The Book that Dwells on the Truth

February 6, 2010 § 2 Comments


One of the ‘invisible cities’ that Calvino describes in his book of the same name is located on the shores of an ocean, at the edge of a vast desert. It is shaped, he tells us, in a curious way. Travellers approaching it by land think it is shaped like a ship; sailors steaming into its harbour swear it looks like a camel. Perhaps Naguib Mahfouz can be described similarly. He is, after all, the best-known Egyptian writer in the west, and as he is also the only one I’ve read, he symbolizes Egypt, to me, in all its exotic mystique. But equally, if this book is anything to go by, he must simultaneously represent Western thought to his Egyptian audience. For Akhenaten is the product of the 20th century West, as much as it is of Egypt.

Bust of Akhenaten, Cairo Museum, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trends and fashions in western art have closely followed advances in science over the last few centuries. Paintings that originally depicted narratives from myth and religion started depicting scenes closer home in the 19th century, as novels followed their protagonists from event to action to consequences, and science told a stern and sterile tale of cause and effect, training its telescope not on the heavens as it earlier used to, but on more worldly matters concerning steam and electricity. Dickens and Balzac wrote not about – or for – kings, but about society at large. Science grew ever more obsessed with explaining the reality of here and now; as did painters, whose subjects became real people, with real warts, tics, adam’s apples, small businesses and money to pay for a portrait; and Madame Bovary exploded into life to prove that even petit-bourgeouis lives can be the subject of art. At the turn of the century, science then swapped its telescope for a microscope, in order to stare fixedly at a single atom, confident that this introspection would unlock the ultimate secrets of reality; impressionist art froze time to a single instant; Proust‘s hero immersed himself in reflection and nostalgia; and the world held its breath.

But, of course, as we know, out of all this came not the certainty of universal knowledge, but the ravages of a savage internecine war of ambiguous moral positions, and the infinitely uncomfortable questions posed by Einstein and Heisenberg. Picasso immediately declared that things should be shown from multiple viewpoints, and art was never the same again. Moral ambiguity and multiple perspectives were depicted by Lawrence Durrell in his novel, The Alexandria Quartet, and in cinema by Akira Kurosawa in Rashomon – and it is now well established in Western culture that absolute knowledge died a violent death when time and space became relative.

Other cultures, however, have never shared the West’s obsession with precision in Time and Space, and they define absolute knowledge in very different terms. The phrase has always had mystical connotations in eastern tradition. Orhan Pamuk mentions, in his novel ‘My Name is Red‘, that medieval Islamic miniature art lacked realism and perspective, not because the artists were not expert enough to depict it, but because they believed that it would be sacrilegious to do so, that it would be too close to perfect representation of reality not to offend God.

It is in this sense that Mahfouz’s novel is a product of the 20th century West, even though it is set in Egypt, in the 14th century before Christ. Mahfouz tracks the life and death of Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti and heretical Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, who preached a radical monotheism until he was driven from the throne by a scandalized clergy. Mahfouz employs the postmodern technique of a single truth-seeking narrator who meets a dozen or so contemporaries and relatives of the dead Pharaoh, one after another. Each character gives an account of the same few events in Akhenaten’s life, from his or her own perspective. As the story unfolds, the reader gets to understand Akhenaten, and each of the characters, extremely well, from what they said about him, about themselves, about each other, and even from what they omitted to mention that others did.

I must mention, in closing, that it is not the objective of the novel to shed light on exactly what took place. Western readers, with their particular understanding of knowledge and history, may feel cheated by the fact that what starts off sounding like a murder mystery does not end in an arrest or even an accusation. But if I understand Mahfouz right, I think he would say in defence, that it is a man’s character that is worthy of knowledge, and of immortality in human memory. The truth about events is unimportant. Events occur once, and are blown away like footprints in the desert sand, by the Khamsin winds of time.

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