Authors: Ismail Kadare
Tags: #General Fiction
The third part of the report was its high point. Tablets ninety to one hundred and twenty-two. Possible solutions. Snippets from spies inside secret meetings. Rumors that a new pyramid was currently under consideration. About unbuilding and rebuilding one of its parts. About an investigation conducted into a fatal mistake ,,.
The ambassador shifted onto his elbow so as not to fall asleep. How many times had he imagined as he dozed off that people were trying to take it down! Crowds of men and ghosts each taking hold of a stone and vanishing into the dark,.. The chief magician and the architect were there, imploring it to give birth. But it was barren. Like his own wife, Maybe they intended to build a twin ? How much time would that take, step after step, O heaven!
It appeared that Egypt could not survive without this hump. That is how the one hundred and twenty-second tablet began, “What was inscribed on it was the idea that if another pyramid were not built, or if the great pyramid were not repaired, then something else would be done. Yes, definitely, they would dismantle it... or else they would have another plan.
Tablets one hundred and twenty-three and one hundred and twenty-four followed on in his mind. Then tablet one hundred and twenty-five, hinting at false hope that made the rest seem all the more depressing. Number one hundred and twenty-seven was of that kind, and a little overbaked; the penultimate tablet was just as implacable, with a black stripe from the oven right across it, like a mourning armband. And the whole thing concluded with the main point, a veritable pyramidion, cut into the last tablet, that Egypt could be expected to have a winter of unprecedented terror.
The ambassador laid his head on the pillow, but it felt like a piece of earthenware that shattered on contact, destroying once again any chance of sleep. His mind went back to the wagon rushing across the Sinai desert. The clay tablets must have cooled down by now, and his whole report would be as cold as a corpse.
no season was entirely free of mistrust, only that year’s winter was and always would be known as “the winter of universal suspicion.” The name became so firmly attached that at one point it almost seemed to be part of the season itself and to have taken the very place of the thing it described. In fact, that is nearly what occurred. Allegedly, when people looked up at the sky toward the end of the autumn, instead of observing, “Well, winter’s here to stay,” they would say, “Suspicious weather, isn’t it?” or “Don’t you think suspicion has come rather early this year?” Schoolteachers were even supposed to have had the children chanting out loud, “There are four seasons in the year. Spring, Summer, Autumn, Suspicion”; and so on. Thus, in spite of the preventive measures proposed by the scholar A. K., that is probably what would have happened. In his third letter of denunciation, A. K. stressed that it was his rival Jaqub Har who had first put about the idea of substituting the name for the things and that he possessed definite evidence,, which he reserved the right to submit to the sovereign once it was complete, which showed that the degenerate linguist was about to make a pernicious proposal for redesignating not just winter, but time in general—in other words, that the word
should be replaced by the word
The third letter of denunciation went on to say that after the repeated failure of his efforts to make his wife pregnant, the incorrigible Jaqub Har had come to think that time itself was worn out in this world, and that since it was now living outside of time, humanity would soon be obliged to adopt a time from another world, presumably from hell, unless it was to purloin the time zone of dogs and jackals. That was therefore what would have happened despite all the preventive measures proposed by A. K. (of these, the eleventh recommendation was the emasculation of Jaqub Har), had investigations in hand not been pursued with redoubled intensity during the spring, with the result that, since the winter had been defined as the season of universal suspicion, the spring should have been called the season of hypersuspi-cion—and as for the summer, the climate became so much more oppressive that no epithet could be found to describe it, and that was even more the case in the following autumn, which was so much later than usual that people feared it would never come, a fear exacerbated, in the view of A. K., by the sinister theories of Jaqub Har.
That winter remained the only season to be designated in that way simply because, as usually happens, people tended to remember not the height of a curse but its two termini, that is to say its start and its end, but as in this case there was no sign of an end, what was mostly registered in collective memory was the brink of the abyss.
