Authors: Ismail Kadare
Tags: #General Fiction
“Are you are in your right mind, numskull, are you mad, or only pretending? What about all these stones being placed, the road that’s being built, all that money and that labor? All that, you say, is just bluff?”
“Yes, bluff, and worse still, upon my word! You’re the one who’s lost his wits, not I. Think a bit and remember: everyone shouted from the rooftops that a pyramid was to built, but where do we see this pyramid? Nowhere! So you think that’s all just by chance? Well, listen to me, you old dimwit. If the pyramid has not yet begun to rise from the ground, that’s because no one is bothering about it any longer. They may all be shouting
but in their minds they are thinking
Those were the rumors that were going about before Cheops decided to make a speech. Even if it means turning Egypt upside down, he declared, I shall uncover every last root of this conspiracy!
Courtrooms and torture chambers were overflowing. The first sentences had already been passed, and the quarterings and stonings had begun in public places. So you wanted to sabotage the pyramid, did you? the fanatics screamed, still not satisfied at the sight of the piles of stones beneath which the culprit was expiring. Sometimes these heaps looked much like little pyramids, which prompted various macabre jokes, especially when the last twitches of the dying man made the pebbles move.
Most people lived in anguish. Thousands expected to be arrested, while others asked to be sent to the quarries or to join the road-building gangs. Until then they had found every possible pretext for avoiding hard labor—ill health, family commitments, and so on—but now they volunteered, without a word of complaint, in the hope that down there, in those baking and desolate places, they would be forgotten. In fact it took hardly any time at all for the dust, sweat, and terror to alter their faces so profoundly that they did indeed become unrecognizable, even to the investigators.
Who can say how long this nightmare would have lasted without the intervention of Cheops himself?
“So is this pyramid going to get built or not?” is what he was reported to have said to Hemiunu one cold morning. The latter’s reply was also quoted: “But interrogation is also part of the pyramid, Majesty”—though it seems that the formula was actually invented later on.
In fact in the second month of the floods (the plain was submerged beneath the blind waters of the Nile) Hemiunu assembled his team of architects once again, just as before.
The model of the pyramid was still in exactly the place where they had left it after their last meeting. It was covered in that fine coat of dust that signifies abandonment. Nonetheless, even through the grayness, it still gave off a bad light.
Hemiunu’s rod wandered over it, but without the confidence of the earlier days. Nor could the others find their words easily. Something seemed to be holding them back; their minds were clouded, as after an orgy. They talked once again of the ramps to be propped against each face of the pyramid, of the means of blocking off the galleries leading to the funeral chamber, of the quarries that would provide the stone for the first four steps, but, as they did so, their mind’s eyes saw a gruesome picture—the final lists of the conspirators, their plans for getting into Cheops’s palace so as to poison him, and their own wailing pleas for pardon.
They shook their heads to chase away these visions, and partly succeeded, after a while. The weight bearing on the center of the pyramid, the main routes along which the stone would be transported, the false doors, the axis of the monument, all these things were tangled up with the ramifications of the plot, with the mind that was controlling it, with the stratagems intended to camouflage it, according to the suspicions that were entertained by Cheops himself.
At times they felt that they would never escape from this fog and that what they were trying to set up was less a pyramid than a form of plot.
Their minds were so battered that it was only at the end of their third meeting that Hemiunu noticed that the head of the prosecution service and his deputy were present.
The architect-in-chief thought he had at last found the reason for the team’s confusion. His face went white with anger and he asked: “Hey, you! What are you looking for here?” The chief prosecutor shrugged his shoulders as if he had not understood the question. “Out!” yelled the architect. The inquisitor and his deputy walked out in dead silence.
Straight away the flood of convictions and the zealous pursuit of the investigation both slackened, and the pyramid returned to the center of attention. The ceremony for the award of a decoration to Hemiunu (corroborating the rumor that it was he who had first unraveled the plot) was the signal for a period of reduced tension and for a new leap forward.
