Literature / The Egyptian

"During my life I have seen, known, and lost too much to be the prey of vain dread; and, as for the hope of immortality, I am as weary of that as I am of gods and kings. For my own sake only I write this; and herein I differ from all other writers, past and to come."

The Egyptian (or Sinuhe the Egyptian) is a historical novel by Mika Waltari first published in Finnish in 1945. It details the life-story of an Egyptian doctor named Sinuhe, and his interactions with others during the turbulent reign of Akhenaton during the 18th dynasty.

The story is told via the Framing Device of Sinuhe writing down his memoirs; as this clever device allows for plenty of room for doubts as to his reliability, the novel is an impressive example of combining both Shown Their Work and Science Marches On: Much of what Waltari writes was considered the best historical knowledge of his day, although much has also been reevaluated by modern historians. The main character of the book is named for the protagonist of a story called The Story of Sinuhe who overhears a secret and has to leave Egypt. The parallels to the protagonist of the novel is noted by characters inside the story.

Sinuhe's story begins when he is found floating down the Nile in a reed boat; he grows up to become a doctor and in the process meets and befriends the Pharaoh, Akhenaton, as well as the general, Horemheb. After losing all his possessions to a woman he escapes into exile, where he spends his time spying and learning in various foreign lands. In Babylon he meets and sets free a woman named Minea destined for human sacrifice on Crete; after her death Sinuhe returns to Egypt and becomes embroiled in the conflict between the Pharaoh Akhenaton with his new god Aton and the old church of Ammon. Eventually Sinuhe poisons his friend the Pharaoh, and Horemheb becomes the true ruler of Egypt, although first under a succession of puppet-rulers. Finally Sinuhe confronts Horemheb over his various misdeeds and is sent into exile, where he writes down his life's story.

Sadly, the only English language version available of the novel is an abridged version, which cuts the original 900+ page novel down to 500+ pages. The complete novel has been translated unabridged to several other languages though.

The novel was made into a 1954 20th Century Fox film starring Edmund Purdom as Sinuhe, Michael Wilding as Akenaton, Bella Darvi as Nefer, Jean Simmons as Merit, and Victor Mature as Horemheb; Peter Ustinov does his usual scene-stealing as Kapteh. It is hard to believe that this rather ponderous movie was directed by Michael Curtiz, the director of Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and Casablanca. Nevertheless, it has a memorable score by Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman. Marilyn Monroe apparently auditioned for the role of Nefer. The movie has some substantial differences from the novel.

