The Pyramid

The Pyramid
by Ismail Kadare

When I was a kid, my mom would “take a break” from us every summer. She required two to three months a year to herself in order “to deal.” Once I was four years old, she no longer needed to fly with us to drop us off. Instead, a stewardess was assigned to escort us from the gate to our relatives. Sometimes, we had never met these people before. This could be a little touchy when she shipped us off to Egypt. As an Egyptian citizen (unlike my little brother), my father’s custody rights superseded my mother’s in Egypt. I had to studiously avoid his relatives whenever we visited the old country. My mother shit-talked them all the time, so we were terrified of what would happen to us if we were ever captured. When I was eleven, Ameer and I landed in Egypt and wandered off with the first guy to call out our names. His preeminent feature was his bad teeth. This didn’t signify anything other than that he was a native – God Willing he was a paternal or maternal relative. Possibly, just a native child molester. In the end, he did indeed turn out to be on the maternal side of our family and didn’t molest either of us, as far as I can remember.

On that trip, I fell sick. With a temperature of 106 degrees, it was deemed best to separate me from Ameer. He was sent to Alexandria to play on the beach with our cousins (Sod the aggro soccer enthusiast and his blond twin sisters, Dahlia and Abir, who had a crush on Ameer and would both climb all over him, tickling), while I was left in Cairo to fever dreams, to socks filled with ice held to my crotch, to daily reruns of Knots Landing. During moments of lucidity, my bi-polar cousin, Ousama, would ruthlessly drill me on the history of ancient Egypt. Studying to become an archaeologist, Ousama felt I should be able to recite the various dynasties and their chief innovations backwards and forwards. He tested me on the structure of the Great Pyramid; he explained, without historical murk or racist space aliens, how they were constructed. While my energy flagged, he would ease up and monologue-bitch about selected historians and archaeologists. Ousama was eight years older than I, but he died five years ago, drowning after the publication of his second book. I haven’t written a book yet, but I’ve blogged more than he did. When publishing porn, I even used to use his as my pen-name. Believe it or not, he drowned in the Nile. Only in my family do people drown in a desert.

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T’was most certainly true, that if the people of the Old World could have built a house up to Heaven, they should never be drowned again on Earth, and they had only forgot to measure the height, that is, as in other projects, it only miscarried, or else it would have succeeded.
– Daniel Defoe

Ismail Kadare’s take on Egypt is much less personality driven than my own, yet lacks nothing in charisma. The Pyramid is a historical novel without characters, without missing a beat of character development. The greatest historical novel ever written would be Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with Prue’s plaintiff, “I wanna die… I gwanna die.” The Pyramid is also a novel about slavery and its costs, yet it tells no one person’s story. This is a book without subjectivity; completely about how subjectivity worked in ancient Egypt.

The secret to pyramids is the open secret that they don’t exist to raise their Pharaoh’s to heaven. They exist to lay waste to his country. A eunuch invented the concept:

Rumor had it that it was Reneferef, the guardian of the harem, who bizarrely suggested looking for some mechanism that would sterilize part of Egypt’s riches. Ambassadors serving in the lands of the Orient reported huge waterworks in Mesopotamia, on a scale out of all proportion, people said, to their economic product. If that was so, and it probably was so, then Egypt also needed to find some means of consuming the excess energy of its population. 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.

The cradle of civilization is where mankind’s early leaders attempted to commit infanticide on our species. Georges Bataille believed that many early economies were based on reckless expenditure, and, in fact, this bolstered the rule of leaders instead of undermining them. Intervening in the accepted history of world economies, Bataille argued against the utilitarian assumptions behind their recounting of events. Classical thought, from Hobbes to Marx, with their commodity fundamentalism, explained the motor of history as the interplay between desire and self-interest. From Bataille’s more anthropological perspective, desire and self-interest cannot adequately account for the complexities of inflation, for luxury, for war, for cultural traditions of human sacrifice (see his chapter on Aztec society in The Accursed Share) or for the collateral beauty and torment of ordinary acts of daily waste in a bulimic culture of scarcity. Study of primitive, non-European, cultures shows that wealth was amassed for the express purpose of wasting it deliberately in mind-boggling shows of sovereign power. According to Bataille, ancient cultures viewed sacrifice in the same way that we view working.

