Friday, May 21, 2010

Akhenaten by Naguib Mahfouz

Read in March 2010.

Akhenaten, Pharaoh of Egypt, husband of the fabled Nefertiti, questioned the polytheistic beliefs of his people, proposing instead, the worship of a single God.

Nobel laureate Mahfouz’s eponymous novel is set in Akhenaten's Egypt, a few years after his passing. Queen Nefertiti is still living out her remaining years in (presumably bitter) isolation, when a young man with a passion for truth attempts to puzzle out the enigma of the now discredited Akhenaten. Armed with introductions to the Egyptian elite, he conducts a series of interviews, which form the book.

Mahfouz, who hails from Egypt, is regarded as one of the first writers of contemporary Arabic literature. In this novel he has used a piece of ancient Egyptian history to illustrate the vilification of new thinkers by the orthodox establishment in any culture. Indeed Akhenaten’s spiritual journey, shown by his move to monotheism and an incipient rejection of idolatry seems to be towards the modern Arabic-Islamic ideal. The irony of his beliefs being termed not only heretical but also somehow awful will not be lost on a reader. On the surface, we could sympathize with the man who suffered for his faith. But by rendering the book through the very men who brought him down, the author introduces another element. Mahfouz, it seems, would set us on the path of religious tolerance by placing the all too recognizable language of dogma and power in the mouths and hands of a different and antagonistic orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, the brilliance is all in the construct. The book reads like a dry government report and offers no insights. In fact even the development of Nefertiti as yet another figure worthy of investigation is uninspired. I wondered if the fact that I belong to a pantheistic religion made me unsympathetic! And I was not comfortable with the literary license that has been taken with the history.

The sub-text of tolerance on the other hand is never lost on the reader, so many times are we bludgeoned by it. But as a device to make you want to know more about Ancient Egypt, it succeeds.