Wednesday, April 22, 2009
The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips
The follow-up to his debut "Prague," this book has the same witty writing, with a lot more plot. There is a degree to which Philips condescends to his characters, rather smugly aware that what they reveal much more about themselves than they realize. That's part of the wit, but also part of the distance that made "Prague" unpleasant to read. In this case, the narrators are already distanced by time, writing in 1922 and 1954, so the distancing is less offputting.
Ralph M. Trilipush is a newly financed Egyptologist, an adjunct instructor at Harvard who has secured private financing from a group of Boston businessmen to seek for the semi-mythical 13th Dynasty pharoah Atum-Hadu (Atum-is-Aroused). He has made a small reputation for himself by translating a scrap of papyrus--two earlier scraps had already been translated by a Victorian and a Frenchman. Tirlipush's translation, however, tends toward the pornographic, and was published by something called "Collins Amorous Literature," although he has hopes for a new edition to be released by Harvard after he returns with proof of his find.
Trilipush is also engaged to Margaret Finneran, a Boston jazz baby whose father is the lead investor in this excavation. As the book starts, he is writing a letter to her, forwarding his excavation records, asking her to edit and publish his findings, as he fears he is going to be murdered by his enemies. The bulk of the book consists of his journal entries from October through December 1922, including writings about his past, messages to Margaret, theorizing about his Pharoah's life and death and tomb.
A second narrative intertwines the journal--an Australian detective named Farrell who is set to find the illegitimate off-spring of a dying English peer in order to deliver an inheritence. The particular Australian heir is named Paul Caldwell, who was last traceable to the Australian forces in Egypt, who disappeared with an English officer named Marlowe, the day after Armistice, November 1918. Their identity tags and a gun were found not far from the Valley of the Kings, near where the Marlowe had found the scrap of papyrus several years earlier. Ferrell becomes convinced that Trilipush murdered the two officers, and follows him to Boston. Ferrell arrives just after Trilipush left for Egypt, but stays in Boston to squire Margaret Finneran around.
Ferrell's narrative is written as a series of letters in 1954 to a nephew of Margaret's who is looking for family history. It is clear that Ferrell himself is deeply deluded about his project--he imagines that this nephew is going to get this detective story published, and even made into a movie. He begins to insert the nephew as a character in his narrative. It is also soon clear that Ferrell is blinded by his own class resentment toward the English, which he exorcises by insisting that they are all homosexuals. He becomes convinced that Trilipush is using Margaret for her money, and that he plans to bilk her father and then drop her--while he stands ready to "catch her as she is dropped." His own infatuation for Margaret clouds his judgment in ways he does not see.
The excavation is just outside the Valley of the Kings, where Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen's tomb in November of 1922. Trilipush is seriously overconfident and underfunded, and unaware. He books luxurious rooms in Cairo, bespeaks 10 suits, merrily purchases supplies, but has no concession--no permission to dig in Thebes. What little response he gets from the Department of Antiquities indicates that the concession for the area is already allotted, but they will contact him back home in America when something becomes available.
So, of course, he rents a villa in Luxor, commissions a painting of himself for the Explorers' Club, and heads south.
Of course, the boy is soon played--he hires a thug as his foreman, who does just enough work to find a tomb, then more of less smashes his way through what turns out to be an elaborate, but empty structure. Trilipush is injured in the process, as a large doorway stone falls on his foot. He binds it up and keeps working, although once his workers are convinced there is no treasure, they leave him to go work for Carter, who has found treasure and pays well.
Meanwhile, Trilipush's sponsors refuse to send him the promised money. This is due to the appearance of Ferrell, on the trail of who he supposes to be Paul Caldwell's murderer. Ferrell has turned up the interesting facts that there is no record of a Ralph M. Trilipush at Oxford, nor in the British Army. He half convinces CC Finneran that Trilipush is conning him out of his money and there is no treasure; or that there is a treasure, but Trilipush is going to take it all himself. Instead of pursuing Trilipush, he remains in Boston, and only returns to his "case" when Finneran flees to Egypt to learn the truth.
Carter's discovery of Tut's tomb has raised Finneran's hopes; he owes large sums of money at punitive interest rates to the other co-investors, who fear that Finneran has taken their shares as well, and hire Ferrell to find both Finneran and Trilipush.
Trilipush has reached the end of his money, has been evicted from his villa (as the demand for living space near Tut's tomb has raised his rent beyond what was budgeted, even if he had gotten his promised financing), and is increasingly pained and delirious from the injury to his foot. And here come the spoilers.
