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Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Truth and falsehood in history: My review of THE PYRAMID by Ismail Kadare

This review and the book itself were written some years ago but Kadare's work remains insightful and rewarding today. In different forms my review appeared in The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty and Midstream: A Monthly Jewish Review.

Copyright, Richard A. Cooper, 1996

Kadare, Ismail. The Pyramid. New York: Arcade Publishing (1996) 161 pages. $21.95.
Reviewed by Richard A. Cooper

Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare unveils the mystery behind structures of statist tyranny in his perceptive fable The Pyramid. On the surface, it is a reconstruction of the pyramid-building Pharaoh Cheops of Egypt. But, like the real pyramids, it has its own secrets to be revealed. It is a tale of tyranny of all times and places, wherever and whenever those who hold power seek to enshrine their power and their ideas on the lives and backs of the ruled. I think The Pyramid will rank amongst the greatest literary depictions of tyranny and its methods thus far written.

The new pharaoh Cheops dismays his courtiers by letting drop hints that he may not construct his own pyramid. They fret, but know not why they worry and why they think it should be built except that it is traditional. Eventually, they find the answer in their ancient texts as a magic prescription for the health of the state. "To launch works colossal beyond imagining, the better to debilitate its inhabitants, to suck them dry. In a word, something exhausting, something that would destroy body and soul, and without any possible utility. Or to put it more precisely, a project as useless to its subjects as it would be indispensable to the State."

Why is the pyramid indispensable to the State? The pyramid is not just a physical construction, but a psychological structure that compels submission. Kadare from Stalinist Albania zeroes in on his target. "In the first place, Majesty, a pyramid is power. It is repression, force, and wealth. But it is just as much domination of the rabble; the narrowing of its mind; the weakening of its will; monotony; and waste. O my Pharaoh, it is your most reliable guardian. Your secret police. Your army. Your fleet. Your harem. The higher it is, the tinier your subjects will seem. And the smaller your subjects, the more you rise, O Majesty, to your full height."

Kadare gives us the myriad details which would accompany such a project, but with a peculiar resonance for the survivor of the twentieth century, our age of the total war and the total state. The conscription of labor and other resources, the reports of police and the plans of the master-planners all give us a sense of eerie recognition in our more enlightened age of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.

The pyramid project drags the nation from one reported conspiracy to another. Arrests, tortures and executions construct the pyramid just as much as granite, basalt and alabaster. "Every morning people learned with a shudder of terror the names of arrested during the previous night." This is an Egypt as police state, with its inhabitants to be molded to the whims of their rulers. But Egypt, of course is a stand-in for its predecessors and successors in the sorry spectacle of State building.

Despotism robs not just the wealth of the ruled but their spirit as well. The excitement of fear and the tedium of coerced labor combine to deaden them. Honesty and memory fall victim to State power, its instruments and effects. "Grumbling, and conversation in general, became less frequent. And not only words, but also the ideas that prompted them, tended to dry up. That was how great droughts announced themselves: each day the winch would haul up less water, proving that the well was running dry. A dry wind blew or rather pressed on people's temples and served to clean out misleading memories."

Like the totalitarian states of our times, Kadare's Egypt has foreign sympathizers to distort truth and applaud the tyrants to lengths which are ridiculous. They praise the "balancing role of the pyramids." The Egyptian weather is praised and attributed to the pyramids! Even the hostile foreign states are concerned that Cheops would forgo a pyramid, and thus be destabilizing. Change, unless ordained from above, is a great threat to States everywhere. They try to stand athwart the motion of change.

What is the cover for the nakedness of State power? The lie cloaks State power and shields it from suspicion, resentment and rebellion. Thus, the State must control ideas in the present and the past. The pyramid is a tangible symbol of State power for the past, present, and future. The lie is to be spread relentlessly by, and for, State power. "He would not force them to love the pyramid, though that would not have been very difficult....He would get them to spin out paeans of praise for the pyramid in exact proportion to their hatred of it. He would thus degrade them remorselessly, humiliate them in each other's eyes, in the eyes of their wives and children as well, and in their own consciences."

Kadare is both constrained and liberated by setting his parable in the distant past of Egypt. He is constrained by being in the ancient world and liberated by being far from contemporary partisanship. Thus his Pharaoh seeks to control the spoken word of the market-place and speaks through official criers while controlling the written world of official history. He did not have newspapers, television, radios and loudspeakers. But, the principles are the same. The official lies repeated over and over.

Kadare cleverly shows us how official, court history is challenged and revised by the bold historian. He makes it a police story of tomb-robbers. "It had all begun in a very ordinary way. For some time already the police had been in possession of a file on a group of scribes who were putting about new and rather bizarre ideas about the history of the State, not in accordance with official thinking...."

Court history tends to the conservative, to ossifying the past and sucking the life from it, just as the State sucks the life from the present. Revisionist history is a challenge to the lie. "History would thus be rewritten into something radically different, and people said that in searching the prisoners' papers the detectives had come across phrases that might have been intended as book. titles or as slogans, such as "History as Revised and Corrected by the Mummies," "Mummo-History," or simply "The New History." Once unleashed, the spirit of inquiry into the past threatens to stampede over the restraints of the State in the present.

From the Egypt of the Pharaoh Cheops, Kadare takes us on a strange excursion in time and place to the empire of Central Asian conqueror Timur the Lame (Tamerlaine), who erects yet another pyramid. This Central Asian pyramid is constructed of skulls of the conquered. From the distant past he transports us again to Communist Albania's capital of Tirana for another state building exercise. Here again the pattern of State power underlies the "modern" structure.

"...the old pyramid spawned not thousands, but hundreds of little ones. They were called bunkers, and each of them, however tiny it may have been in comparison, transmitted all the terror that the mother of all pyramids had inspired, and all the madness too. Steel rods were planted in the concrete, following the principle invented long before by Kara Houleg. The word Unity was often inscribed on their loins, showing that these bunkers were indeed related both to the mother-pyramid and to the skullstacks, and that the old dream of connecting all brains to each other by a single idea could only be achieved by such rods of iron running through people's heads and making of them a united entity."

From Enver Hoxha's Communist Albania, Kadare transports the reader to our own time. With the poet's insight and richness of image, Ismail Kadare exposes how the structures of Statism cannot shake off their true nature if we but look. The Pyramid will no doubt be compared to George Orwell's 1984. I think it a superior book, with its combination of everyday realistic details and the voice of historical experience underneath the crushing burden of the structure. The details of the structure of domination differs. The cause invoked differs. But the blueprints are telling in their similarities.


Blogger Eralda said...

I like your take on this book. I am actually writing a chapter of my thesis on The Pyramid and found your blog while searching for Timur the Lame and skullstacks.

Being an Albanian, it is easy to see how Kadare has translated Albanian realities under communism into this novel. It's truly a masterpiece!

9:59 PM  

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