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The Egyptologist Who Would Be Pharaoh February 2, 2005
by Jennifer Pinkowski
In their wrapped corpses with their organs bottled in canopic jars, and in their picture-alphabet and in their beast-headed gods, the best Egyptians lived with the certainty that they were owed eternity, that they lived and would live forever in a present of their own choosing, unhaunted by the past, unthreatened by the future, luxuriously entertained in a present they could extend as long as they wished, releasing these savoury moments on their own terms, not at the imperious demand of mere days, nights, suns, moons.

How does a life exist beyond its allotted heartbeats? Is immortality the continuation of your genes, or the remembrance of your name? If the story of your life outlasts you, is it a story that someone else tells? Would you still recognize it as your own? Questions about the nature of existence and identity lie at the heart of Arthur Phillips' The Egyptologist (Random House: New York, 2004; $24.95; paperback release this June), and Phillips astutely recognizes that they are as at home in archaeology, with its millennia-long view, as they are in philosophy. Phillips, author of Prague, the well-received 2003 novel about the phenomenon of American expatriates living in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, mines archaeology's ability to comment on these ideas through our putative hero, Ralph M. Trilipush, a fringe Egyptologist with an Oxford education and a dubious translation of ancient erotica to his credit, who devotedly digs for the tomb of a pharaoh who probably never existed. The result is a beautifully written novel that is mournful, slapstick, lewd, sympathetic, and bitterly funny.


The novel is structured in the epistolary form, that is, as a series of letters and notes rather than a continuous narrative. The majority of these are the 1922 letters and excavation records of Trilipush, which he sends to Margaret Finneran, his fiancée and the daughter of his financier, shortly before he disappears in Egypt that same year. Most of the others are written some 30 years later and are the recollections of Harold Ferrell, an Australian gumshoe, to Margaret's nephew, who is researching his family history and turns to Ferrell to fill in the blanks on Trilipush's connection to his aunt.

Ferrell investigated Trilipush in 1922 through a case that, as he recalls in his first letter, "started as an odd-duck inheritance task, then it was a missing-person case with a dozen different clients, then a double murder, a prenuptial background investigation, then a debt-collection case, and suddenly quite a different double murder." The spark for this many tentacled investigation was the 1918 disappearance of Paul Caldwell, an Australian soldier and autodidact of all things Egyptian who went missing in Egypt with Trilipush's Oxford chum (and fellow Egyptologist) Hugo St. John Marlowe just after Armistice. The Egyptologist has a huge set of characters--among them a Bolshevist librarian, a crooked circus clown, a drug-addled socialite, a Boston Irish mobster, and a crude department-store magnate--and its structure is far too complicated to convey easily, so suffice it to say that as Ferrell investigates his Medusa-like case, he becomes convinced Trilipush had something to do with Caldwell's disappearance.

Ferrell is shamelessly self-promoting, freely concocts bits of decades-old conversations when he can't fully recall them, and has no problem changing the facts to fit his view--an altogether unreliable source. But he's not the only character we need to be wary of. Phillips makes clear from the start that Trilipush, too, isn't all he says he is. There are questions about his Oxford education and his time in the British Army. Though he has a post at Harvard, he is clearly considered a crank by mainstream Egyptologists and can't get institutional support for any fieldwork. And despite his lovey-dovey letters to Margaret, he may be stringing her along until her father sends the money to fund his search for a pharaoh's tomb (in one letter, he flubs, "You are such a marvellous girl, Margaret. You are everything I have ever wanted in a wire").

This pharaoh is equally suspect. Three papyri fragments of The Admonitions of Atum-hadu--the last discovered by him and Marlowe in 1915 in Deir el-Bahri--form the basis for Trilipush's belief in Atum-hadu (amusingly, "Atum-is-aroused"), the pharaoh-poet of the 80 surviving quatrains written on them. Yet the nearest Atum-hadu can be nailed down is: "Atum-hadu (?) reigned (?) circa 1650 B.C. (?) at the tail end of the XIIIth Dynasty (?) , of which he was (?) the final king (?)." (It from these papyri that Trilipush compiles verse for Desire and Deceit in Ancient Egypt, the aforementioned translation of erotica, a copy of which he pushes into the hands of everyone he meets.)

Phillips wisely places Atum-hadu's rule in the archaeologically hazy Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1800-1500 B.C.), when Egypt, in disarray from Hyksos invasions and a lack of consolidated rule, had a series of pharaohs only briefly in power and of whom few records exist. This gives him the room to imagine Atum-hadu as he will. It would have been much more difficult to convincingly place him among the well-documented rulers of the 18th Dynasty, for instance.

