I am not usually a fan of historical fiction, but I do like novels that use the past to illuminate events in the present — especially when those novels use ancient or biblical history. Some of my favorites include Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (which I’ve written about before) and Stefan Heym’s The King David Report. Now I have a third novel to add to that list: Ismail Kadare‘s The Pyramid. Kadare is an Albanian writer that uses stories from Albanian and ancient history to illustrate oppression under a communist dictatorship. The Pyramid is short and has a biting sense of irony and humor. This is basically one of best novels you’ve never read, written by one of the best novelists you’ve never heard of.
The Pyramid is set in Egypt, beginning around the year 2600 BC, the start of the Pharaoh Cheop’s reign. The new Pharaoh casually decides that he does not want to build a pyramid. But his advisors implore him to reconsider. The pyramid is not only a symbol of life, they tell him, but one of power. Without a pyramid there no Pharaoh, and without a Pharaoh there is no order. He must build a pyramid. And so Cheop’s relents. He orders the construction of what would remain the tallest man-made structure for nearly 4,000 years: the Great Pyramid of Giza.
And as construction begins, a funny thing happens: rumors began to spread. There are rumors of a plot to curse the pyramid and Cheops. There are other rumors that workers plan to reveal the location of its secret passageways and chambers. Obviously, these must be stopped, whether they’re true or not. So Cheops orders an investigation that rounds up diggers and stone cutters and his own architect-in-chief. All the citizens of Egypt fall silent as news of secret arrests and torture spread. The Egyptians fall quiet, numb from fear and the endless toil of completing the the pyramid. Order comes to Egypt. But so does a sense paranoia, fear, and madness. Or, in one ambassador’s thoughts:
However much you may try to rid your mind of it, you can’t help relating everything else to the pyramid . . . His wife’s vagina also seemed somewhat frightening when he entered it, like a mysterious place with perhaps, at the very end, a mortuary chamber.
The madness continues as the State declares that the order of the pyramid should be reversed. No longer will they number the rows bottom-to-top — in the order they were built — but instead they number them top-to-bottom. But the top hasn’t been finished, and so no one is quite sure anymore what part of the pyramid they are actually building. And in an especially grueling chapter, Kadare tells the story of several stones that make up the pyramid. He gives an account of the quarries they came from, the cutters that approved them, their journey to the site of the pyramid, and the workers that hoisted them into place. Along the way we learn of the vast numbers of men that the stones — both metaphorically and literally — have crushed to death.
Kadare’s novel is the story of a police state set in ancient Egypt that uses intimidation and labor to oppress its people. As such, The Pyramid is applicable to any time and any state. Indeed, after the pyramid’s completion and Cheop’s death, Kadare shows that the torture and oppression continue. The success of Cheop’s pyramid inspires others to try and top it. But whereas Cheops used a pyramid of stone to crush the souls of men, others prefer a more direct route: a pyramid of human heads.
It’s a haunting book. Go read it.