The immediate consequence was increased speed in all sectors of work on the pyramid. Everywhere you could see feverish activity and commotion. Clouds of dust swirled over the site where workmen were busy setting up at the greatest possible speed the barracks needed for sheltering one hundred thousand men, and especially over the now level terrain to which the first stones were being delivered.
The hour for the start of building work proper was fast approaching. The dust and the heat, instead of wearying people, now seemed to stimulate them. As long as the anxiety is cleared up, they said among themselves, all the rest is bearable! And while their hearts flowed over with gratitude for their savior, the Pharaoh, they dashed about frantically, causing more confusion and raising more sand than was necessary, in the belief that by drowning themselves in hullabaloo and dirt, they would also confound evil and divert it from its path.
Their hopes were short-lived. The day before the first stone was due to be laid, a new plot was uncovered, even more dangerous than the first.
This time, to everyone’s amazement, it was the High Priest Hemiunu who fell into disgrace. After him, it was the turn of Khadrihotep, the head of the secret police, and then of the vizier for foreign affairs, A tumbrel of other high officials followed in their wake. Every morning people learned with a shudder of terror the names of those arrested during the previous night. Everyone expected more raids, and now that Hemiunu himself, the untouchable Hemiunu, had fallen, the arrest of more or less anyone seemed quite natural.
For a while the relatives of those convicted for the first plot raised their heads, thinking that the fall of Hemiunu would lead to their return to favor. But they quickly grasped that nothing of the sort would ensue. During an important meeting, a spokesman for the Pharaoh explained that even if the High Priest had indeed denounced the first plot, that did not mean that the plot itself had not existed, Hemiunu had long known about the first plot but had waited for the right moment before revealing it, so as to hoodwink the Pharaoh and to direct any possible suspicion away from his own plot, which was the more sinister.
The investigation of the new affair took its course over several weeks. Often the names of those to be arrested were known in advance, which only served to increase the general state of anxiety, Curiously, alongside fear, people also felt a morbid kind of satisfaction. They were unhealthily effusive, as if their souls had become as soft as sodden shoes, and they chattered deliriously, casting anathemas on the enemies of the State in a sort of sincere intoxication whose origins they themselves were incapable of seeing, while expressing with no lesser sincerity their adoration of their sovereign and master, the Pharaoh.
Meanwhile extraordinary rumors went around about the pyramid. Some ascribed the slow rate of work and the meager results so far to the machinations of the conspirators. Others maintained that the plan itself was ill-conceived, but they hinted that it would take decades before the flaws would come to light. A third group asserted peremptorily that everything had been done wrong—the site was wrong, the drawings were wrong, the access routes and even the quarries had not been correctly selected—with the net result that the pyramid could never be completed. Appropriate measures were taken to deal with the latter, and they soon shut their mouths. No force in the world could stop the building, it was declared at a further summit meeting. The conspirators had certainly tried to hinder it, but the damage done by them was not of a scale that would jeopardize the outcome. Nothing escaped the eye of Cheops, and however diabolical the plotters might be, they would no longer dare indulge in clumsy sabotage.
After losing the last, albeit vague, hope that had renewed their spirits for a time, people returned to their posts in a state of irremediable resignation seeking oblivion in an atmosphere that high summer and desert dust made un-breathable.
A last wave of confusion descended on the plateau. Some people whispered that the day of the inauguration of construction work proper was near. All the same, nobody was able to give any more precise details. One mornings four workmen were crucified (in human memory, no pyramid had ever been built without workmen being sentenced to death), then, suddenly, the next dawn broke to the sound of drums announcing that the great day had finally come.
Cheops attended the ceremony in person. A fair number of new ministers and dignitaries made their first appearance in public. The High Priest Rahotep, Hemiunu’s successor, came at the head of the procession, his pallor making his face look even more rigid. Foreign ambassadors and other guests, lined up on either side of the platform that had been put up for the occasion, craned their necks out of curiosity, to see the Pharaoh. Another group of guests, set behind the first and separated from it by a further line of guards, swayed like reeds in the wind. They were quite far from the rostrum, made more noise than was fitting and criticized the flamboyant hair-dye used by the new ministers, or else exchanged the very latest news, most of which had to do with the pyramid. There was a rumor that the old scribe Sesostris, when he gathered from his invitation what ceremony was involved, had exclaimed: “The pyramid? You mean it’s not finished yet?”
