Authors: Ismail Kadare
Tags: #General Fiction
“Old or new, those ideas won’t change my mind,” said the master builder Hankou. “ All it comes to is like working upside down.” But afterward he had to admit that there was nothing to be done about it, that you had to bend to this whim, that it was in the end just one more thing that was assbackward in Egypt. (“Our whole country lives like that, upside down and back to front. Only an overthrow of the regime, and of the Pharaoh too, could put things back to right.” These statements had been reported verbatim to the investigating magistrate, who waved the papyrus under his nose and yelled: “Confess! Confess that you said that! Look here, are these not your very words? Don’t you see?” “I see them,” the master builder replied, even though both his eyes had been put out in the very first week of torture.)
During the seventh step a great fear seized hold of everyone, not just those working permanently on site but all whose tasks obliged them to spend a few moments near the pyramid. “What is it?” they asked in horror. “Why, what’s going on?” they enquired of the Seveners, as they had begun to be called... “No, no, it’s nothing. I must have had a hallucination, it was probably just giddiness, I have to get back up, see you soon .. ,”
For a while they would watch the silhouettes hopping from step to step, growing smaller in the distance before disappearing into the dust of the human anthill Those who were up there, above the rest, looking down on the mass, far from feeling more confident, shook like leaves. They would turn to look at the point where the vertex was going to be and were utterly petrified. They were right up against the sky, and each of them thought in his heart of hearts that it was probably this celestial proximity that made him feel quite weightless, convinced him of his own inanity, and inflicted him with such a burden of guilt.
Although almost nothing happened during the building of the seventh step, the masons suffered inwardly so much that as soon as it was finished (an immediate start was then made on the sixth step down) they truly believed that they had been through martyrdom. From time to time, especially during the midday break, they recounted fragments of their nightmares to each other, in good faith, as if they were talking of things that had really happened.
Crumbs from their stories (or rather, their ravings) floated down somehow or other, falling slowly from heaven like dust (or rather, antidust) and settled on the milling crowd at the base of the site.
In the evenings when they came down to return to their barracks they could feel the eyes on their backs, full of awe and admiration. The looks seemed to say: My poor friends, those are the real heroes, what hell they must be suffering up there! They were treated as if they had come straight from heaven, and people even seemed surprised that none of them had yet made use of his nearness to the sky to step over into the other world, the way a man can jump from a roof onto the balcony next door.
The curiosity surrounding the builders of step seven was but a foretaste of the even livelier interest aroused by the vertex. Now that the pyramid’s completion was imminent, everyone was obsessed by its topmost point. Some said that the hour of truth was about to strike. They feared that the pyramid was too high and that its peak would scratch or even injure the sky. “Then you’ll see what has to happen! Wretched that we are! Where can we go to hide?”
But others objected: “How can we be responsible? We were just carrying out orders. If there has been a mistake, others are to blame.”
“But we are all guilty,” the former maintained. “In one way or another we are all involved in this nasty business.”
Having said that, they raised their eyes mechanically toward the sky. It was not just the pyramid, but also their own bodies and their very fates that were being siphoned upward by the celestial void.
was overcast, Cheops paced back and forth on the upper floor of his palace, feeling tense. Though he was trying not to look anywhere at all, he could not prevent his head from turning toward the west, toward the spiraling tornadoes of dust, blacker than any seen before. It looked as if a sandstorm were brewing for the afternoon. But the pyramid’s dust cloud could be seen from everywhere, running ahead of the hurricane. Cheops felt as if his own tomb were galloping across the sky like a bolting horse. The vision had not left him for years. He consoled himself with the thought that it was his fate as a monarch, that there was no one to whom he could complain, but it made him melancholic just the same.
Two sets of scrolls were laid out on a marble shelf. One was thick and weighty and contained the biography of his father Seneferu, recently completed by a team of historians. Cheops had asked to look at it before choosing the layout of his own biography, which would soon be started. The other set of scrolls contained the current affairs of state.
He would wait for another day before unrolling his father’s life: today his soul was too much like a sea of bitterness, And he almost had to do violence to himself to pause in front of the shelf. The manuscript was in two parts: the first, dealing with life on earth, was encased in red leather; the second, colored sky blue, dealt with the afterlife.
He thought that he knew more or less what the first scroll would consist of. The king’s youth, his coronation as Pharaoh, first military campaigns, reforms, then alliances with neighboring states, major decrees, conspiracies unraveled, wars, hymns written by poets. But the second whetted his curiosity. He went through it slowly, and his eyes rested on one of the papyri: “The day of Seneferu, After the day, the night of Seneferu, Then again the day of Seneferu, Then the night again. After which the day. After the day, the night of Seneferu, Then after the night, another day of Seneferu, After this day, the night,,,”
Good god! he groaned. He imagined himself inside his sarcophagus, alone in the mortuary chamber. He put his own name in the place of his father’s: Day of Cheops; night of Cheops.,, His dismay was so great that it stopped his anger short. That was what his posthumous biography would be like . , . The first papyrus was entitled
The First Three Hundred Years.
But if the first three hundred were as monotonous as that, there was no reason to expect any change in the following centuries.
He unrolled the scroll further. He found the same words, and, again, replaced his father’s name with his own: Day of Cheops. Night of Cheops. Day of Cheops after the night of Cheops, Another night of Cheops ...
The idiots! he growled. They had apparently counted out the days and nights of the first three hundred years, thinking they could get away with such fiddlesome listings.
He seized the manuscript as if he were grabbing a woman by the hair before throwing her to the ground, maybe even before trampling on her, when all of a sudden, at a place where he had made a tear, a different wording caught his eye.
