“The Teleprompter of Life” by Daniel Genoves-Sylvan

This essay first appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly, Issue #9. To help us continue to pay our writers, please consider subscribing.

All great building works resemble crimes … Whenever I find myself in front of columns I can clearly see blood spattering the marble.

Ismail Kadare, The Three Arched Bridge

It’s so easy to put it down to a mis-translation.  Forgivable too, given the need to translate first from Albanian, then from French. But it does come out oddly: Building works as crimes, not as crime scenes. Building works, not buildings themselves.

History demands that we see in the coliseum its gratuitous brutality and in every amphitheatre that followed it, the shadows of population roundups and ethnic cleansing shielded from view. The 21st century was born in search of justice over a ruined pair of towers, while retribution for subsequent structures going down in flames is negligible. Ask the residents of Grenfell to define crime, and yes, they might strip back their edifice to the moment of its flawed construction.

In the autumn of 2018 the world is burning and we all carry a torch.  We fancy ourselves in an era of fakery, demagoguery and foreboding, but none of these are new under the sun. Our Cassandras are clickbait; our fears are divisive. It seems that there is no cautionary tale we have not heard, and yet here are three of them – slim, elegant and laminated in their republished editions, sitting watch over my writing.

They form a neat stack and so, are aesthetically pleasing. On their spines, too, a satisfying form: The Bridge, The Pyramid, The Spire. I’ve been preoccupied with them for a long while, shuffling them like Three Card Monte, though the game is ‘one of these books are not like the others.’  Two share an author; two share verticality; two share roots in ancient legend, and another pairing is based on the wisdom of masons and the naïveté of monks. All three have at their heart a doomed and controversial construction. All three of them bury bodies in a scaffold of complicity.

I need to return these books to the library and so it is time for me to puzzle out the mortar that binds them together. I’m curious why, in this era of relentless foreboding, I am hung up on 20th century parables, remnants of an earlier age of anxiety. But all I can come up with is: All great allegories resemble lies. Whenever I find myself with the pages of a parable I can clearly see facts trammeled by truth.

The columns quoted above are not, in fact, those of Ismail Kadare’s titular three-arched bridge. That bridge is made of stone and it spans the Ujana e Keqe river. As such it is a fiction and also a symbol: of freedom, of expansion, of invasion and of human endeavor.  It is the locus (one of many) for the divide between East and West. In the 14th century, when the story takes place, the bridge separated Turks from Christians. In the 20th century, when The Three Arched Bridge was written, it suggested ideological enemies and the antipathies born of isolation. Today, it might be read as the Brexiteers’ bugaboo. Migrant workers in the novella cause disquiet. Migrating dervishes cause more oblique alarm.

The Three-Arched Bridge  is a story tethered to the reliability of legend and the predictability of symbolism. A kingdom is isolated, traditions are challenged, a bridge disrupts, inviting change and danger. Positioned in this familiar structure, the macabre musings about blood spattered marble leap like punk rock from a Gregorian monastery. They are the response of a nameless visitor to the bridge’s building site when asked by the suspicious narrator (a monk, in fact) : “Tell me please whether you are a collector of tales or a builder?”

It’s the only page I dog-eared (don’t tell the Barbican library, please). This strange assertion that “there is no difference” between a building-work and a crime is surprising, though the crime itself is not. The call for a human sacrifice to secure the bridge’s foundations has been broadcast from the story’s cover (and from time immemorial, if you happen to be up on your Balkan lore). Twenty pages after the tale-collector’s assertion that all columns drip murder, a local peasant is walled into the first stone arch.

The deed strikes only limited horror in a community where the legend of immurement is as familiar as the river the new bridge aims to ford. Indeed, just as the peasant Musharrat is entombed not in the apse of the bridge but off-center, it is not his murder that stands at the heart of the book. Rather, it is the narrator’s determination “to record the lie we saw and the truth we did not see.”

This begs the question: is the building site a crime or a crime scene? If it is a crime, then that crime is clearly seen – watched, in fact, on a daily basis by the wary villagers. But if the crime is the murder of Musharrat, then the bridgeworks is a crime scene, or perhaps, a crime weapon. All of which is to say that the stone bridge with its piers and scaffolding is not simply the physical manifestation of a legend. The three arched bridge is the lie that the stupefied villagers watch being constructed daily. The unseen truth is just the murder undertaken in the dead of night, effected to secure the bridge.

