Bad Blogger’s Repost: The Pyramid, by Ismail Kadare

This week I am furiously analyzing data and revising study’s for peer-review and publication.  I don’t have time to tell you about the books I’ve read recently (although it’s been a string a good ones), so I’m reposting this review of a book I read last year and really enjoyed, The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare.  As I wrote last year, this is basically one of best novels you’ve never read, written by one of the best novelists you’ve never heard of.  And it’s short and sweet, too.  If you get a chance, comb through a book store for this novel or look for it on paperbackswap.  Claire will keep up the posting while I’m gone to MBL.  — Kelly

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.

At the start of his reign in 2600 BC, the Pharaoh Cheops casually decides that he that perhaps he does not want to build a pyramid.  But every Pharaoh must build a pyramid, his advisors say.  It’s not just a symbol of life — it’s also a symbol of power.  Without a pyramid ,there could be no Pharaoh; and without a Pharaoh there would be no order.  The advisors tell Cheops that he must build a pyramid.  And so he relents.  Cheops orders the construction of what would become the tallest man-made structure for the next 4,000 years, the Great Pyramid of Giza.

But as construction begins, a funny thing happens.  Rumors spread. One says there’s a plot to curse the pyramid and Cheops, another that the workers will reveal the location of its secret passageways and chambers.  Obviously, these plots must be stopped — and quickly — regardless of whether or not they’re true.  Too much is at stake.  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 spreads of secret arrests and torture.  The Egyptians fall quiet, numb from fear and the endless work on the pyramid.  But the work restores order to Egypt.  The pyramid overshadows everything.  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 Egyptian leaders decide to reverse the order of the pyramid.  No longer will they number the rows bottom-to-top but top-to-bottom.  But since the top isn’t yet complete, no one is quite sure anymore what part of the pyramid they are actually building or when it will be done.  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.

Orwellian in its tone, Kadare’s novel is the story of a police state that uses intimidation and aimless labor to oppress the thoughts and actions of its people.  As such, The Pyramid is applicable to any time and any state.  Indeed, even after the pyramid’s completion and Cheops’ death, the torture and oppression continue.  The success of Cheop’s pyramid inspires others to build ever taller monuments to power.  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.

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