The counselors and High Priest gasped. The Pharaoh Cheop’s had just announced his intention to deviate from tradition by refusing to have a pyramid erected in his honor. His announcement sent his counselors in a panicked frenzy to research the issue. They finally found their answer. The pyramid, they told Cheops, serves multiple purposes. It is not just the future burial site of the Pharaoh. It also serves to keep the multitudes under control through oppression and forced labor. Give them busy work, they argued. The higher the pyramid, the more arduous the task of building it, the less time the rabble will have to make trouble. It would be an obsession for decades, keeping the masses distracted from their other concerns. Once completed, it would stand as a symbol of the Pharaoh’s power and majesty, dwarfing everything and everyone in its surroundings.
Cheops was convinced.
So begins Ismail Kadare’s The Pyramid, a tour de force depicting the brutal tactics a totalitarian regime will employ to sustain its powers. The pyramid snuffs out people by the hundreds. Kadare chronicles in elaborate detail the hauling of thousands upon thousands of giant stones from far away quarries, their positioning in the pyramid, and the numbers of people who lost their limbs or were crushed to death in the process.
The construction of the pyramid precipitates periodic purges in which people are disfigured, tortured, and executed. It chronicles theories of internal and external conspiracies; the ubiquitous spread of superstition, rumors, and lies; the tedium and mind-numbing boredom of the work; the silencing of speech; paranoia; the fear and trembling with which the Pharaoh’s closest advisors approach him; and the rush to fulfill the Pharaoh’s every whim even at the cost of the maiming and killing of innocents.
The pyramid comes to represent different things to different people throughout the decades of its construction, its completion, and beyond. It symbolizes a tool of oppression wielded by authoritarian governments whose goal is to magnify the power of the regime and diminish all else in their wake. At the end of the novel, Kadare explicitly draws a parallel between the construction of the pyramid and modern tools of oppression:
Pyramidal phenomena occurred in cycles, without it ever being possible to determine precisely the timing of their appearance; for no one has ever been able to establish with certainty whether what happens is the future, or just the past moving backward, like a crab. People ended up accepting that maybe neither the past nor the future were what they were thought to be, since both could reverse their direction of travel, like trams at a terminus.
The Pyramid is an allegory of life under any authoritarian regime at any time and in any place. The atmosphere is haunting, eerie, and terrifying. This may not be a novel for everyone, but it is a remarkable achievement, prescient and relevant to our time.