Look at it that way, and it doesn’t much matter who struck the blow. Everyone was watching and waiting for it to happen.

Kadare, a dissident and exile, is Albania’s only internationally recognized author, Dua Lipa notwithstanding. His tales feature Byzantine couriers who transport severed heads, Ottoman Pashas who interrogate subjects about their dreams, villagers who re-imagine modern soldiers as Crusaders. He plumbs history, medieval and ancient, to account for the totalitarianism of the near past. (Though my favorite of his works is less parable and more semi-autobiographical: In Twilight of the Eastern Gods, a young Albanian writer sweats the coming of Khrushchev’s first post-Thaw crackdown in 1958 Moscow. )

Kadare maintains that he is neither a Balkan writer nor a political writer; but saying so doesn’t make it so. Still, if he wishes a different sort of moniker, I have one to offer. Kadare is a master of the Criminal Building Works genre and The Pyramid, begun in 1988 and released in English in 1996, is exhibit B.

The Pyramid in question is that of Cheops, who, in Kadare’s telling was initially ambivalent about self-aggrandizement. It falls upon his advisors – alarmed at their Pharaoh’s disruptor proclivities – to convince him to jettison humility in the name of order. Prosperity, they warn, breeds revolt; the only obedient society is an oppressed society. Pyramid-building, they assure him, “is your most reliable guardian. Your secret police. Your army.”

The Pharaoh comes around and he does so whole heartedly: “Let the pyramid be built. The highest of all.”

What follows is a chronicle of twenty years of toil, complete with all the spattered blood and immurement that the collector of tales on the banks of the Ujana e Keqe could wish to see. Pages are given over to itemization of the massive stones: their quarry of extraction; their visible defects and features; the curses they engender from haulers; the limbs they dismember on transport; the skulls they crush on slipping; the corpses they entomb who will rest, unnamed, with their Pharaoh, upon his demise.

Parallel to the record of the pyramid’s blood-stained erection is the timeline of the building political chaos it engenders. Episodes of alliances, calculations, and reversals in fortune are short-handed in the chapter titles: Origins; Conspiracy; Universal Suspicion, Profanation, The Counterpyramid. No sooner does one faction prevail in uncovering sabotage than it is revealed as the masterminds of an even more sinister plot. In Cheops’s court during the era of the Pyramid, you really can’t win. As the Pyramid nears completion, heads roll for allowing the day of reckoning to come. The building is, after all, his tomb.

In our modern lexicon of crimes against humanity, Cheops’s pyramid fits. Or at least, the construction of Cheops’s pyramid fits, just as the expansion of Rome, the erection tower of Babel and the building of the U.S. Congress by African slaves fit.

But Kadare’s tale doesn’t end with the temple’s completion and the Pharaoh’s divine immurement. It ends with bumbling grave-robbers, graffiti on  once sacred walls, and new generations who “wonder whether the pyramids really existed.” In an epilogue, a modern day tourist takes a picture, the negative of which shows not only that the pyramid exists, but that it bears a blemish: “It was not, as he had first thought, a fault in the film. It was a bloodstain that neither water nor acid could ever wash clean.”

Kadare is often compared with Orwell, whose crusade against fascism tended to overshadow his concerns about capitalism – concerns that the Albanian shared, particularly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Kadare is obviously indebted to Kafka, whose own blood-spattered Castle he is clearly rebuilding in his most famous work, The Palace of Dreams. Meanwhile, his affection for parable and the quiet fantastic sometimes associate him with Milan Kundera and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though Kadare dismisses ‘magical realism’ along with ‘political’ and ‘Balkan.’

For me, Kadare’s counterpart is William Golding, who won the Nobel Prize in 1984 because his novels, opined the committee, “with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.”

