Three Novels of Ancient Egypt: Khufu’s Wisdom, Rhadopis of Nubia, Thebes at War

Written by Naguib Mahfouz
Review by Adelaida Lower

Go figure. Just when you think you know the rules of historical fiction—pitfalls to avoid such as anachronisms, being moralistic, or threading plots with unbelievable coincidences—along comes a writer such as Naguib Mahfouz, who, without much solemnity, casually pulverizes the aforesaid set of laws. What would cripple other writing is peppered across the pages of Three Novels of Ancient Egypt, the earliest published work of the Egyptian writer and 1988 Nobel Prize winner. Only here it doesn’t matter. The lyrical strength and seductive power of this master craftsman’s prose is such that the reader becomes the proverbial snake caught in the hypnotic melody of a cunning charmer.

The three novellas of this volume are, in Nadine Gordimer’s words, an example of Mahfouz’s “nascent brilliance.” (By the way, read the introduction after the novels, as Gordimer gives the plots away.) Written in the thirties, shortly after Mahfouz graduated from Cairo University, they give a taste of Mahfouz’s later style and interests. True to his Arab heritage, he is fatalistic, ironic, and deeply philosophical. In the first piece, Pharaoh Khufu, an able and seemingly wise monarch, is prompted by a sorcerer’s foresight to start a war against the Fates. What will he not do to hang on to power? The second work is a cautionary tale in which a reckless young king falls for the courtesan Rhadopis, a seductive femme fatale. Their ill-fated passionate affair arouses the hate of the people. The third novella has the grandeur and majesty of an epic. In it the exiled grandson of a murdered ruler ofThebes seeks to liberate his ancestral land, crushed under the colonial rule of Hyksos. In the three stories, Mahfouz numbs you with descriptions that are sensual and intimate. He beguiles you with sparks of genius in the charming conversations between his characters. And if, here and there, there is an inept metaphor, or if cataclysmic events call for characters turning on a dime, by Ptah they do. And, somehow mysteriously, the faux pas is expunged and instantly forgotten.

So there you have it. It is true. Rules apply to the lesser breed of writers. The great ones, even in their tender years, can thumb their noses at you, and cackle. And you, poor sucker, you. You just love it.

Adelaida Lower