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Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth by Naguib…
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Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth (1985)

by Naguib Mahfouz

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Showing 5 of 5
This is a slight, slim work, in more ways than one. Only 168 pages and very spare in style, I read this novella in little more than two hours, but I didn't feel it had much impact--it felt too lightweight to me. Akhenaten has been called the first monotheist--he's a terribly important historical figure and Ancient Egypt is to me a fascinating culture. Naguib Mahfouz for his part is a celebrated author--a Nobel Prize Winner. So I'm surprised I only liked this rather than loved it.

I think it's something in how he frames the tale, for all that it's not all that simple, and does draw you into the questions of what is the truth, it kept me at a distance. It's framed as the first person account of a young Egyptian, Meriamun, who, seeing the haunting ruins of the "city of the heretic" is moved to go among those who can still remember Akhenaten, and ask them to tell their stories. Although from time to time we get his impression of those he interviews, the novel is largely taken up with the different accounts of people as told to him years after the fact. That means I never felt truly immersed in what happens.

That doesn't mean that the approach doesn't have its fascinations. We get the views of those who hated the heretic pharaoh--the high priest of Amun, a neglected wife in his harem, his sister-in-law, and so obviously are they filled with malice, it's easy to dismiss their accounts of Akhenaten as "perverse," "mad" and "weak." It's also easy to accept much of what we're told by those who loved him, particularly since there is no benefit to them now to show any devotion to the dead heretic. They describe him as brilliant, "sweet" and a "noble soul."

Even so, there are aspects of this composite portrait that don't ring true to me, and make me wonder at Mahfouz's intentions. Mahfouz was himself a believing Muslim, one who spoke up for peace. So in painting this portrait of this man who believes in the "one and only God"--a god of "love, peace, and joy" I can imagine he sees in Akhenaten a forerunner of Muhammad.

But this I'm sure of--you can't ban religions other than your own, and have peace. And you can't be a ruler of an empire without force. You can't build an entire new city in a short space as Akhenaten did without forced labor and heavy taxes. I know of too many times in history where regimes have tried to force radical changes on the way of life of millions in the name of high ideals--whether it be Revolutionary France or Mao's "Great Leap Forward," they've all led to plenty of bloodshed. So the picture of this radical yet pacifistic pharaoh doesn't make sense to me. There's a great panoply of portraits of Akhenaten here--and I'm not sure I believe in any of them--something feels left out. Although maybe that's Mahfouz's intention. ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Jan 12, 2012 |
This a wonderful (if a little short) tale of the reign of Akhenaten, told by those closest to him to a scribe in search of the truth. It shines the light on a period about which we know many isolated facts, but the whole truth remains a mystery. It's also a pointed reminder that "the truth" is never black and white, but dependent on our own perspectives and prejudices.

This is the first book by Naguib Mahfouz that I've read. His prose is elegantly simple and effective, and the translation (thankfully) does it justice. Highly recommended if you have any interest in Egypt's history.
3 vote tessavance | Sep 30, 2008 |
I liked and didn't like this book. Maybe something got lost in translation, but I don't think that's the only reason I found it a bit flat.

I like the format: interview all the main players, and some minor ones, who surrounded the "heretic" Pharaoh Akhenaten during his rule and downfall. Each tells the story from his or her viewpoint, and soon the reader realizes that almost every narrator is colouring the story to make him or herself look good. You begin to read subsequent narrations sceptically, and start trying to piece together the "real" story. This is Mahfouz's intention: to let the reader decide whose version is "right."

This "tailoring" of the story is most clear in the stories of the political players -- characters like the High Priest of Amun, or Horemhab, or Ay. If the reader knows that both Ay and Horemhab (or Horemheb) became Pharaohs in their turn after Tutankhamun died, the eyebrows are raised pretty high at these men's protestation of devotion to Akhenaten, and their claims that they only abandoned him to save his life and save the kingdom.