Although this remark was mentioned with pained expressions, everyone was immediately struck by it,, reckoning that the old man’s words were by no means entirely misdirected. At one time or another everyone had had the impression that the pyramid had already been, if not completed, then at least more than half-built. It had been on their backs, and, more profoundly, inside them, for such a long time already that they would hardly have been surprised if someone on the rostrum that day were to declare that the pyramid whose construction was about to commence before their eyes was not the pyramid itself, but its double, or its replica.
thousand three hundred and seventy-fourth stone was laid during the second moon after the eclipse. It took a little more time to install than the previous one but caused fewer deaths. As if it had nothing more urgent to do than to fulfill the quota of corpses spared by its predecessor, the eleven thousand three hundred and seventy-fifth stone wrought havoc among its carriers. That is how the stonemasons Mumba, Ru, and Thutse fell, along with nine other nameless workmen; Astix the Cretan was struck down by apoplexy; and when the stone slipped back without warning, all the Libyans in the crew, as well as the Tur-Tur brothers, fourteen people in all, were squashed to pulp. Even when the stone was firmly in place and the series of deaths seemed to have come to an end, the deputy foreman died, followed by three Nubian sculptors. They had laid down on the masonry to rest a little, and it was only realized that they had stopped breathing when the supervisor came up with his whip to punish them for taking too long a break. The eleven thousand three hundred and seventy-sixth stone, despite the often unfulfilled hope of a decrease in mortality straight after a hecatomb, was just as bloody as the previous one, and dispatched just as many souls into the next world. The eleven thousand three hundred and seventy-seventh stone turned out to be less fierce and caused no more deaths than can be counted on the fingers of a hand or the toes of a foot. The three following stones could be considered to have kept their mortality rates within reasonable limits. Nothing noteworthy occurred apart from the sacking of the foreman, Unas, He was transferred to the quarry because he had allowed the legs of the two sculptors trapped during the final adjustment of the stone to stay where they had been amputated. Apart from this, the number of deaths was within forecast, and the causes were of the kind that normally cut life short. As for the crushed legs of the two unfortunate sculptors (their lifeless bodies were soon forgotten underground), long hooks were used to scrape them out in shreds when the stone was raised a little, with great difficulty. The newly appointed foreman overseeing this work explained to his crew that if human limbs were left stuck between two stones, then there was a risk that, as they decomposed, they would create a void likely to cause subsidence that, however minute, would be absolutely inadmissible in the majestic • architecture of the pyramid, The eleven thousand three hundred and eighty-first stone to be raised gave off a pestilential miasma. People said that the workers at the far-distant quarry whence it came had infected it with their disease. And that must have been true, because whoever touched the stone came out in a rash of foul pustules. The eleven thousand three hundred and eighty-second stone was eagerly awaited in the hope that when placed up against its predecessor it would contain its neighbor’s harmfulness. But it was of very limited use, since the larger side of the infected stone remained exposed. Apart from the deaths that it caused in this manner, the placing of the disease-ridden stone was also accompanied by the consecutive deaths of two fair-haired Pelasgians, Teut and Bardhylis, the former from a scorpion bite, the latter from despair. A most bizarre murder was also imputed to the infected stone, that of the Sumerian Ninourtakoudouriousouri, by an unnamed slave. For some time the slave refused to reveal the motive for his crime, but one summer’s night, just as it had been agreed that it would be pointless to torture him any further, he confessed. He had been prompted to murder out of jealousy for the Sumerian’s name, because he, as a slave, had none. Believing that the only means of obtaining a name was to take it from another while leaving the other in an inanimate state (apparently he thought that that really was the only way of appropriating a patronym), he had done the Sumerian in and thereby sealed his own fate. In fact there had been brawls on such matters before, and trading in names was not unknown between those who had one and the unnamed, who were sometimes tormented by this insufficiency, spiritually unbalanced by it, obsessed with it to the extent of losing sleep as much as any miser haunted by his gold. Even so, things had never previously gone as far as murder, unless that had happened prior to the ten thousandth stone, or even further