Reading Round the World: A is for Albania

The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare

Long after the chimes of freedom swept across Eastern Europe, Albania remained a backwater, under the thumb of  proto-Maoist leader Enver Hoxha. Until his death in 1985, the country of Albania stagnated as the rest of Europe made its way into the 20th Century. The country, due in large part to his rule, was left one of the poorest in Europe, bankrupt fiscally and spiritually. Ismail Kadare’s slim novel The Pyramid is a parable of the paranoid and controlling regime. The state without a soul. Both Egypt and Albania were countries whose leaders wielded absolute power with absolute amorality.

When the new Pharoah of Egypt – Cheops – announces that he will break with tradition and not build a pyramid for his final resting place, his advisors are stunned. The news was a catastrophe. So unprecedented was it that secret meetings were held amongst the advisors in order to build the case for a pyramid. The case was that prosperity is not at all good for the people – at least for their subjugation – poverty and not abundance is the key to absolute rule. And the best way to rule is empty the coffers, give the people a symbol of the majesty of their ruler. Prosperity makes people independent of their rulers. They have time for pursuits like thinking about the meaning of their own existences.

“…a pyramid is power. It is repression, force, and wealth. But it just as much domination of the rabble; the narrowing of its mind; the weakening of its will; monotony; and waste. Oh, 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.”

Cheops relents and begins the process of building the greatest pyramid the world had ever seen. And the resources required along with the process itself, are written in great detail: the painful deaths, the suffering. The question of acquiescing to absolute power is on the table. The popular suggestion in movies is that slave labor built the gigantic structures. But this may not have been the case at all. The local populace probably was the core of the labor force, supplemented by farmers and outlying villagers. There is a fine line between willing and unwilling.

“How can we be responsible? We were just carrying out orders. If there has been a mistake, others are to blame.”

“But we are all guilty…in one way or another we are all involved in this nasty business.”

The project becomes its own reason for being. It becomes a national obsession, an organism of state terror: paranoia, subjugation, conspiracies, arrests, mass executions. Yes, Stalinesque. As the pyramid rises higher and higher toward the sky, Cheops begins to think of his legacy. His father’s history has just been completed, and it consists not only of the standard biography – the facts of his life and rule, but the story of his father’s afterlife – weighed down by the monotony of an afterlife without end. Such is the lot of the immortals. Cheops begins to reflect on time itself, as defined by the philosophers of Memphis.

Some of them thought that time now was not what it should be, that it had lost its original quality. It has lost all restraint, it had, so to speak, gone flabby, got dilated – in a word, it had run down. According to them, real time should be very dense. For instance, the time of a human life in this world should be measured as the sum of its orgasms. All the rest was emptiness and vanity.

When completed, the pyramid appears as a perfection mirrored against the desert sky. And this is the dichotomy:

When they looked upon it from afar in the morning, and saw it so smooth and shiny, so cold and silent, with its perfect edges and slopes, people could not believe their eyes. How could the sublime form of the pyramid be a machine for crushing people all day and all night long?

As he had feared,when completed, the pyramid is as an accusation. His tomb calls to him. He has fulfilled his purpose. His life’s work is complete. As he talks to his magician, Cheops tells him,

“With my own hands I have prepared my own annihilation.” But the magician did not seem at all impressed by this statement. “That’s all we do, my son,” he remarked. “We think we spend our time living, whereas in fact we are dying. And indeed, the more intensely we live, the faster we die. If you have built the hugest tomb in the world, it’s because your life promises to be the longest ever known on earth. No other place of burial would have been big enough for you.”

Cheops died three years after completion of the Great Pyramid.


Great sphinx of Giza



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