Authors: Ismail Kadare
Tags: #General Fiction
They gathered in the pitch-black night at the foot of the pyramid and wasted no time in levering up a stone that, according to them, concealed the secret entrance. They had a lot of trouble this time, and they had to shift more than a score of stones. It was almost dawn before they finally found the passageway.
That was the hardest part of their job. Thereafter it all went the same as in the other pyramid. Before opening the coffin they covered their faces with the canvas masks they had made, with openings for their eyes. For a minute they larked around, scaring each other with these hoodlike contraptions.
While the others scooped up the funerary trinkets placed in niches in the walls. One-eye, as usual, lingered over the sarcophagus.
Bronzejaw was the first to look at him.
“So what are you up to with the mummy this time?”
“Come and have a look,” said One-eye.
They came over and saw that One-eye had stripped the linen bandages off the mummy’s face. Toudhalia and the torchbearer screwed up their faces in disgust.
“Just have look at these marks,” One-eye whispered, “You can see right away that the man was strangled.”
“Hm,” muttered Bronzejaw as he leaned over to look more closely. “My word, you’re right. He had his neck wrung like a chicken.”
“What? What are you saying?” the torchbearer exclaimed.
“What are we saying?” Toudhalia repeated. “He had his neck wrung? A Pharaoh had his neck wrung?”
Bronzejaw’s eyes clouded over.
“Listen here,” he said. “We’re just plain robbers, and this has nothing to do with us at all” (His voice trailed off into a tiny whisper.) “These are matters of high politics. None of our business, OK? And you!” he almost roared at One-eye. “It’s not your job to examine mummies’ necks! No one asked you to! Right?”
“Sure, sure,” One-eye conceded. “That’s enough bawling, you’ll rock the pyramid.”
“Ill bawl louder still if I want to, got that? You must know that stuff like that could get us the chop! What did Tut the Hobbler get done in for? Why were Beetroot and his brother strung up? All their lives they jimmied doors and nothing happened to them, then one day, just a hint of politics in some dive, and they were done for. No politics on my patch, you hear that? If it itches, go scratch yourselves somewhere else, but don’t cross with me. Have I made myself plain?”
“All right, all right,” One-eye said. “We’ve got you loud and clear.”
It was still dark when they came to the exit. The stars were beginning to fade. They left their masks inside the gallery and came out in line. It was quite chilly, Toudhalia, who was expert in walking without leaving footprints, also destroyed the traces of .his fellow-robbers’ passage. He could not quite get over what he had just heard. A Pharaoh with his neck wrung... “The bastards,” he muttered to One-eye between his teeth, “They must have squabbled worse than we do over those kinds of jewels.”
Toward daybreak they were trekking alongside the pyramid of Chephren. The sphinx was still shrouded in darkness. Only its hair—the hair that had given rise to so much gossip—was visible in the first rays of daylight.
They quickened their step, for they could not have stood the stare of the sphinx. By the light of the moon, people said, it could drive you out of your mind.
One-eye brought up the rear. His head felt as though it was going to burst. He could not get the marks of strangling on the mummy’s neck out of his mind. They were sure to come back to him in his dreams.
One last time he raised his eyes toward the sphinx. The morning sun had now reached its eyes. Their blank stare froze him as it had never done before. He wanted to shout out: “Sphinx, what didst thou do to thy brother? How didst thou kill him?” But his voice was stifled in his breast.
attack on it came one December afternoon. A solitary shaft of lightning that had escaped for sure from the alien skies of the north fell upon it, but at the last minute, for reasons never properly understood, it split in two and, with an apocalyptic clap, shattered in the surrounding desert.
This first demonstration of its manifestly inviolable pact with the heavens aroused a profound sense of joy in the whole land. No one was aware that what the heavens could not do had been achieved already from below, by the men who had surreptitiously made their way into the pyramid.
The robbery had taken place years before, but since all trace of the profanation had been cunningly hidden, no one had had a clue. Maybe the truth would never have been known, had it not emerged where it was least expected—at a trial of writers.