Cheops, who wavered early on regarding the question of ever building his own pyramid, is swayed by his advisers, who do not relate history as objective fact, but resort to unquestionable, unspecifiable, rumor. Knowing that they can’t be personally blamed for “rumor” (as opposed to direct advice and opinion), they turn one of the Pharaoh’s greatest tools of terror against him to convince him to surrender his obstinacy and order the construction of his own tomb. Rumor is the greatest weapon in the Egyptian arsenal. “… Reports revealed that everywhere in Egypt people were talking only of the pyramid and that each individual and each event was systemically thought of in its relation to the great work. Some women remained indifferent to these rumors, believing they were not concerned, until one fine morning they discovered that their husband, their lover, or all their children of school age bar none had to leave for the Abusir quarries – and then you heard tears, or shouts of joy.”

Much of the story of the Pyramid’s construction is told through these reports and rumors. One magnificent chapter tells the story of some of the thousand individual stones that constituted the various levels; where they came from, how many men died carrying them, stories of whether they were cursed or blessed, the specific number of amputations and maimings that went into lifting each one into place, and so on. The stones are named by number and level. Several were believed to have wrongfully altered the orientation of the structure; other stones were accused of fraudulent origins.

Slowly, through the biography of the atomic pieces of the pyramids, a larger story about totalitarianism comes together. Kadare’s book is an attack on the dream-work of the Albanian communist regime under which he was raised, its gestures of monumentality and its wasteful projects, with their unabashed propaganda and clear imperatives of social management. Much like that geckos book — John Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians — its allegorical nature and rich historical detail are meant to deflect censorship. Unlike Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this isn’t an intimate story, meant to frame the human cost of slavery. This is a story about how slavery works and how it attaches itself to our minds, the similarity between sacrificial victims and their executioners as their bond is triangulated over the pyramid; how it sends its victims into hysterical frenzies as they anticipate and envision punishment from above; how it pervaded the ancient world’s very sense of time.

One of the great chapters is the one where Egyptians begin to whisper treason about the “post-pyramidal era” in anticipation of its imminent completion. A wave of persecution hits the country in a search for post-pyramidal treason. Sumer itself braces for a wave of Egyptian imperialism as resources meant for the pyramid are post-pyramidally redirected.

Another chapter where the mechanism of power is explored takes place four hundred years after the pyramid is constructed; “The Counter-Pyramid” tells the story of the revolt of historians against Cheops and his pyramid; how revisionism itself becomes a way to maintain the status quo.

This is not some bleak story where you feel sorry for people. There’s no sympathy in it at all. Many of these slaves embrace their death, superstitiously throwing themselves off the ledges of the pyramid as it edges closer to completion. The book is objective and fascinating; Ayn Rand would give her left testicle to write this novel. History isn’t used as PBS/NPR-style window dressing (where, for example a gong is struck every single time a story about China is being reported) meant to draw you in and distract and passively educate you at the end of the day. A gruesome chapter on Genghis Khan’s famous pyramid of human skulls demonstrates the awe in which the Great Pyramid was held. For a time, ancient historians claimed that Khan’s pyramid existed first; it was a more authentic pyramid than Egypt’s “great” one; time had reversed itself and the Great Pyramid was seen to have been a mere modal expression of Khan’s primal pyramid of terror shining through time. A purer expression of sovereign will, the Skullstack

was unaffected by rumors or by flattery, it consumed men’s heads in a few hours, in the time it took for a qatl i amm, instead of dragging things out for years or decades and making people wade through files and investigations beyond counting, not to mention cuts in bread ration, anguish, and despair. Its diamantine density gave it its sparkle, its brilliance was in the idea that governed its construction: and the upshot of all this was that the rhapsodists and subsequently the scholars of Samarkand eventually proclaimed that the first authentic pyramid had risen in the Isfahan steppe, and that its Egyptian rival was a crude replica of a later date. Although this claim may have at first sounded somewhat bizarre, close attention to the ballads of the shamans would have informed you that, since no one could say whether time flowed forward or backward, no one could be sure of the ages of people and things, and thus their order of appearance was even less fixed. In other words, who can tell who is the father and who is the son? And so on.

