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Ismail Kadare: Pluhuri mbreteror; Piramida (The Pyramid)

Moving away from Albania to Egypt, Kadare gives us a wickedly funny satire on Stalinism. The Pharaoh Cheops has decided he does not want a pyramid but his advisers are scandalized. Building a pyramid is the only way to keep the people under control. So the pyramid is to be built. The quarries are opened, the workers recruited and, of course, whips are made in large quantities. But not all goes smoothly. If they build it too quickly, it indicates that they are eager for Cheops’ death. If they build it too slowly, there is also going to be trouble. Kadare gives us a litany of Catch-22s of this nature and also tales of brutal punishments, random executions, conspiracies invented by the police and involving the police and large-scale deaths, all in his inimitable tongue-in-cheek style. For example, the individual stones used for the building seem to have more life and personality – nicknames, where they were first hewed, whom and how they killed – than the unfortunate builders.

Eventually the pyramid is built but things do not improve, as there are recriminations for past ills (real or imagined). Even after Cheops’ death, the bitter saga continues, with his heirs and then the grave robbers, who find out that his son was murdered and did not die an honourable death as supposed. Kadare takes the tale on to the decay of the pyramid and then to Timur’s less permanent pyramids of skulls and finally to the bunkers of Stalin and Hitler. The point he is making is not subtle but, as ever, he makes it with great skill and wit.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Naim Frasheri, Tirana
First English translation 1996 by Harvill Press