back. Although the sale, loan, and inheritance of names was strictly prohibited in order to avoid confusion, such practices were conducted clandestinely. The arrival of the eleven thousand three hundred and eighty-third stone blurred and then completely obliterated the memory of this murder. It was during the laying of this stone that there was an increase in cases of madness; then came an outbreak of deaths from sunstroke. That had already happened before, people recalled, during the laying of the ten thousand nine hundred and ninety-ninth stone, which would not be soon forgotten since it was one of the very few blocks to have cracked because of the exceptional heat. So a bout of dementia was first suspected when Siptah the Theban was found making sketches in the sand, seeking to guess the dimensions of the work in progress, but it turned out to be nothing of the kind, to the poor man’s great misfortune. He had his bones broken with millstones, a fate normally reserved for people who asked inappropriate questions. The eleven thousand three hundred and eighty-fourth stone was still far away in the baking desert when a rumor of bad omen was heard about it: this stone and the six that were coming after it, all from the Abusir quarry, had been struck by the evil eye. No one could say whether it was a maleficent force in the seams from which they had been cut, or whether the evil inhered to the stones themselves. As the haulers approached (they had resigned themselves to their lot; reckoning they were lost already, they had no fear and considered each extra day of life as an unhoped-for gift) and as the stones grew nearer, general anxiety grew sharper, more suffocating, and more irremediable. People who had already seen the stones (for dozens of reasons there was always some traveler or messenger crossing the desert) said that at first sight they looked quite normal, but had very dark veins running through them, like the kind of sign that a man may have on his forehead and that makes his whole face seem sinister. In the event, as is always the case when anxious expectation is long drawn out and the awaited occurrence, when it finally happens, seems not as terrible as had been imagined, the arrival of the stones brought a degree of relief to everyone. There were deaths, to be sure, and in fact rather more than for the preceding stones, but perhaps it was the expectant anxiety rather than the actual presence of the stones that prompted the Grim Reaper to greater vigor. That was what people spread around, but no one really got to know the truth of the matter: how can you know whether the evil engendered by an object comes after it, alongside it, or, like a running dog, ahead of it? Hopes ran high that the eleven thousand three hundred and ninety-first stone would bring respite, since the series of evil-veined blocks was now finished; but it only secreted an even more unbearable atmosphere in which a great number of mostly nameless workmen died in silence, like flies. The eleven thousand three hundred and ninety-second stone (from the El Bersheh quarry) was being maneuvered into place when the chief inspector of the pyramid arrived and had the superintendent of the west face whipped in front of the whole workforce. This corporal punishment, which prematurely hastened the superintendent’s way to the other world, was justified, so people said, by the slow progress of the work. However, it was soon learned that similar punishments had been meted out on the three other faces, in the main quarries, and on the four desert roads used by the caravans that were supposed to hasten the transport and delivery of the stones, as indeed they did. But what had not been foreseen was the sinister rumor resulting from the acceleration of the building work. It was really the blackest of rumors, one of the most destructive that could be imagined. It got about that the feverish haste and impatience to complete the royal tomb only proved what the State had used every effort to hush up: that the Pharaoh was ill. A whole armory of repressive measures was therefore assembled: death sentences., strangling, torture, and even the dispatch of public criers throughout the land to deny the rumor, which, as usually happens in such circumstances, did not die down, but spread and swelled all the more, So, during the installation of the eleven thousand three hundred and ninety-third and the eleven thousand three hundred and ninety-fourth stones, both from the Elephantine quarry, a very peculiar situation developed, People did not know what to do: to expedite their work at a time when intemperate zeal could be seen as a way of supporting the rumor, or to slacken off, even though their bodies were striped with welts from whippings and other punishments meted out for just such slackness. Some said it was better to carry on working as if they knew nothing; others thought the opposite, that of the two evils, slowing down was the lesser. It seems that the majority were of the second opinion, since a wave of indolence was observed throughout the whole