Do we choose to live alone or is it our fate to be lonely? Perhaps it is easier to convince yourself that your loneliness is predetermined and that all your efforts are doomed. If you fail anyway, why would you even try?
This pessimistic approach of Sinuhe, the main character of Mika Waltari’s The Egyptian, is quite annoying. He has wonderful foster parents and a small group of dedicated friends, but he insist to believe that he is different and thus he will always be alone.
And this makes all his relationships like a plant that grows buds but never let them bloom. If he only wanted to overcome that inner obstacle, his life would bring him what he looks for – a meaning and peace of heart. Instead it makes him vulnerable to dubious people and prone to pursue the most idealistic ideas.
Run Sinuhe, run
The very first trap Sinuhe gets into is Nefernefernefer, a beautiful and sexy woman that uses his sympathy against him. In less then a week she owns everything he and his parents ever had. In return he gets beaten by her servants and left completely broken. And his parents, devastated by the very recent developments, choose the only option that seems to make sense – they commit suicide.
With nothing else to loose, Sinuhe runs away to Syria to start everything from scratch. As an Egyptian physician he can easily find there clients. He is accompanied by his former slave, Kaptha. A businessman by heart, Kaptha makes sure they are both prosperous, wealthy and can live a comfortable life.
But Sinuhe’s obsession with his own loneliness is so strong that he does not appreciate what he has. As soon as a war in Syria breaks out, he sets forth to join Pharaoh’s forces which are lead by his old friend Horemheb. Few weeks later he becomes a Pharaoh’s spy, travelling to Mitanni, Babylon, Minoan Crete and among the Hittites to look into their hearts and, more importantly, military strength.
The promised land
Back from his journeys, Sinuhe is raised to the position of the royal physician of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Egypt he used to know is long gone. The Pharaoh abandoned the traditional Egyptian polytheism and introduced worship of Aten. He dismissed military forces, banned any bloodshed and based his ruling on peaceful coexistence with his neighbours.
Seeing too many pointless deaths in his life, Sinuhe is seduced by Pharaoh’s vision and becomes his devoted follower. Even his feelings for Merit are not enough to distract him from this new obsession. He still uses his old excuse to avoid any serious romantic involvement and leaves Thebes for Akhetaten, the new capital of Egypt.
But the social and political changes instead of promised land, bring poverty and chaos. Akhenaten is forced to drink a death potion and a violent unrest breaks out in Thebes turning the city into ashes.
The death of Merit leaves Sinuhe heartbroken and even more dedicated to Akhenaten’s dream which is now considered a lunacy. Refusing to give up on his believes, Sinuhe becomes a threat and as such is sent into exile where he spends his last years writing down his memories.
Great historical accuracy
The novel itself was not as entertaining as I expected – I hoped for an exciting storyline full of adventures and picturesque language. Instead I got a factual account of events infused with Sinuhe’s fatalistic approach to life. Not exactly easy or pleasant to follow.
But what kept me reading is the historical accuracy of detailed description of ancient Egyptian life. Mika Waltari carried out considerable research into the subject, making the story a fascinating insight into Egyptian society. You learn about their every day life, troubles and joys as well as how they reacted to Akhenaten’s changes.
And the changes brought a lot of tensions and conflicts, poverty and chaos. Over time even the most dedicated followers started to curse the Pharaohs and wanted the old order to be back. It made me ponder that you can’t simply force changes if people are not ready – we all need to first grow up mentally to welcome them.
Finally, Kaptha is a true gem and it is really hard not to like him. Very superstitious, not educated but street- and business-smart, he develops from a slave into a wealthy businessman. Pragmatic, clever and more optimistic than Sinuhe, he gives a bit of colour to the story. I would love to read a book about his adventures.
In general the book is a good read and when it was published, it became an international best-seller and an inspiration for a movie. If you have read it, let me know your impression!