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The Pyramid ()


Two things strike you right off the bat about this anti-Communist allegory : it's simplicity and it's odd timing.  To take the easier issue first, the author uses the straightforward story of the building of an Egyptian period as a metaphor for a Communist state.  The tale starts with a deceptively innocent decision :

    When, one morning in late autumn, only a few months after he had ascended the throne of Egypt,
    Cheops, the new Pharaoh, let slip that he might perhaps not wish to have a pyramid erected for him,
    all who heard him--the palace astrologer, some of the most senior ministers, Cheop's old counsellor
    Userkaf, and the High Priest Hemiunu, who also held the post of Architect-in-chief--furrowed their
    brows as if they had just heard news of a catastrophe.

This would hardly seem to be the stuff of catastrophe; after all, imagine the time, expense, and labor that went into each pyramid.  One could easily imagine his retinue welcoming a respite from the mammoth undertaking.  But, their consternation is a product of the little understood fact that the pyramids are not merely funerary monuments, but are in fact a surreptitious means of controlling the restless population.  Hemiunu explains that, as originally conceived :

    Each Pharaoh would have his own pyramid, so that even before a generation had recovered from
    the fatigue and stupor of construction, a new Pharaoh, with his own pyramid to build, would
    subjugate the people afresh.  And so on, inexorably, to the end of time...

    ...

    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.

    ...

    The pyramid is the pillar that holds power aloft.  If it wavers, everything collapses.

    ...

    So do not think, my Pharaoh, of changing tradition...You would fall and drag us down with you.

Cheops heeds this admonition and determines to build the grandest pyramid ever.  As predicted, the project does provide an excuse to oppress the people : there are even Stalin-style purges and show trials.  But eventually, of course, a pyramid requires a mummy; no amount of worldly power can long defer Cheops' own death.  And, the ultimate irony, after his death, erosion begins to wear away at this monument, which is all he left behind.

Ismail Kadare has the good judgment to keep his story short and to not load the metaphor with more weight than it will bear.  He conveys his central message without beating it into the ground or getting bogged down in detailed comparisons.  His storytelling benefits greatly from a light touch and a darkly humorous undercurrent.

As to the timing of the book, I am in no wise competent to assess the significance of it's appearing so late in the Cold War game.  Mr. Kadare is an Albanian and though he is apparently one of that beleaguered country's greatest authors, I'd honestly never heard of him until I picked up this novel.  I also know fairly little about Albania itself, except that it had one of the most insular and repressive of the post-World War II Communist regimes.  So I approach the topic with dangerously little knowledge.  I must admit though that I found odd the following sentence from the dust jacket of the book :

    He established an uneasy modus vivendi with the Communist authorities until their attempts to turn
    his reputation to their advantage drove him in October 1990 to seek asylum in France, for, as he
    says, 'Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible...The writer is the natural enemy of
    dictatorship.'

The sentiment, though not necessarily accurate--many writers find it easy to coexist with dictatorship--is noble enough, but why did he stay until 1990?  On it's face, this would seem to indicate that he was a collaborator until everyone could see the handwriting on the wall, and then bugged out when it was too late to really help his countrymen escape the yoke of tyranny, by then they'd already taken the job upon themselves.

Online information indicates that Kadare is a Marxist and I did find a three-way exchange between Kadare, Stephen Schwartz and Noel Malcolm at the New York Review of Books, which amply demonstrates that his anti-Communist credentials are at least questionable.  But without knowing a lot more about him, I'd be reluctant to draw any conclusions beyond the four corners of this book.  Taken on it's own terms, this novel, is a fine, albeit minor and somewhat tardy, parting shot at the futility and oppression of Communism.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "ismail kadare"
    -Ismail Kadare (1936-)(kirjasto)
    -ISMAIL KADARE (Albanian.com)
    -LETTERS : Jan 15, 1998 Ismail Kadare: 'In the Palace of Nightmares': An Exchange (NY Review of Books)
    -RESPONSE : Apr 9, 1998 Stephen Schwartz: IN THE PALACE OF NIGHTMARES'  (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : THE THREE ACTS OF KOSOVE TRAGEDY (Article written by Ismail Kadare, Translated by Kreshnik Bejko)
    -INTERVIEW : A Conversation with the Albanian Writer Ismail Kadare (Diplomatie France)
    -ESSAY : "If They Built a BridgeƖ": Ismail Kadare and Albania (Christian Lorentzen, Harvard Advocate)
    -REVIEW : of The Pyramid By Ismail Kadare (Bruce Bawer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Nov 6, 1997 Noel Malcolm: In the Palace of Nightmares , NY Review of Books
       The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare and translated by John Hodgson
    -REVIEW : of THE THREE-ARCHED BRIDGE By Ismail Kadare (Patrick McGrath, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Broken April By Ismail Kadare (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE CONCERT By Ismail Kadare. (Robert D. Kaplan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE PALACE OF DREAMS By Ismail Kadare (David R. Slavitt, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare (Fin Keegan, 2nd Circle)
    -REVIEW : of CHRONICLE IN STONE By Ismail Kadare (Leonie Caldecott, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE FILE ON H. By Ismail Kadare (Ken Kalfus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of DORUNTINE. By Ismail Kadare (STEPHAN SALISBURY, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE GENERAL OF THE DEAD ARMY By Ismail Kadare (Ken Kalfus, NY Times Book Review)

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