project: the movement of the stones through the desert slowed down by the day, as did their installation. The builders themselves became ever more languid, not just in their working movements but in their whole manner and bearings in the way they turned their heads, or spoke, or even breathed. It was plain to see: sometimes the whole workforce looked as though it were on the point of dozing off. The eleven thousand three hundred and ninety-fifth stone and its successor would thus come to be known as the sluggards’ stones. The foreman and superintendents no doubt noticed it gloomily, but none dared raise his whip to demand more application to the task, for that could easily have rebounded on them. So the mood of relative apathy continued, and, despite appearances, it concealed genuine disquiet. People discussed the pyramid more than ever before, talking of its imposing dimensions, of its shape, of the huge number of stones that it would consume. It was hard to decide whether these topics of conversation had their roots in the general chatter going round the baking-hot radius of the four great slopes, that is to say whether these topics were already known to everyone, or whether, on the contrary, they had previously been repressed in people’s minds by the unbearable fatigue, by the heat and the fear of punishment, and had never previously emerged. Everyone in Egypt and far afield knew full well that tens of thousands of souls would have to spend their whole lives building a tomb, but even so an awareness of that reality had never been put in words, let alone into words strung out along one of those tunes that awake ambiguous feelings in the hearer, of the kind: “Dear mother, to say that I shall end my days building a tomb!” and so on . . . Some inquisitive minds asked: “And what will happen once the pyramid is finished?” To which another would reply: “What does it matter to you, you poor fool, what happens afterward, since you won’t be there to see it!” Someone else would explain that after this pyramid they would put up another one for the Pharaoh’s son, then another for his grandson, and so on, in perpetuity, until the end of time. The representation of life as an unending succession of pyramids cast most people into the deepest gloom; others, fewer in number, felt vague resentment It was perhaps more that latter sentiment than the slowing down of the work that most aroused the foremen’s and superintendents’ disapproval They had heard from their predecessors, who had it from their own predecessors, that this feeling was not new, that a similar slackening had occurred long before, prior to the seven thousandth stone, perhaps even prior to the four thousandth, and things had got so bad then that several stones had been shattered. That’s what had happened, but afterward measures had been taken, mouths had been shut and minds too, things had been put back in right order, just as the stones had been put in their right and eternal places in the pyramid. Since they were convinced that the slack period would pass, the superintendents and foremen bided their time with confidence, for everything that happened around the pyramid had a cyclical nature and was thus destined to end. Another period would come, with other stones, and everything would be like before. Meanwhile, at least according to what people said, reports of the current situation had gone right up to the Pharaoh, whose reaction had been awaited but was never expressed, and in the end things were left as they were. Apparently a blind eye had been turned in order to emphasize how certain it was that the Pharaoh would live for a very long time, so that there was no need to be worried about the slow rate of the building work on his tomb. This line of reasoning had even been pushed so far that one unfortunate member of the government (so people said) had proposed, as a logical consequence, to break with tradition and to suspend work on the pyramid altogether, so as to show clearly that the Pharaoh was immortal Daring initiatives often lead to results quite at odds with their intention, and the dignitary who thought up this bold argument paid for it with his life. He was dissected alive, beginning with the tongue that had proffered the idea, and going on to the throat, the lungs, and the hands that had participated in the speech, and so on, until more or less nothing of his body remained. This mutilation signaled an immediate about-turn. A new plot was uncovered in the capital The first wind of fear could be smelled on the work sites long before any message or order reached them. The situation was turned around from top to bottom, A surge of tension ran around all four faces of the pyramid like a shudder and immediately made people move faster around the stones, lower their voices, and keep their eyes down to the ground. 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. Every passing day fell deeper into oblivion, and the time of the eleven thousand three hundred and ninety-fifth and ninety-sixth stones, when there had been culpable talk, hopes,