Normally, the greater the scope of an investigation, the greater need it had of deep foundations, just like a building, The gravity of an inquiry depended on the time and place of the crime. Though promptness could be impressive, investigating an offense that had been committed only two or three weeks before could easily make the facts seem merely ephemeral things. At the other extreme, inquiries into crimes committed forty years ago may well be superficially impressive as evidence of the great rigor of a State that lets nothing pass even if it has a half-century’s silt laid over it, but, like an earthquake with a distant epicenter, they run the risk of diffusing anxiety and making it less intense.
That winter’s investigation was of middling scope. It went back about seven years, on average, fully sufficient to terrify at least two generations.
What was most curious about it was its localization in space. Whereas the minutes of investigations normally referred to two kinds of space, the real kind (the tomb with the corpse, the scene of the murder, etc), and the unreal kind, also called impossible space (the rantings of a demented mother-in-law, nightmares, and so on), the new inquiry was located neither in the one nor the other, but in both at the same time.
In brief, according to the official announcement the clue to the puzzle that the investigation was seeking to elucidate was to be found inside the pyramid, at a point located roughly between the one hundredth and the one hundred and third steps, to the right of the vertical axis, in the heart of the darkness where the stones were heaped upon each other in a boundless agony that neither human reason nor unreason could properly imagine.
The puzzle seemed both decipherable and indecipherable at the same time. It appeared inaccessible, since dismantling the pyramid was inconceivable—for most people, at any rate. It is true that some said: “What if, one fine morning, what with all the heat and the boredom, Cheops decided, just like that, to do the unthinkable, to do what no Pharaoh before him had ever dared? What if he gave the order for the pyramid to be taken down, step by step, until the evil was laid bare?”
The ambivalence of the puzzle terrified every living soul. It was only a few yards away, right there, under its stone cowl. It was in between the two forms of life, but not entirely in either one, like the unburied dead, or like a living person walking through the market arm in arm with his ghost, of whom you could hardly decide which one made the more terrifying sight.
What was now generally understood was the way it had all started seven years earlier, with the howling of a jackal on the night of a full moon. The animal had followed the block of stone from the quarry at Abusir, across the Saqqara desert, to the outskirts of Memphis, and the itinerary, as well as some other details, had now been corroborated by more than one witness. The magician Gezerkareseneb had spent a whole night wandering about the face of the pyramid with a flickering torch in order to make out the exact position of the stone, the place where its journey had finally come to an end. Comparisons between the data that he collected and statements by witnesses, and especially a study of the quarry’s delivery notes, of the stone’s bill of lading in the archives of the Ferries and Waterways Department, of the first and second control certificates, and the results of various complicated calculations that apparently had nothing to do with these documents, established the fact beyond any possibility of error that the fatal stone was the two hundred and four thousand and ninety-third piece in the south slope, or, in the recording system used in the general inventory, stone n° 92 308 130393 6.
The figure looked rather bizarre, but everyone paid much more attention to what might be hidden in the pyramid than to the block’s actual number.
Most people imagined it was a papyrus, in other words a secret document containing some threat or blackmail attempt, or else a warning for the future in case time suddenly changed its direction or its speed, as Jaqub Har had supposedly foretold.
Despite the oddness of its number, the formal identification of the stone nonetheless damped down the general level of anxiety. At least people knew that they were dealing with a piece of stone that had been hewn from a quarry, cut and shaped by stonemasons, inspected by a benevolent or threatening inspector, certified by a seal placed on it by a warehouse official, loaded onto an eight-oared ferry, then hauled on a buffalo cart whose drivers, like all their fellow hauler, had bellowed, spat, and sworn the whole journey long, had got drunk or else had pushed some peasant girl into a muddy field by the wayside. (Sometimes, the attackers got themselves so covered in mud from head to toe that they could not tell who was who any more and ended up raping each other,) Then it had been past the officials who recorded goods arriving at and leaving from the central depots more inspectors., dockers (who “docked” the stone by securing it onto the dolly that slid up and down the ramp), pullers and pushers, and superintendents., before finally reaching the stonelayers.