Perhaps. But I’m only interested, at the moment, in one  novel in particular. It is not his best, but it is the one that contains the seeds of Kadare’s Bridge and Pyramid and completes the ziggurat of parables on my desk. I am interested in the trifecta that has The Spire at its center, the trilogy that  make up their own bespoke section of  a sort of DIY Sorted Library, labeled Building Sites as Crime.

Written in 1964, and taking place two centuries prior to Kadare’s arched-bridge Albania, The Spire is the apocryphal story of the building of an impossibly high cathedral spire. It pits an evangelical visionary against a rational every-man and suggests that the only thing they share is complicity to a murder and lust for the same woman. The cathedral is understood to be Salisbury Cathedral, in view of which Golding himself lived as a school teacher (and in the shadow of which a recent true crime carries on the tradition sacrificing little people on the way to an impossible summit.) Golding, incidentally, also wrote a novel called The Pyramid, but it dwells on the tyranny of the English class structure, not Pharaonic despots.

The Spire’s antihero is Dean Jocelin, whose divine “vision in stone” becomes an obsession. His master builder tries for 200 pages to convince the Dean of the error of his hubris and the folly of the endeavor as the ground beneath the building will not support the spire. Eventually, the builder’s mathematical computation gives way to drink and despair, just as Jocelin’s faith gives way to self-pity, jealousy, and madness.  

In tone and language, there is nothing of The Spire to link it with Kadare’s spare prose and narrative structure. Kadare’s historical parallels to the terror and insecurity of Stalinist paranoia are overt, while humor rises to the surface more subtly, like when a tomb-raider tries to remove the wrappings of a female mummy “to see her cunt.” Golding’s prose, on the other hand, is florid and ephemeral – confused in tense, antecedent, voice and space. Pages fly by in fever dreams of physical activity and mental disruption, both recounted from Jocelin’s unreliable vantage-point. But in its insistent symbolism, The Spire suggests that there is a truth beyond cause and effect and that human choices are somehow less lasting, in the grand scheme of humanity, than mallet, weather and morality. Kadare’s parables are equally fatalistic. The facts speak for themselves – and are subsumed by a higher truth.

There is no happy ending in Golding’s cautionary tale of construction. Not for Jocelyn, not for his folly, not for his Master Builder and not for the woman he loves in God’s name “like a child.” The building of the Spire is uniquely tragic for Pangall, the crippled ward of the cathedral who is buried alive in the foundation pit by a mob of desperate builders who turn out to be as susceptible to superstition as their Dean.

That Jocelin himself – a man who, it is rumored, fancies himself a saint for his raising of a spire to lift the souls of his children to God – is to blame for Pangall’s murder is the most disturbing force undermining the building works.  

Early on, Cheops’s High Priest warns, “The pyramid is the pillar that holds power aloft. If it wavers, everything collapses.” Dean Jocelin knows the same to be true of his spire, when he poses to his Master Builder: “what holds it up? I? The nail? Does she, or do you? Or it is poor Pangall, crouched beneath the crossways, with a sliver of mistletoe between his ribs?” For the increasingly deranged Dean, it is the spire itself that holds us all up. To give up on the spire is to give up on faith, without which there is “confusion, everywhere.”

As for the changing fortunes of the residents along the bank of the Ujana e Keque, it’s the visiting collector of tales with his questions who provides the only cynicism about manmade structures and the power they convey. His analogy is even stranger than I first suggested. The quote at the start of this essay is, in fact, incomplete, in part because the syntax of the omitted final phrase raises further questions about translation, and in part because it introduces a symbol that Kadare does not return to, either in The Three-Arched Bridge nor in The Pyramid, but on which Golding rests his moral crime.  

It is also the linchpin. That is the key to the taxonomy in which these three books live as hard-hat, high-viz crime novellas.

The full passage reads:

“I’m in no way a builder, but I’ve learned something about the subject from working alongside builders. In fact, all great building works resemble crimes, and vice versa crimes resemble …” He laughed. “For me there is no difference between the two. Whenever I find myself in front of columns I can clearly see blood spattering the marble, and the victim might replace a cathedral.”

Elizabeth Kiem is an American author living in London. Her novels include “The Bolshoi Saga,” published by Soho Teen and “Ring Around the Luna,” published by Trapeze Press. She is somewhat obsessed with cathedral spires.