Historians later changed their minds as animals began to drag Khan’s skulls out of place and natural disasters began to discorporate the pyramid. The historical novel dreams that time can flow backwards as well as forwards; that power’s roots can be traced to its flows, that the a picture of a pyramid can work as an x-ray, making it transparent, opening its secrets and holocausts as it unfolds like a horror film before our prying eyes, history’s cancers revealed.

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I stopped going to Egypt. I lost interest a long time ago. I’d like to give my mother “a break,” that’s for sure, but not the kind that involves me disappearing into the dusty crevices of Egyptian homes for two to three months. With Ousama dead, there’s even less reason to visit Egypt. Before he died, he worked as a curator at the Greek and Roman museum in Cairo (for which he actually had a great deal of nationalist contempt leavened by historical curiosity), then later he curated at the Cairo museum before taking a university post. He’d drag my tourist ass behind the scenes and put mummied faces to the names I’d memorized. Like most modern visitors to Egypt’s great monuments, Ousama was struck by the sublimity of the pyramids. For me, visiting them was a huge pain in the butt. Even as a kid, I was too tall and gangly to walk around in one comfortably. I’d have to get on my knees and crawl under stones, nearly panicking with claustrophobia. Ancient Egyptians must have been midgets. With my high center of gravity, I’d feel an imminent fall coming on while crossing reinforced bridges inside the Great Pyramid. Of course, the tomb itself is always a disappointment, raided long ago (as related by Kadare). To me, the pyramids were a family obligation. Something I had to visit, like some annoying, red-haired, pleather clad, steel hooped earinged, Egyptian aunt.

Once, though, I did feel what travelers are supposed to feel in the presence of pyramids. I had 17 cousins on my mother’s side, and many of us were born in the same one year period. One summer, Ousama dragged a number of us out to Giza at the same time. My cousins and my brother ran to the horses. I lagged behind, but no horses were left. Only a camel. While everyone raced off, I was left with a spitting, shitting, monstrosity, who would sit down every thirty seconds to take another huge crap. The odor was overbearing. The camel driver kept apologizing to me in Arabic, while I explained to him this kind of shit was par for the course with me and not to sweat it. Finally, all the horses raced around the other side of the pyramid. The camel and I reached a point where the city of Giza was entirely obscured by the Great Pyramid. All that was left was blue sky, sand, pyramid and shitting camel. To this day, I consider that moment of solitude one of the most shattering experiences of my life.

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9 Responses to “The Pyramid”

  1. Milla Says:

    i consider you one of my most shattering experiences. lovely post. now i must return to watching puppies.

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    I’ve been shattered three times! I tried to watch the puppy thing, but I couldn’t get it to work while I was at work.

  3. henry Says:

    this was really great. whenever you write a really great post, i always want to say something specific and insightful but i’m mostly left thinking it was great. which it was!

  4. darknessatnoon Says:

    Thanks Henry. I think both our writing styles tend to make response a bit difficult. I wonder how the Tel Quel writers engaged one another’s work?!

  5. Anonymous Says:

    You know, drowning in the Nile sounds like a legal fiction if I ever heard of one. A bit like being found on the steps of the orphanage.Great post my friend. When I extract the reading in the center from the memoire frame, I am left saying to myself… damn… you gotta start reading again for a living.

  6. darknessatnoon Says:

    Hey David, I’m working on it. As for the “drowning” story, neither I nor my cousin, Ali, believe it AT ALL. But the Egyptians are sticking to their guns with that, and, unfortunately, I don’t have any hardcore leads to piece together the real story. Yet.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    You should take a stab at Broken April or Chronicle in Stone, or one of the other Kadare pieces about the Balkans. There is an icy quality to them that I wouldn’t say is objective but they certainly show the constantly encroaching grasp of tradition on Mediterranean societies.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    A+ Post, funny and informative. I hadn’t considered the racist implications of space alien pyramid builders before, and Kadare’s narrative seems to make a lot of sense.Cheers, JAU

  9. darknessatnoon Says:

    Yeah, brown people weren’t smart enough to do it themselves. Aliens had to come down and think for them.

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