Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Egyptian

The Egyptian (1945) by Mika Waltari tells the fantastic tale of Sinuhe, an Egyptian physician whose life rises and falls like the waters of the river Nile during the tumultuous 14th century BC.  It is a time of great upheaval, with a newly crowned pharaoh forcing a radically different monotheistic religion on the Egyptian empire.  We all know that sort of thing usually turns out...

Sinuhe himself narrates the events of the novel, which opens with him being found in a reed boat on the banks of the river by a poor couple.  Sinuhe follows in the footsteps of his adopted father and trains as a physician.  Just as he is coming of age, the old pharoah, Amenhotep III, falls deathly ill.  Through a chance encounter while tending the dying ruler, he is introduced to the boy who will become the pharaoh Akhenaton and a relationship is forged that will change Sinuhe's life, and indeed all of Egypt, forever.

Despite achieving material success as a physician of great renown in Egypt, Sinuhe is not happy with his life and sets out on a journey around the known world.  Sinuhe's wanderings lead him to visit several of the other civilizations flourishing in the Mediterranean at the time, including Syria, Babylon, and Crete.  He is even so bold as to venture into land of the Hittites, Egypt's main rival for power during the period.  Of course, he has many hair-raising adventures along the way and even manages to fall in love.  He eventually returns to Thebes, where he plays a crucial part in the great drama that is the Egypt of his day.

Waltari has written the novel in a style that is certainly evocative of an ancient tale, though its insights into humanity are timeless.  The character of Sinuhe is entirely believable--sometimes acting foolishly or cruel, at other times wisely and with great kindness.  In short, he is every man. Through his eyes, we see the entire gamut of the human experience from the extreme cruelty of warfare to the heartfelt love of a found soul mate.  His wry, dispassionate observations about his own behavior and that of others are the great strength of The Egyptian and certainly spoke to me.  It is not a novel that I will soon forget!

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