Phillips sought help for such narrative decisions. As he recounts in his funny afterword--inexplicably and disappointingly, included only in the early edition sent to reviewers (see the novel's website for a less interesting author interview)--he plagued a curator at the British Museum with research questions when he was unsure if his details were historically convincing, and "in the darkness, without fail, every single time, I was met by my loyal British Museum staffer, flashlight in hand, ready and willing (if not precisely delighted) to wrangle me and my proliferating characters spanning 3500 years back to the well-lit halls of plausibility."

As our intrepid hero hires a field crew of criminals and amateurs and begins to dig without a permit, Ferrell sows seeds of suspicion in the minds of Trilipush's financial backers (particularly Margaret's department-store-magnate father), who then withhold their money. But Trilipush does find something in the sands: a door. His triumph soon fizzles as Howard Carter discovers the tomb of Tutankhamun. He seethes, scathingly dismissing the 18th Dynasty, famous for the pharaohs Hatshepsut, Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and Tut, as "the kitsch New Kingdom, imitative, luxurious but false, the prancing ground of pudgy-bellied androgynes and the research pool of equally soft scholars...." After a visit to the tomb, he writes to Margaret that its bevy of richness is excessive:

I heard the Times called the chariot wheels "haunting" and the gold "blinding" and the statues "magnificent" and the tomb itself "unlike anything ever seen in this land." It is not true, it is simply not true, Margaret, it is just a room stuffed without logic or story, just a room of eye-catching mishmash, and of course, the untrained tourist oohs and aahs and practically drops her own jewels at the sight of these semiprecious relics, but for an expert eye, I really feel a certain amount of pity for Carter and a general sense of disgust, as if I had just been forced to eat sweets and sweets and sweets in the most sweltering weather.

His own dig is going less well. That door has led to an empty room, and then to another empty room, and then to a third. His crew defects to work on Tut's tomb, so he excavates alone. And through the next couple hundred pages, he does indeed find Atum-hadu--in a manner of speaking. That's about as much plot as I can give without spoiling it.

What sort of pharaoh is Atum-hadu? Carter describes him as "King Arthur imagined by de Sade." As Trilipush conjures him, he is a warrior-poet, equally skilled at ravishing lovers and skewering enemies, sexually voracious and righteously violent. He has a crude sense of humor, thin skin about his commoner origins, and a tendency to write cringe-inducing metaphors (expect to groan at hilarious, god-awful puns about Isis' Nile Delta and the like). As the last pharaoh of the 13th Dynasty, his court undercut by betrayal, his borders besieged by Hyksos barbarians, Atum-hadu is a "fighter for honour," the last vestige of a unified Egypt that would divide for the next few hundred years (and be restored by the founders of the 18th Dynasty that Trilipush so reflexively disdains).

As a marginalized figure in his field, Trilipush clearly identifies with his pharaoh, and that identification allows Phillips to put Trilipush's character on display as well--his peevishness, his professional jealousies, his increasingly apparent incompetence. But we might also have sympathy for Trilipush, because the resonance ancient Egypt has for him is familiar to anyone entranced by archaeological discovery. There's an imaginative generosity to archaeology, an openness to alien cultures and ways; or, alternatively, a recognition of our common humanity, which transcends different eras and cultures (and taste, considering Atum-hadu's crude verse). For all of his failures, Trilipush's sincere devotion to the woefully ludicrous Atum-hadu is touching.

However, the study of material culture has its limitations. It's difficult to find a single individual in the archaeological record, unless he or she is a famous personage. Even then, an individual's singular qualities--the ones those who love (or hate) us would describe as uniquely our own--are lost when we die. Of course, this isn't archaeology's problem. It's just the way things are. Phillips portrays archaeology a sort of mourning for all things lost, an attempt to recover the unrecoverable--compelling, humane, but doomed to fail.

The world is littered with the arcs de triomphe and such-and-such juniors, the chattering artists nervous to know their work will last, poets committing suicide to assure their fame, last wills and testaments trying to control heirs, names annually read out in churches and synagogues, ornate tombstones and deathbed I-love-yous, bequests and named donations, money left to political parties and charities. We are all plenty Egyptian still and no debate.

Inevitably, Ferrell comes to Egypt to confront Trilipush with accusations of blackmail and murder. More than that I can't say, because there is a "surprise ending" that I don't want to give away. But I will offer that the last 20 pages or so are less shocking for any narrative twists than for the turn the novel takes to a darker, more cynical place, where the vast privileges of wealth and the brutal limitations of poverty are equally corrosive to the soul. And, Phillips bleakly implies, archaeology can attest that it has always been so.

Jennifer Pinkowski is associate editor/reviews editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America