Monday, June 11, 2007

Khufu's Wisdom, by Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz is known as one of the preeminent modern writers, but his first novel was written at the very young age of 27. As a result, Khufu's Wisdom reads more like a screenplay than a true novel. The story revolves around several characters, primarily a pharaoh attempting to avoid being replaced. As in much of Middle Eastern literature (Hebrew saying: "Man plans, God laughs"), a battle between the Fates and humanity begins, with the pharaoh attempting to avoid his fate only to see that his own actions, without his knowledge, lead to fate having its way.

My primary issue with the novel is its disjointed style. Even so, I can see why the author eventually won the Nobel Prize--check out this beautiful passage:

Sennefer yawned again, then closed his eyes. Djedef stared at him in the feeble lamplight with eyes clouded by misery. When he was sure that Sennefer had surrendered to sleep, he moaned to himself in torment. Shunning his bed and feeling an intense unrest, he grew weary, and tiptoed out of the room. The air was moist, with a chilling breeze, and the night black as pitch. In the darkness, the date palms looked like slumbering ghosts, or souls whose tortures stretched through eternity.

In many other places, however, the writing seems perfect for a Frank Miller movie: "May the Divine Ra, Shaper of the Universe and Creator of life, bless you...[but] the Fates are making mock as is their wont and have conjured a male child." And, "Are you truly the majestic princess? Be a simple peasant girl--for a peasant girl lost is nearer to the heart than a princess found."

I have not read any of Mahfouz's other books, but I would recommend reading something else. Khufu's Wisdom was Mahfouz's first step on the path of greatness, but shows him in his unpolished glory.

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