He tore out the passage and was so surprised that his anger subsided at once. An event! he almost shouted out loud. In this uninhabited void an event., rarer than an oasis in the desert, had sprung forth. He drank in the hieroglyphs with ardor: “In the morning the highest dignitaries of the state arrived in turn. Then the High Priest of Egypt, all the ministers, and last of all the Queen presented their congratulations to the Pharaoh, At the end of the ceremony, the dignitaries having retired, he lay down in his sarcophagus, Afternoon of Seneferu, Then the afternoon of Seneferu was followed by a night of Seneferu, Then day of Seneferu.” Day of Cheops ...
He ran through the document feverishly until his eye alighted once more on an event. Significant facts were extremely rare, as if lost among a myriad of stars. Commemorations of the Pharaoh’s coronation. Celebrations of his own birthdays. Some religious ceremony. So that was what his life would be in the afterworld, compared to which his present life constituted only an infinitesimal fragment. Heavens! he groaned again. These happenings were like distant posts in a desert, like the domes of temples seen on the horizon. He thought he had had a vision of this kind once before. Ah yes, it was two years previously, in a report from the security service about the philosophers of Memphis, giving a detailed reconstruction of their judgments about time. Some of them thought that time now was not what it should be, that it had lost its original quality. It had lost all restraint, it had, so to speak, gone flabby, got dilated—in a word, it had run down. According to them, real time should be very dense. For instance, the time of a human life in this world should be measured as the sum of its orgasms. All the rest was emptiness and vanity.
Cheops had only a vague memory of the arguments of the opposing faction. All he recalled was that they stood firmly by the contrary view, in other words, they defended time’s need to relax. According to them, if humanity persisted in living so intensely, then it would end up losing its reason.
Gobbledygook! Cheops thought. It had been an inspired idea to send half of them off to the Abusir quarries. If people would stop bothering themselves with such nonsense then the affairs of state would run all the more smoothly. But they were incorrigible. After wracking their brains with all sorts of visions, the Egyptians were now doing their best to unhinge the rest of the world. That’s what his ambassador in Crete had reported. The Foreign Minister had brought the dispatch to him, puffing with pride. The other viziers were also glowing: the Egyptians’ worldwide impact was steadily increasing. Crete, and, beyond that island, the Pelasgians and the peoples who had settled there just recently, had been struck by a great confusion. They had learned from the Egyptians that another life existed, and it had quite turned their heads. We were ignoramuses, they said, we were blind, thinking life was so short and simple, whereas it is infinite!
The ambassador had reported just how excited the Cretans were. They were grateful to Egypt for a miracle that they held to be the most important discovery ever made by mankind. From now on everything would change—ideas, mentalities, even the earth’s dimensions. It was no trifle, no, it was not a mere appendage or outbuilding tacked on to life. No, what had at last been brought to light was life a hundredfold, a thousandfold, not to say everlasting.
Cheops listened to his ministers in silence. To begin with, even he had not understood whence came the chill that he felt. Then when they had left he went out on the balcony of his palace and gazed for a time at the dust rising from the building site. The thought came to’ him, more clearly than before, that if Egypt had not made the discovery that so bedazzled the rest of the world, then there would be no pyramid either. There would be no pyramids, he thought again and again. And that horrible dust cloud would not darken his days.
Two decades previously an inner voice had advised him not to have this kind of tomb built. But his ministers had ended up convincing him of the opposite. Now, even if he had wanted, he could no longer detach himself from his pyramid.
“I did it for you!” he was about to shout out loud. “I have sacrificed myself for you!” Now they had left him alone with his pyramid, while they did nothing but banquet and carouse. Yes, he was alone before his tomb, swelling up and crouching down by turns before leaping high as if to take possession of the whole sky.
For a long while he tried to think of nothing at all. Then he felt drawn once again to the scrolls. He hoped that the sky-blue one would help to dispel his gloomy thoughts, but it was the scroll he was trying to avoid that attracted him irresistibly. He knew what was in it. But he raised its leather casing with the kind of sudden start that you use to open a door onto a group of whispering detractors.
They were there as they always were, in their insatiable thousands. From robbers and street urchins’ to educated ladies and lounge lizards, whose venom was all the more intolerable. Informers had faithfully copied down everything, and these unordered inventories of things said in vulgar and in polished language gave a more accurate picture by far than any report of the degree of Egyptians’ loyalty to their state, and of their disaffection ... It sucks, I swear, it sucks up everything, it ain’t never satisfied, the black widow, it’s left our stomachs in our sandals, it’s squeezed the seeds out of us, and not just the seeds, it’s all down to that thing, you can’t have a laugh any more, or have fun, on my mother’s soul the devil take Egypt, let me never hear its name again, not Egypt’s nor the name of that bloody pyramid!... People are damned right to claim that the building of this new temple is impoverishing everything, even life itself. Half of the taverns have been closed since construction work began, dwellings have gotten smaller, men’s love of their craft and their pleasure in entertainment have been extinguished, fear has spoiled and shriveled every kind of thing, and only one has grown: the line at the bean seller’s stall. People have now realized that the pyramid not only devours everyday life, but is consuming the whole of Egypt. Its blocks of masonry have crushed the palm trees and the autumn moon, the excitement of the early evening in the city, laughter, dinner parties, and feminine sensuality . . . Even if the pyramid were to swallow it whole, Egypt should consider itself lucky to make such a sacrifice! ... But hang on, there’s no point in crying wolf! The pyramid may have petrified our existence, but one day it could also depetrify it, bring liberation, release us from the weight of its stones . . . Hell, that’s just daydreaming! Have people lost their wits? Can a witch regurgitate all that she has eaten? To make her do so you have to put her to torture, cut her up into little pieces—come on, witch, spit it all up, or 111 knock up your mother too! But that’s just nonsense. Supposing you did get hold of it and squeeze it hard, what would come out of it?—A huge fart and nothing more.