Land of the Pharaohs


Before the fall of Communism in Europe, Albania was the continent's most isolated and backward nation, its people oppressed by a severe totalitarian regime, and its literature, with one prominent exception, fettered by Socialist Realism. That exception was Ismail Kadare, a novelist (now 60 and living in Paris) whose work, usually set in his native land, powerfully depicts a bleak world in which life is marked by alienation and dread. Typical of Mr. Kadare's novels is "The General of the Dead Army," in which an Italian general, in Albania 20 years after World War II to disinter and repatriate the bones of his nation's fallen soldiers, comes to see them as a "dead army" and to regard his 18-month sojourn as a "march through the valley of the shadow of death."
It may seem unlikely, at first blush, for the author of that novel to write one set in the Egypt of the 26th century B.C. and centering on the construction of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. But it doesn't take long to recognize the setting of "The Pyramid" (which David Bellos has skillfully translated from the French) as familiar Kadare territory, and to realize that its vision of ancient Egypt owes much to the author's experience of Communist Albania. There are, after all, some parallels between the two nations. Like cold-war-era Albanians, the people who dwelt on the banks of the Nile four and a half millenniums ago had relatively little interaction with other nations; like the longtime Albanian strongman Enver Hoxha, the Pharaohs were rulers whose authority was absolute.
Historians tell us that Pharaohs had pyramids built in order to provide themselves with a stairway to heaven, as it were. Mr. Kadare -- plainly influenced by his observation of Hoxha's ruthless methods of governing -- offers a different scenario. At the novel's outset, Cheops announces that he might not wish to have a pyramid erected. Alarmed by this suggestion, his senior ministers explain that pyramid building is crucial to preserving his authority. Generations earlier, they tell him, nationwide prosperity made people more independent and therefore "more resistant to authority in general and to the power of the Pharaoh in particular." Thus was born the idea of a colossal project that by straining Egypt's resources and sapping the energies of its populace would keep everyone in line.
Pyramids, in short, are built not to guarantee a Pharaoh's afterlife but to shore up his earthly power. Hearing this explanation, Cheops agrees to order the construction of his own pyramid -- the largest ever. The project takes 20 years, obsesses and oppresses the entire country and occasions rumors of sabotage that lead to Stalinist-style arrests, torturings and executions by the Pharaoh's secret police. Soon it seems to everyone that the project has always existed and always will.
Here, as in his earlier novels, Mr. Kadare paints a hypnotic picture of a world drenched in death and crowded with stones. (Emblematic of death, stones have always figured prominently in his books; one is even entitled "Chronicle in Stone.") Just as "The General of the Dead Army" recounts a numbing tour of burial sites, each jammed with stone markers, so "The Pyramid" envisions a deadening generation-long period when time is measured not in weeks or years but in numbered stones -- tens of thousands of them, weighing several tons apiece -- and in the millions of gruesome, unnecessary deaths that are caused by their transport and placement.
In a deft ultimate irony, however, the pyramid's crowning victim turns out to be Cheops himself. For the pyramid, viewed by his subjects as an abiding symbol of his total and incontestable power, comes to be seen by him as a personal memento mori, a constant and paralyzing reminder that his brief life will give way to an eternal entombment in stone. In the end, this book -- which does not have (or need) a conventional plot, protagonist or conflict -- adds up to a haunting meditation on the matter-of-fact brutality of political despotism, the harshness of life among the humble and powerless, and the vastness, ubiquity and stonelike permanence of death, which treats all humanity as equals.

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