in either of the two houses, as if it were agreed upon that each side should wear a mask. Under their mask of modest tastes in everything, the Dobis concealed their wealth. And in turn the Kadares wore a mask of grandeur to cover their poverty.
The alliance between the two was a mistake from the start, and nobody ever understood the reason for the marriage.
Excerpted from The Doll by Ismail Kadare, translated by John Hodgson. Excerpted with the permission of Counterpoint LLC. Copyright © 2015, Librairie Arthème Fayard. English Translation copyright © 2020 by John Hodsgon.