The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips, Read by Gianfranco Negroponte, Simon Prebble, Gerard Doyle, and Bianca Mato, Recorded Books LLC, 2004
Loathe as I was to read yet another crap Eco rip-off historical mystery-thriller, when Arthur Phillips’ The Egyptologist fell into my hands I gladly gave it a go. Having always loved mysterious Egypt as a child fan of mummies (or more precisely old black and white mummy horror movies) and having an abiding love for this much-abused genre, I was too tempted not to. Much marketing and previous criticism had led me to the conclusion that Dan Brown had competitors and to all appearances that was indeed this novel’s niche. Much to my surprise, it was completely enjoyable in a smart, funny way that evoked not Eco and the style of cryptic hidden arcana matter, but more the notions of class and the understated humor of Evelyn Waugh circa The Loved One and Scoop.
Written as a collection of documents consisting of letters, cables, diary entries, and blatant forgeries from the 1920s, The Egyptologist follows two separate story lines that come together in most amusing fashion. The first is from the collection of papers of Margaret Finneran, the second a series of letters from an aged Australian detective, Harold Ferrell. Both circle around one man, the eponymous Egyptologist, Ralph M. Trillapush, though the second takes a long time getting to there. The first are his letters and assorted book notes for a proposed volume on his discovery of the tomb of the possibly only legendary last pharaoh King Atum-Hadu. (The name is one of the many jokes salted throughout the novel, the name meaning “Atum is aroused” in reference to the Egyptian myth of creation.)
The book begins with two letters alluding to back-stories, which is an intriguing gambit. We start at the end of the story, as it were, but the end as it is faked and as it is ridiculously misremembered and botched. Slowly stories unfold by returning to their separate beginnings, but the novel is well-rewarded by the reader returning to its opening pages after finishing its closing ones and reading just the first two parts again. In fact, I hazard to suggest that the book would well repay a second reading once the secrets are made obvious, a number of delightful jokes making themselves more apparent in retrospect.
Ferrell reminisces on how tracking down the various descendants of an impregnating Johnny Appleseed sailor, Mr. Barnabas Davies led him to a murder, a crime he attributes to various individuals at points in his investigation (for which he racks up an impressive and hysterical number of clients, double-, triple-, and quadruple-billing parties for essentially the same missing persons case). This story is more tangential, as the Australian’s search for the heir leads him to Australian communists, London, New York, Boston, and finally Egypt. It takes a considerable amount of time for his story to catch up in perfect chronology with the other story, the bulk of the novel, the letters and diaries of Trillapush. No doubt made a bit obvious at times, Ferrell is a stunningly obtuse detective and the enigma he chases becomes evident quite early on to the reader which would be a flaw if the book were an aping of Eco. As the two stories further intertwine, we discover the novel is less about long-forgotten esoterica but about the ways in which we deceive ourselves and allow ourselves to be deceived.
If that doesn’t become crystal clear during Ferrell’s plot, Trillapush’s leaves no question. In this part of the story we watch through letters and cables the slow dance that ends the engagement of Trillapush to heiress Margaret Finneran and we note how both parties lie to each other (lies great and small) and lie to themselves. The various exposures of these lies are at times comical and at times a bit touching. If there is a flaw in this as a satirical work it’s the most common flaw, that there isn’t a sufficiently sympathetic character on which to peg the reader, there isn’t an innocent amidst deception and human vileness by which readers orient themselves.
Trillapush, funded by Margaret’s father, sets off to find the mythical tomb of Atum-Hadu and begins his searches just as Howard Carter is poised to make international news with his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. He is the author of a translation of hieroglyph pornography supposed to be by the fabled king and this conceit allows the author to devilishly mock competing translations of the verse as well as Victorian moralism. Trillapush’s notes contain this sample from Atum-hadu’s first translator, F. Wright Harriman, described as “typical of the Victorian moralist, he deemed nothing worth finding that did not bear the lavender scent of uplift.”
A beauty’s gaze and touch
Can rain down joy or sorrow
In equal measure.
This is then followed by the French translator Jean-Micheal Vassal’s more Baudelairian eroticisms, described as “mild titillations suitable for murmuring to ladies in the privacy of Parisian boudoirs, but not so forthright as to have the translator prosecuted by the touchy French authorities.”
When my Queen examines me
Her gaze is as potent as her touch,
Exciting here the most delicious frissons
There the most excruciating torments.
And finally his own “translated correctly and published as Desire and Deceit in Ancient Egypt, Collins Amorous Literature, 1920): ‘Pleasure Through Pain.’”
Atum-hadu’s sweet lover
Strokes the royal member first with her eyes
Then with her claws, until they tear
And make bleed the rigid sceptre of his power, and he sighs.
Most of the humor found throughout the book is of this same elusive quality, neither broad outright laughs nor the curldled zing of Waugh’s satire (though these lines, “In short, Bev, I am being blackmailed into tutoring an antipodal, autodidact, widower, criminally inclined, would-be-Egyptologist. Surely you know the type, an old story” did elicit an aloud “Ha!”). Yet it is quite clearly to that English master that the book most evidently harkens with its restrained wit, its timeframe, and its prosely poetic style. As a second novel, Phillips’ work clearly demonstrates a man sure of his gifts, willing to take a few literary risks, an intellectual capable of writing smart works without being stuffy and pedantic, a sly satirist, and a talent worth watching.
The four narrators who make up the story are all immensely talented and deliver aptly. Simon Prebble gives us the assumed upper crust snobbery of Trillapush, Negroponte has the sharp Aussie accent of his character, while the others make up only a small portion of the work. It is becoming more and more fashionable for multiply threaded novels to have multiple narrators, approaching to theatricals. While this can be a pleasure and provide a decent contrast, as it did in this volume, it can be used when unnecessary as in Naughty or Nice. From consulting my print copy for quotes, I see this audio device is a mirror to the print version in which a myriad of typefaces is present to make clear to the reader exactly who is speaking. That’s a shame and almost insulting after the refreshingly intelligent humor of the book, a kind of digital age patronization, and one can only hope that this was a publishing, not authorial, decision.