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Originally published Friday, December 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Ancient Egypt shrouded in intrigue, passion

Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz is best known for "The Cairo Trilogy," his saga about a modern Egyptian family living under British colonial...

Seattle Times book critic

"Khufu's Wisdom"
by Naguib Mahfouz,
translated by Raymond Stock
Anchor, 220 pp., $12.95

"Rhadopis of Nubia"
by Naguib Mahfouz,
translated by Anthony Calderbank
Anchor, 228 pp., $12

"Thebes at War"
by Naguib Mahfouz,
translated by Humphrey Davies
Anchor, 242 pp., $12.95

Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz is best known for "The Cairo Trilogy," his saga about a modern Egyptian family living under British colonial rule between the two world wars. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that his first three novels — published in Arabic in 1939, 1943 and 1944 — were set in Ancient Egypt.

In their pages, Mahfouz moves deftly between grand spectacle and behind-the-scenes intrigue, between lofty rhetoric and deflating remark, as he immerses you in a world where Egypt was the only reality and everything else was mere rumor. All three books are now available in a uniform Anchor edition. Yet each is quite different in character.

"Khufu's Wisdom" portrays the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, but it focuses only partly on the building of that landmark. Instead, the book is about a king trying to outwit fate — and, in doing so, making exactly the moves that play into fate's hands.

Khufu, told by a seer that none of his descendents will sit on his throne, orders the death of the baby who the (remarkably accurate) fortuneteller says will be next king of Egypt. But a last-minute ruse thwarts the murder of the child.

The pleasure of the novel then comes from seeing how the gifted young boy draws closer and closer to Khufu's throne — until, through his talents, charm and virtue, he is poised to become his successor.

Deception, romance and a hunger for status all play a role here. So does the ruthlessness of a monarch who believes at first that "the acts of kings are like those of gods — cloaked in the robe of villainy, yet, in their essence, they are actually celestial wisdom." By book's end, he's seeing things differently.

The other two novels rely less heavily on coincidence. "Thebes at War" concerns Egypt's efforts to win back its land from the invading Hyksos, a Semitic people who occupied its northern half for 200 years. Framed by narratives of brutal hand-to-hand combat, the book comes more quietly alive in its center section, when a daring young crown prince goes undercover as a Nile trader as part of a scheme to raise a rebel army.

But it's "Rhadopis of Nubia," a tale of pharaonic isolation, delusion and inflexibility, that may speak most directly to American readers. Newly crowned Merenra has fallen for courtesan Rhadopis, "high priestess of love, luxury, and indulgence." At the same time, he has confiscated all the holdings of his temple priests, including the lands that help feed his people. In taking these lands and pouring all his resources into gifts for Rhadopis, he's inciting rebellion. But neither he nor Rhadopis is capable of realizing it.

Mahfouz builds the tensions of their situation with a fine narrative artistry — and with unexpected humor. When, for instance, Rhadopis is in raptures about the mingling of her heart with Merenra's, her slave girl, getting stuck on the anatomical details, takes things down a notch: "How perplexing, my lady."

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As loyal ministers and his own queen try to talk Merenra out of his foolish conduct, his stance only grows more stubborn. Mahfouz shows how a figure in power conflates his own blind pride with matters of principle, and how an intolerance of contradiction can shrink a ruler's world to nothing. As for Rhadopis, her abandonment of her dozens of lovers for One Great Love is such an ecstatic business at first that it comes as a masterful shock when Mahfouz switches perspective and reveals how this "steamy love affair that was costing Egypt a fortune" looks from the outside.

The heightened rhetoric of Mahfouz's prose — occasionally punctured by a jokey or base or urgently personal note — is strikingly consistent from book to book, suggesting that all three translators have caught the flavor of his original Arabic. The translators also furnish useful introductions to each novel, explaining where Mahfouz departs from the historical record and pointing out the Egyptian nationalist feelings of the 1930s and 1940s he tapped into, in these supposedly "ancient" tales.

They may have taken 60 years to reach us — but it's good to have these early works by this wily and venerable writer.

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