I just got back from a visit to Egypt to see the see the Pyramids and the other major ancient sites, and while there, I was impressed to see in many of the hotel and airport bookstores and gift shops a respectable sample of works of Arab literature, virtually all of them part of a fine series from the American University in Cairo Press. The largest portion of these books, understandably, was the work of Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s 1988 Nobel Prize winner for literature. In the spirit of all the tombs and temples we were visiting, I decided to give Khufu’s Wisdom, one of Mahfouz’s few books set in ancient Egypt, a try.
First published as a special supplement to a small Cairo literary journal, al-Majalla al-jadida in 1939, Khufu’s Wisdom is, in fact, Mahfouz’s first novel. Although it received several positive reviews, it quickly vanished until his Nobel win inspired a rediscovery of his complete oeuvre. In truth, completeness is probably the single best reason for bringing Khufu’s Wisdom back to print and for its able translation into English by Raymond Stock in 2003.
The story in Khufu’s Wisdom is like something out of an opera: a switch of infants, mistaken identities, a stalwart young man rising to shining excellence against all odds, and love overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The writing, on the other hand, is a long way from the realism that characterizes Mahfouz’s works in more modern settings. Take this passage, in which cadets at the Pharaoh’s military academy compete in games of skill:
Suddenly there raced out from among them a rider who sped past them all with preternatural power, who moved so quickly that they seemed to be standing still. He was headed for victory right until the end, when the trainer again announced the name of the winner–”Djedef son of Bisharu.” Again, the cheers rose for him, and this time the clapping was even stronger.
Next the crier proclaimed that it was time for the steeplechase. Once more the officers mounted their horses, as wooden benches, whose height gradually increased one after another, were set up in the midst of the long field. With the blast of the horn, the horses bounded forward abruptly, flying over the first obstacle like attacking eagles. They leapt over the second like the waves of a ferocious waterfall, clear victory seeming to crown them as they progressed. But fortune betrayed most of them. … Only one horseman cleared all the hurdles as though he were an inexorable Fate, the embodiment of conquest. The crier called out his name, “Djedef son of Bisharu,” to the crowd’s huge praise and applause.
Our hero, Djedef, goes on to win all the contests and is appointed by the Pharaoh’s crown prince to a trusted post in the palace guards. Soon after, Djedef, Algy, and Ginger fend off a Nazi plot to bomb the … sorry, I got my one-dimensional heroes a little mixed up there.
Mahfouz was 28 when he published Khufu’s Wisdom, so we can’t consider it as juvenilia, but I personally find it hard to consider it literature, either. The narrative, it’s true, has plenty of momentum: it took me about two hours to finish this book, and I’m usually a slow reader. Mahfouz did have to sacrifice characterization and atmosphere for speed, though. Rambo is positively nuanced compared to anyone in this novel. What Khufu’s Wisdom most reminded me of was the Stalinist epic, “The Fall of Berlin”, in which the stalwart Stakhanovite worker, Alexei, beats all steel production records, wins the “All-Soviet Worker” award from gentle, wise Comrade Stalin, then single-handedly defeats the Nazis and wins the hand of his beloved Natasha. Only in Khufu’s Wisdom, our hero winds up Pharaoh in the end. I don’t think Stalin would have let ol’Alexei take over as Party Chairman.
Despite these shortcomings, Khufu’s Wisdom is now readily available in three different editions: in hardback from the American University in Cairo Press; in paperback from Anchor Books; and in a fine compilation with Mahfouz’s two other early novels set in ancient Egypt, Rhadopis of Nubia and Thebes at War, from Everyman’s Library.