When a group of scribes was arrested on suspicion that they were elaborating certain unorthodox historical conceptions, everyone expected a particular kind of trial, of the sort usually followed by high society or even by members of the diplomatic corps, in which the men in the dock are less the object of judgment than the ideas that they hold.
While an awkward moment for the educated classes was thought to be in the offing, news broke like a thunderbolt that the Historians’ Affair was not at all a glamorous trial of intellectuals but a case that boiled down to nothing more than an abominable, unprecedented act of burglary ...
People hearing the news for the first time went pale and weakened at the knees. Mummies had been stripped and profaned! Evil had scaled new heights. It had entered the realm of shadows. Everyone was gripped by a sense of sinister horror. Death itself had been robbed, so to speak.
It was so serious that many could not bring themselves to believe it was true. Had Egyptian historians sunk so low as to swap their styluses for crowbars? To go in for burglary in the middle of the desert?
But on the heels of this first confused and sensational version of the story came clearer and more precise details. The detectives on the case had found not only that the secret entrances had been dismantled but that the sarcophagi had been opened. The vinegar-soaked masks used by the bandits had been found at the site, as if they had wanted to be rid of them before running away.
The robbers had left the mummies where they were, thank God, but only by fortunate chance. For the mummies themselves must have been the target of the most shameless intention of all. The mere thought of it made people shiver. No one could say exactly what the robbers had planned to do with the mummies. Some thought they had meant to burn them, as barbarians do. Others reckoned that they would have taken the mummies to the far-off lands in the north, to put them on show, on kinds of platforms, and then auction them. In the highest circles, however, it was thought that this affair had more serious ramifications than appeared at first sight.
What aroused public curiosity above all was the way in which the group’s machinations had been brought to light.
In actual fact, a veil of uncertainty periodically enshrouded the case. The accused, like most educated people, were hardly very vigorous; indeed, they were rather rather puny men, so it was not easy to imagine them handling great levers and shifting huge chunks of pyramidal masonry.
The secret police, concerned at people muttering such things, leaked sufficient details to clarify part of the mystery, specifically concerning how the discovery had been made.
It had all begun in a very ordinary way. For some time already the police had been in possession of a file on a group of scribes who were putting about new and rather bizarre ideas about the history of the State, not in accordance with official thinking. Although the authorities had alerted the palace, the affair had apparently not been considered important, so everything had stayed in the air. However, an anonymous letter—thank heavens, papyrus now allowed people to write letters, and, even more importantly, to deliver them with ease, for a Sumerian would have needed ten or fifteen clay tablets, not to mention other peoples who were still carving on stone and would have needed a pair of buffalo to haul their letter to its addressee, leaving aside all the other nuisances, such as the din of hammer and chisel that would have kept a whole neighborhood awake for a week!—an anonymous letter, then, had warned the Pha-raoh, Mykerinos, of this new danger.
That was all that had been needed to get down to work. One spy and two undercover agents who infiltrated the group collected all the material that was needed, so that one fine morning, before daybreak, the ineluctable result occurred: arrests were made.
The inquiry was set up straight away, in utter secrecy, What the detectives were really after was to know where the young historians had first got their idea of questioning the official history of the realm. When after a variety of forms of torture the historians finally admitted that their crime had had its first beginning in a conversation with grave robbers, the upshot of which had led them to revise their conception of History from top to bottom, they were suspected of thumbing their noses at the authorities. They were put on the rack one more time, and were also the first to be subjected to a new truth-extraction device that had only just received its approval certificate. But although they found it difficult to articulate properly because of their swollen tongues (caused by scorpion stings), they mainly repeated what they had already declared: the idea of rewriting history had been suggested to them by an inebriated robber in a sordid bar called The Crab, They were tortured again, but were as pigheaded as ever, repeating their original version of the story (in writing, at this stage, since their speech had become incomprehensible—as bad as Sumerian!) and also gave away the name of the thief, a certain Abd el-Gourna, also known as One-eye.
