The Eleven Thousand Three Hundred and Seventy-Fourth Stone

I read, and read obsessively, in search of transformation, of following any author’s eyes to a new angle on the world–for me, that’s entertainment.

One author who does this consistently is Ismail Kadare, the Albanian novelist who won the 2005 Man Booker International Prize and is year after year shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sometimes, when I wax too poetic about his genius displayed in novels such as Broken April, The General of the Dead Army, The Palace of Dreams or Chronicle in Stone, a listener will offer a quizzical look, as if to say, What could be so great about a novelist from Albania, of all places?

Well, why read the stories of a blind librarian from Buenos Aires, or the poems of an unmarried recluse in Amherst? The specific moment of creation, if powerful enough, extends far past its geographical–and temporal–origin.

Kadare’s novel The Pyramid takes place 4,600 years in the past, during the building of the pyramid of the pharaoh Cheops, and whether you’ve been to Egypt or not, you’ve certainly seen this enormous structure’s image.

It’s one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Kadare, however, wants you to look closer, wants you to see the hidden stories of its construction, stone by stone, in the chapter “Daily Chronicle: Right Hand Face, Western Arris”:

“The eleven thousand three hundred and seventy-fourth stone was laid during the second moon after the eclipse. It took a little more time to install than the previous one but caused fewer deaths. As if it had nothing more urgent to do than to fulfill the quota of corpses spared by its predecessor, the eleven thousand three hundred and seventy-fifth stone wrought havoc among its carriers. That is how the stonemasons Mumba, Ru, and Thutse fell, along with nine other nameless workmen; Astix the Cretan was struck down by apoplexy; and when the stone slipped back without warning, all the Libyans in the crew, as well as the Tur-Tur brothers, fourteen people in all, were squashed to pulp. Even when the stone was firmly in place and the series of deaths seemed to have come to an end, the deputy foreman died, followed by three Nubian sculptors. They had laid down on the masonry to rest a little, and it was only realized that they had stopped breathing when the supervisor came up with his whip to punish them for taking too long a break. The eleven thousand three hundred and seventy-sixth stone . . . ”

The narratives of this short chapter–only ten pages–continue to the eleven thousand three hundred and ninety-ninth stone, highlighting by implication all the stones that came before, and projecting into the future all the stones that have yet to arrive at the growing pyramid. Kadare’s remorseless accretion of deadly detail is balanced by an implicit sympathy for those forgotten fates, as if each description is an act of reclamation. After reading merely this one chapter from Kadare’s novel, one will never be able to see an image of the great pyramid without remembering that slow, relentless placement of each stone, and how each is storied with a terrible human cost.

Yet Kadare’s larger point doesn’t rest on a single pyramid. Behind what can be read of course as a blunt political statement, Kadare also seems to be saying that even the most glorious achievements of the human imagination can be laced with cruelty and tragedy. And so we move from a single architectural monument to a deeper understanding of the act of creation itself, how the impulse behind invention is far more complex, far more problematic than we might like to believe.

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