The Not So Modern Novels

May 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Three Novels of Ancient Egypt (Mahfouz, Naguib)

Pharaoh Ahmose I, fighting the Hyksos (Source:

It is pertinent to note that Mahfouz was a young man when he wrote these novels (Khufu’s Wisdom, Rhadopis of Nubia and Thebes at War), between 1938 and 1944, and that he went on to write 40 more, including the acclaimed Cairo Trilogy, and the far more sophisticated (as a historical novel) Akhenaten, reviewed earlier here, en route to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Perhaps Three Novels of Ancient Egypt was the experimental flexing of newfound literary muscles, the means by which a young author discovered the extent of his own powers as a writer.

If the art of the writer of fiction, in final essence, is no different from the ancient art of telling stories, the young Mahfouz excels in this work. He builds up characters, story-lines and suspense as well as anyone ever did, and incorporates mythological devices to embellish the tales that are appropriate for the ancient setting of the stories. An astrologer prophesies doom in the first novel; a Pharaoh, infatuated by a courtesan, abandons his royal and domestic duties  with fatal consequences, in the second; in the third, another Pharaoh falls in forbidden, tortured love with the daughter of an arch-enemy, in the midst of the stirring backdrop of an enslaved nation throwing off its chains and driving away its foreign oppressors. These are not unfamiliar themes, across cultures, and they are competently handled by Mahfouz.

But the art of the novelist is not the same as that of a story-teller, and these are not great “novels” even if they are great stories. As Kundera says, the purpose of a novelist is to ask questions, not to answer them. To be any good, a novel must pose questions, and uncomfortable ones at that, of its readers, questions that force introspection and the discovery of something new (hence the word, novel) about life.

Here, however, even as plotlines merged and separated, and the fates of the protagonists ebbed and flowed forward, I felt I (and Mahfouz himself) were distant observers of the action. He and I were unaffected, uninvolved even – surely his failure as a novelist, and mine, as a reader.

Finally this: I am not trained in literary theory, and so I will say the following with humility and hesitation. At several points in each “novel”, I felt that the medium of a play might have been better suited for Mahfouz’s purpose, so often has he resorted to dramatic dialogue as the mechanism to advance the plot. And while Mahfouz has given us many beautiful lines, like the ones below, the first words of Thebes at War:

The ship made its way up the sacred river, its lotus-crowned prow cleaving the quiet, stately waves that since the ancient days had pressed upon each other’s heels like episodes in the endless stream of time

…he has also written many lines like these, from the same novel:

A sarcastic smile spread over Khayan’s thin lips, concealing his bitter hatred. In an insinuating tone, he said, “As you wish, Governor…”

Surely novelistic tradition demands that the sarcasm, the bitterness, the hatred and the insinuating tone be felt by the reader as a result of the words used, rather than spoon-fed directly by the author? Surely it is only the thinness of the lips that needs explicit mention. As I said, I am no theorist, and I was left slightly dissatisfied with the experience.

Nevertheless, there are positives, of course. Nadine Gordimer, in her excellent introduction in the volume, mentions Milan Kundera‘s comment about novels posing questions, but also quotes Georg Lukacs on the subject of historical novels:

“What matters in the historical novel is not the telling of great historical events, but the poet’s awakening of people who figure in those events. What matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think feel and act just as they did in historical realities.”

While Mahfouz’s Three Novels did not pose too many uncomfortable questions of me, he does breathe very convincing life  into the mummified men and women in Egypt’s history. They aspire, conspire, laugh and weep, just as we would, and for the same things. And if our empathy can extend forty centuries into the past, surely it can span other lands in our own day and age. Perhaps this, after all, is Mahfouz’s message.


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