The old reprobate was tracked to his lair, but, despite being half-drunk when clapped into irons, he had the wit to make it clear that in reality he had only ever seen the welts on the neck of the mummy of Didoufri in his dreams.
Nonetheless, toward dawn the next day, he finally confessed, and the investigating team took the man in chains back with them to the profaned pyramid. They moved aside the stone that hid the granite panel that blocked the entrance to the main gallery, they went inside, past the vinegar-soaked masks that still lay on the floor, to the funeral chamber where, with bulging eyes, they looked upon the open sarcophagus—when the head palace messenger rushed in after them with an order from the Pharaoh to desist forthwith from inspecting the mummy.
New veils of mystery enshrouded the case thenceforth. But as often happens when too much trouble is taken to keep something secret, the truth trickled out fairly soon, and more or less everything that had been in the historians’ minds became common knowledge. Their plan had indeed been a gruesome one: they had intended laying their hands on all the mummies in the pyramids, transferring them to some discreet lair in Egypt or abroad, and submitting each of their organs to minute examination. From the evidence that they might thus uncover—throttle marks, knife wounds, traces of poison, etc.—they would throw new light on any number of events, whose explanations might then be linked to other prior or subsequent facts, which could reopen the whole established history of the kingdom. History would thus be rewritten into something radically different, and people said that in searching the prisoners’ papers the detectives had come across phrases that might have been intended as book titles or as slogans, such as “History as Revised and Corrected by the Mummies,” “Mummo-History,” or simply “The New History.”
There was a sickness floating in the air. The historians and the grave robber el-Gourna were long since dead and buried, but the disturbance they had caused lived on. Opinions never previously heard of were now uttered in places you would have least expected. At night, for no obvious reason, people with faces painted white wandered around the town. The number of seers and ranters increased dramatically. They could been seen haranguing onlookers in public places for hours on end. The only thing that could shut them up was the sight of the forces of law and order.
Everything was up for grabs, and the pyramids first of all. Now that they had been profaned, it seemed easier to express a view about them. People even began to question the correctness of their stellar orientation, of their locations, of the angles of their slopes. Even more fundamental queries were raised concerning the mysterious numbers and the coded message that they were supposed to contain. If this message was what it was supposed to be, why did it secrete a kind of vertigo?
“Come to your senses,” replied other people—those others who in all times and circumstances take the side of the State, even when they are its victims. “Can one doubt the pyramid? It is the incarnation of Egypt. Without it, Egypt would not be what it is. Egypt might even not be called Egypt.”
Nonsense, replied the doubters, Egypt existed before the pyramids. And has anything so awful befallen the Babylonians, the Greeks, or the Trojans, without their pyramids?
“Shush! Be quiet! You dare to liken the motherland to the handful of peasants that constitute Greece and Troy? If I were you I would ask for a pardon for words like that.”
A time came when the confusion about the pyramids was so great that people began to wonder whether they really existed. They were alleged to be mere phantoms, collective hallucinations, mirages that would simply vanish into thin air one fine day. Some people went in for an even subtler analysis, saying that the pyramids, though they did indeed exist as such, reflected the wrong image of themselves, for there was always either something missing or something extraneous in what could be known of them.
However illogical these arguments may seem, more and more often (not just at dusk or in the half-light of dawn, but in broad daylight too) the pyramids appeared to be turning themselves into insubstantial objects made of air. That was now such a frequent impression that many people acquired the habit of looking toward the horizon each morning on wakings apparently uncertain whether the things would still be there.
The notion of immateriality notoriously suggests another, even more serious idea, that of pure and simple absence, Though it still hovered in a state of vagueness, as if it did not quite dare to come together, this latter idea did indeed begin to condense here and there. Could Egypt survive without its pyramids? Could the pyramids disappear? Could space be free of their ghastly protuberance?