Scarcely more than four hundred men had had to do with it, six hundred at the outside. Since the stone had been hewn and placed seven years earlier, half of the unfortunate men who had taken a part in the laying of that stone were no longer of this world. So even if they arrested all the survivors, together with their families, acquaintances, and drinking companions, even going so far as to include their mistresses and those who had infected them with the clap, they would have bagged no more than two or three thousand people, a mere trifle in the human anthill of Egypt.
But such consoling reflections did not last very long. The original worries resurfaced, because of the number of the stone. To begin with it was noticed that the number contained two digits that were intended to exclude or perhaps to assimilate entirely the two pieces on either side of the accursed piece. But that was nothing compared to the misfortunes that followed: in all probability, the stone’s official number was quite unrelated to reality. To put it another way, it was perfectly obvious which stone was involved, but for easily imaginable reasons (secrecy, disinformation to confuse the enemy, etc.) the number given was completely wrong. As was the row where it was believed to be situated. And also its coordinates of location with respect to the vertical axis and the plane.
That was enough to make it seem within a few days as if the whole of Egypt had been smitten with apoplexy. Fresh rumors emerged only tentatively, made their way with difficulty along the tendrils of the grapevine. There was talk of a different number. Some people said that, according to the latest leak, the stone had been buried much lower down, in step fifteen, somewhere near the level of the sovereign’s funeral chamber. Then it was alleged that it was not just one stone that was involved, but a whole row, row number one hundred and four, or so it seemed. Then other blocks of stone were mentioned, then other rows or half-rows, all of which served to make everyone feel unsafe. Men who had been only too happy to reminisce complacently about the time when they had worked at the Abu Gurob quarry on stones for the tenth or the ninetieth row, or in the false door workshops, for there was nothing they could be reproached with (“Ha! in our time it was all good honest work, the suspicious stuff didn’t start until later!
now ran away to hide as soon as they heard that the investigation was approaching their rows, or wrapped their heads in wet towels for fear of losing their minds.
Nobody was arrested meanwhile, but that was not a good sign either. The only thing that remained unchanged was that the streets and the markets were deserted. As always, the perfume shops were the first to be closed, followed in turn by the tanneries, the bars, and the inns.
“I see Egypt, but where have all the Egyptians gone?” was what the Sumerian foreign minister was supposed to have exclaimed, riding through the town in a horse-drawn carriage after a reception given by Cheops.
Since passersby gave him the slip, he ended up putting his question to Youyou the drunkard, the only person who would agree to converse with him.
“You want to know where the Egyptians have gone?” Youyou answered at last, his tear-filled eyes fixed longingly on the patio of the bar that had been closed. “Up my asshole, that’s where. Where else do you want them to be?”
He made a charming sign to the minister’s wife, then, after yelling at the coachman, made off with a wobbly gait.
Little by little, one by one, the investigation cast its net over them all, and they became a multitude greater than ever before. People who had never even worked on the pyramid, people who for health reasons had never set foot in a quarry or stepped onto a row, aged and twitching aristocrats who were now virtually incapacitated, society ladies who never rose before noon—all were now roped into the same fetid atmosphere and the same dust, all mixed in and muddled up with people who really had worked on the building site.
There was always one string of the investigation to tie someone up, to draw him out of his cocoon, and to take him four, seven, or fourteen years back to the time when his errors began. If it failed to tie its victim up straight away, then the victims themselves, in their attempts to escape, got themselves into a tangle, pulled the whole skein toward themselves, and were entrapped. So even as their bodies lay huddled in the warmth of their beds, their terrorized minds were up and out before dawn, just like the host of builders in bygone days, ready to start work under the torrid sun and the whip, in order to repent for their share of guilt.