When I read this sentence both times I started Rhadopis of Nubia: A Novel of Ancient Egypt (written in Arabic by Naguib Mahfouz and translated to English by Anthony Calderbank), it sounded exactly like an excited crowd. I don’t suppose you felt any such thing while reading it, apart from maybe thinking that it was a pretty poetic line. Mahfouz’s writing, like Wodehouse’s, consistently shows this quality where the value of each sentence is strongly enhanced by the passage it is in. Just like Wodehouse’s writing is consistently fresh so that you are going to start laughing at some random word-gag, Mahfouz’s writing is consistently beautiful in a way that you are likely to feel something completely during some random burst of beauty. For me, it was the above sentence. For another reader, it would be something else.
Another thing that surprised me about the writing of this book was my discovery of the best sort of superfluousness there is. Time after time came a metaphor that was new when it was introduced, but so completely natural that I knew what he was going to say next. Unfortunately, I can’t find any examples of this now, and so can’t quote any of these (brilliant) bits.
The book is the story of how the love between a courtesan Rhadopis renown in all of Egypt as the most beautiful woman ever and the Pharaoh Merenra II causes their eventual downfall. It is, in almost every way, a Greek tragedy, where the character has a major flaw, and that flaw eventually causes his/her death. In this case, the flaw is Pharaoh’s: his pride.
I can say that despite the fact that it has a varied cast of major characters – the king’s counsellors a priest Sofkhatep and a commander Tahu, his wife Nitocris, and Rhadopis and Pharaoh – who’s characterisations are all solid, with me only confusing the source of a dialogue once, that once being my own mistake. It is a formidable achievement of the book that I was able to write down these (for me) alien names without thinking about their spellings.
The story is that Pharaoh takes away most of the lands of the priesthood, an unpopular move, to increase the splendour of Egypt, then falls in love with Rhadopis and starts showering his wealth on her, making everyone think that the latter is the cause for the former. The exact details of the downfall I won’t reveal here, except to note that for a Greek tragedy, it is remarkably surprising. Another remarkable thing is that we are given no way of knowing whether most of the insults flung by people at each other are true or not. Further to its credit, we are given indications.
And now, the most interesting thing: the eponymous Rhadopis (who I’m pretty sure is mentioned to have come from some place other than Nubia). She, as I’ve already said, is the most beautiful woman in the world. I don’t suppose you’ve ever thought of how being that affects a person, and for good reason: beauty is subjective, rendering this question meaningless. You could think of one of the most beautiful women, which is a meaningful question, but it is not the same as one person obviously towering over all the others. In the beginning, Rhadopis has a frozen inside. She has given up the thought of loving, instead drowning in meaningless sex and (other) intellectual pursuits, regularly holding court – and bed – with the top political, philosophical and artistic minds of the region (Mahfouz uses one of them , the philosopher, to take a jab at Keats: “Do not be surprised, for beauty is just as convincing as the truth.”). That is why her meeting with Pharaoh is such an important event: she completely melts, not knowing how to deal with this newfound nervousness. Needless to say, hers is the most interesting character arc in the book.
Somehow, halfway through the book, I was convinced that in some complicated way Rhadopis was a symbol for Egypt itself. Not so much a good, respectable feeling as a guess. This was the only problem I had with the book: the fact that I was out of context had an effect on how I looked at the book. Though I am sure that the book had a significance in 1930s Egypt when it was written, I found that, in the end, it has no significance at all for me. In the end, for me, it was just a beautifully written book, nothing more.