Meanwhile, the ones who don't seem to tailor their story are the fervent believers. Toto, a priest of Amun who infiltrated Akhenaten's court, couldn't care less how he comes across; he's just so sure of his own righteousness that he barrels along, spewing hatred with every breath. Meri-Ra, who had been high priest of Akhenaten's god, still believes in that god. This is potentially dangerous, so one suspects that he, too, is being honest. The reader feels that these two, at least, might give some clue to the "real" story, if only their accounts can be reconciled.

The blurb on the book claims that "Akhenaten emerges as a charismatic enigma," but in fact it is Nefertiti whose role is most intriguing. Every narrator has an opinion about her, positive or negative, and opinions about her faith or lack of it, her fidelity or lack of it, and so on. Every narrator acknowledges that she was very politically astute, but everything else is left open. More and more, the reader looks forward to the final interview, with Nefertiti herself.

And here's where I had the problem. Meri-Ra, Akhenaten's hight priest, tells the interviewer, "You did not start this journey for no reason." I expected that not only would there be some climax of informtion during the interview with Nefertiti, but that we would learn something pertinent about the interviewer himself. I actually suspected we might find out that he was Moses (even though the timeline would have been somewhat off).

Yet nothing happened. Nefertiti, like all the others, told her story, made herself look good, and didn't resolve anything or bring up any intriguing twist to make the reader rethink anything. So the entire book was narration. stop. narration. stop. narration. stop. final stop. The exercise was interesting, to watch so many people describe the same events so differently. But in the end, it just dropped flat. ( )
2 vote kashicat | Jun 29, 2008 |
I started this book a little reluctantly; I've never been one of those who are fascinated by the heretic pharaoh, and The Egyptian turned me off silly imagined reconstructions of the period.

I was pleasantly surprised at my instant involvement in this story of a young scribe who seeks out & interviews the main players of the Amarna age. Mahfouz obviously researched the period intensely, and his ancient Egyptians are believable. The contrasting voices of his characters make this a delightful read.

There was only one, forgivable error - the Egyptians went to great lengths to erase the memory of Akhenaton - deserting his city, removing him (and the following two kings) from the lists of Egypt's kings, defacing his tomb, and removing his name wherever they could find it engraved. It isn't credible that a proper Egyptian father would encourage his son to dig the story up and record it for posterity. Still, without that, there would be no story, and that would have been a terrible shame. I'm sure I'll return to this book several times. ( )
  Cynara | May 1, 2008 |
The story of this heretic's life, told through the voices of those who knew him -- given the fact that so little is known, the author has structured an interesting portrait.
1 vote tgsalter | Jul 9, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385499094, Paperback)

From the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and author of the Cairo trilogy, comes Akhenaten, a fascinating work of fiction about the most infamous pharaoh of ancient Egypt.

In this beguiling new novel, originally published in 1985 and now appearing for the first time in the United States, Mahfouz tells with extraordinary insight the story of the "heretic pharaoh," or "sun king,"--and the first known monotheistic ruler--whose iconoclastic and controversial reign during the 18th Dynasty (1540-1307 B.C.) has uncanny resonance with modern sensibilities.   Narrating the novel is a young man with a passion for the truth, who questions the pharaoh's contemporaries after his horrible death--including Akhenaten's closest friends, his most bitter enemies, and finally his enigmatic wife, Nefertiti--in an effort to discover what really happened in those strange, dark days at Akhenaten's court.  As our narrator and each of the subjects he interviews contribute their version of Akhenaten, "the truth" becomes increasingly evanescent.  Akhenaten encompasses all of the contradictions his subjects see in him: at once cruel and empathic, feminine and barbaric, mad and divinely inspired, his character, as Mahfouz imagines him, is eerily modern, and fascinatingly ethereal.  An ambitious and exceptionally lucid and accessible book, Akhenaten is a work only Mahfouz could render so elegantly, so irresistibly.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:01:02 -0400)

Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz tells with remarkable insight the story of the "heretic" pharaoh whose iconoclastic and controversial career has much resonance with modern sensibilities. Years after the king's death, a young man with a passion for the truth questions the pharaoh's contemporaries in an effort to discover how he really died.… (more)

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