of the Pharaohs
Bruce Bower, THE NEW YORK TIMES
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
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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