His belief in the existence of Amut-Hadu consumes him, and he was truly wagered everything on the successful (and quick!) outcome of this expedition. Repeatedly, we are told that Howard Carter looked for six years before finding Tut's tomb--rather than taking that as a warning that he might not find anything himself, Trilipush concludes Carter is washed up and a failure. His increasing need to convince himself that he has found Amut-Hadu's tomb coupled with his own feverish illness, leads him to conflate his own history with that of the pharoah's, and he ends up painting the chambers of the bare tomb with scenes and hieroglyphs that "prove" the pharoah's existence.
When Finneran shows up at the tomb, unannounced and angry, Trilipush defends himself and then kills Finneran, then does his best to mummify the man, while confusing him with Amut-Hadu's traitorous minister. As the novel winds to its end, Trilipush has forgotten that the flimsy door that leads to the tomb was his replacement for the massive stone that he smashed to keep the location hidden. He fails to recall that the bloody footprints in the second chamber are his own from when the third door fell on his foot--and he mistakes that door for a dais. He puts his own tattered clothing, cane, and writing materials into the "storerooms." He wraps himself in sheets from his Cairo hotel, leaving himself in the final chamber as he finally conflates himself with his sought-for Pharoah.
Meanwhile, with typical blindness, Ferrell arrives in Luxor, confronts Trilipush, and gets nowhere. Trilipush assures the detective that Finneran and he will be going back to Cairo in two days, Ferrell waits for them at the boat. When neither appears, Ferrell alerts the Egyptian police, who arrest the thug/former foreman for the murder of both men.
In an unmarked coda to these narratives, Harvard sends Trilipush's accumulated mail to Margaret. In the stack is a letter from Marlowe's Oxford friend, which clears up the rest of the story. "Ralph M. Trilipush" is an invented character, used by Marlowe and his homosexual friends to lull worried parents into believing that their sons had left behind their "bad influences" and had gone straight. Thus, no record of any such character at Oxford, although underclassmen recognized the name, even as late as 1922.
Paul Caldwell taught himself as much about Egyptology as he could in Australia, then attached himself to Marlowe while stationed in Egypt, and blackmailed Marlowe into teaching him more. At the end of the war, Marlowe took Caldwell out beyond the Valley of the Kings, intending to kill the inconvenient young man, but was killed himself. Caldwell left behind their identity tags, and then reinvented himself as the fictional Trilipush.
Of course, we've seen this coming for quite a while, nearly as early as when Ferrell decides that Trilipush is a murderer, we've been expecting the identity switch. I will confess, I hadn't predicted the "Bunbury" aspect of Trilibush. (From "The Importance of Being Earnest"--characters trying to evade unpleasant social obligations claim they have to go visit their ailing (fictional) friend Bunbury.) At least one reviewer has referred to this as a "Talented Mr. Ripley" twist, which is also true.
The decoration of the tomb is well done, and Phillips has done a fine job of giving us Caldwell's history so we see his illustration of Amut-Hadu's life as really his own. The items he describes as having been placed in the tomb were also shown to us earlier. I saw this done many years ago by Robertson Davies in "What's Bred In The Bone" in which an art forger convincingly creates a Bosch-like work from his own history. It's quite possible Phillips was aware of this, as the wealthy man who sends Ferrell on the quest to find Paul Caldwell is also named "Davies."
Among the several interesting themes throughout the book is the question of immortality. How does one assure one's own immortality? Egyptian kings preserved their bodies, as well as their deeds and names in their tombs. The destruction of a name and a heart destroyed one's ability to live in the afterworld. Trilipush ponders what he calls the "Tomb Paradox." How do you create a tomb that won't be robbed and destroyed? How do you assure your name lives on after you? In his fevered final hours, he imagines that Amut-Hadu, faced with the invasion of the Hyksos, walked alone into the desert, sealed himself inside his tomb, thus assuring that the knowledge of its existence died with him.
The first half of this book is too long by about half; we get the joke, we get the tee up. We don't need quite as much time spent on Margaret and her recreational opium use, or Ferrell's moping around in Boston. Trilipush's journal is also too slow to get anywhere in the first half of the book. Again, we get the joke--let's get on with the excavation.
But the book is well done, and worth the read. It's good practice in reading behind the words, in trying to see what it is that the narrators don't realize they are telling us. Definitely worth the time.