This work provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Ancient Egypt: Duh
  • Anachronism Stew: The term "Pharaoh" was not used contemporaneously for a ruler until 1200 BC, over a hundred years after the time of Akhenaten.
  • Anti-Hero: Sinuhe, at best.
  • Beware the Honest Ones: Akhenaton.
    "The Pharaoh claims to live of the truth, not realizing that the truth is a knife in the hands of a small child."
  • Cartwright Curse: Sinuhe, again.
  • Charm Person: It is noted that Akhenaton can make people see the world the way he does. Horemheb notes that if it were possible just to bring everyone in the world to the Pharaoh so that he could talk to them the world might be changed. In a Crowning Moment of Funny we later hear that he'd actually made calculations for trying to achieve this.
  • The Confidant: Kaptah is rather this for Sinuhe than a slave.
  • Corrupt Church: The church of Ammon.
    • Saintly Church: The church of Aton. A deconstruction in that the novel asks the question of which one is worse.
  • Crapsack World: The Aesop of the story ends on the somewhat existentialist note that you really can't change anything but your own attitude, that people are corrupt and weak, and that the only person who really wished everyone well is completely incapable of grasping this fact, which just ends up making things worse.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance AND Values Resonance: Waltari has a lot of fun with this.
  • Devoted to You: Horemheb to princess Baketamon.
  • Doorstopper: The book has over 900 pages and it is often published in two volumes.
  • Downer Ending: At the conclusion, all of Sinuhe's actions end up crushing his dreams, leaving him in bitter exile.
  • Everybody Has Lots of Sex: While the novel is tame by today's standards, a colleague of Waltari was shocked by the high amount of erotic content in it and tried to prevent the book's release.
  • Femme Fatale: Nefer.
  • Framing Device
  • Grey and Grey Morality
  • Happiness in Slavery: Kaptah is often nostalgic for the days when he was Sinuhe's slave, although he notes that in part this was because being a slave he could move around without being noticed, and that Sinuhe usually left him to his own devices anyway.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Horemheb.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Sinuhe has a really bad one, when Minea dies. It hit him so hard, that he actually sank into an alcoholic, self-harming, nearly suicidal depression for several months, before Kaptah gives him some Epiphany Therapy
    Overall I was deeply bored with Kaptah during these days, because he served me food constantly even if I wasn't hungry and all I would have wanted was wine. You see, I had a constant thirst, a thirst that only wine could ease — I tried to explain this to Kaptah, but he didn't listen to me at all, and ordered me to rest and keep my eyes closed so I could relax. However, I was completely calm in my mind and cold blooded like a dead fish in a barrel of oil — That's why I didn't want to close my eyes at all and I tried to take my cane so I could hit him, but my arm was so weak, that he only wrenched it out of my hand — He also hid my excellent knife - the one that I had got as a gift from the Hethic dockhand - so I couldn't find it when I would've gladly seen the blood flowing from my veins.
  • Historical Fiction
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Kaptah was worth less on the slave market for being half-blind, but turns out to be extremely useful.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: Or rather Ironic Nursery Fairytale. During their "dating" Nefer tells Sinuhe a story of a man who sacrifices everything to his loved one, including killing his wife and children and as a punishment he gets thrown into a red hot, steaming oven. Later on, Sinuhe gives Nefer everything he has when trying to win her love. This also includes his family's house and later his parent's tomb when they die in the streets as beggars. And the red hot, steaming oven is his own guilt when he realizes what he has done
  • Karma Houdini: Two people end up making it in the book: one is a rapist, the other a ruthless "Greed Is Good" kind of capitalist. Everyone else is either dead or in exile. Nefernefernefer also qualifies. While Sinuhe has her imprisoned in the House of the Dead she charms her captors, turns them against each other and escapes with greater riches than she had before.
  • Light Is Not Good: In a twist, both Aton and Ammon are explained using light-imagery.
  • Love Makes You Dumb. Sinuhe with Nefernefernefer is a glaring example of this.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Or eviler in Horemhotep's case.
  • Loveable Rogue: Kaptah - by the end of the book he could arguably be called the only "loveable" character.
  • Love Freak: Akhenaton is a deconstructed example, although in a more subdued manner than most.
  • Love Martyr: Nefer uses Sinuhe, Baketamon abuses Horemheb.
  • Magic Realism: While it's mostly a straight historical drama there are elements like the blood stancher, whose mere presence can stop a wound from flowing, the Cretan god and the cures that Ammon's priests perform for Sinuhe that qualify as this.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Many — e.g., Ay, Horemheb, Kaptah, Nefer...
  • Modern Major General: Pepitamon, one of Ankhenaton's generals, who is an excellent breeder of cats.
  • Necessarily Evil: Everything Horemhotep does, except for his marital rape of Baketamon, is done to preserve Egypt from the external threat of it's enemies and/or the internal threat of his deluded Stupid Good Pharoah.
  • Never Mess with Granny: In the film, Judith Evelyn as Queen Mother Taia.
  • Rightful King Returns: Averted; the heir to the throne ends up in exile, and the commoner Horemheb becomes pharaoh.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Beautiful!: Nefer never misses a chance to take advantage of men's lust for her.
  • Side Kick: Kaptah
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: FAR, far on the cynical end of the scale.
  • That Poor Cat: Nefer's, in the film. A Persian with a huge heavy coat. In Egypt. When Sinuhe is advancing on Nefer to kill her, the cat yowls and leaps from her arms.
  • The Vamp: Nefer.
    • Kind of a subversion, because she actually warns Sinuhe, that if he falls for her, she will eventually demolish everything he holds dear. But, being young and stupid, Sinuhe ignores the warnings.
    • Say My Name: She is usually referred to as Nefernefernefer because "No man can resist, saying my name just once." It doesn't help that the world Nefer can mean "beautiful."
      • And also "good". Oh, dear.
  • Undying Loyalty: Kaptah for Sinuhe, Sinuhe for Pharaoh, and Pharaoh for Aton, most prominently. Unfortunately it really only goes well for Kaptah.
  • Villains Never Lie: Nefer is perfectly honest about her intent to use Sinuhe and then discard him.
    • Which is perhaps one of the more obvious points where it becomes clear that we're dealing with an Unreliable Narrator.
  • Virgin Sacrifice: In a play on the story of The Minotaur Minea is to be sacrificed to the Cretan God... only God Is Dead and rather than being sacrificed, she is killed to keep this a secret. Yeah, it's that kind of story.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist/Knight Templar: Ahknaton manages to qualify as both.