Sunday, December 17, 2023

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's new novel is Lunatic Carnival, the tenth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Naguib Mahfouz’s novels of ancient Egypt:
In the introduction to his universal history, Diodorus Siculus remarks that “it is an excellent thing…when we confront the varied vicissitudes of life…to be able to imitate the successes which have been achieved in the past.” Khufu’s Wisdom, the first novel in Naguib Mahfouz’s trilogy about ancient Egypt, was first published under the title, Vicissitudes of Fate. Diodorus Siculus, who spent the middle years of the first century B.C. working on his history, visited Egypt and reports that 360,000 men spent twenty years building the Great Pyramid. Mahfouz’s novel begins ten years after the work has started.

Watching tens of thousands of men digging out the base for his pyramid, which he “wanted to make his eternal abode,” the pharaoh, Khufu, asks his architect, Mirabu, why all these men, these tens of thousands, “obey me and withstand the terrors of this arduous work?” Mirabu explains that half of them are slaves and have no choice, but that the others are “Egyptians who believe in their hearts that the hard labor to which they devote their lives is a splendid religious obligation, a duty to the deity to whom they pray, and a form of obedience owed to the title of him who rules on the throne.” Khufu accepts this as a matter of course. It cannot be otherwise, for “what is Egypt but a great work that would not have been undertaken if not for the sacrifice of individuals; and of what value is the life of an individual? It equals not a single dry tear to one who looks to the far future and the grand plan.”

Pharaoh’s grand plan, his vision of the far future, is threatened when a mystic informs him that no one from his “seed shall sit upon the throne of Egypt.” Asked if he knows “whom the gods have reserved to succeed” him, the wizard announces that it is “an infant born that very morning.” When Khufu learns that the wife of Monra, the High Priest of Ra, has given birth to a boy that morning, and that Monra has said that the boy would “rule over the valley of the Nile as the successor to the God Ra-Atum on earth,” he leads a hundred war chariots to end this threat to his dynasty. Learning of the danger, Monra sends his wife and child away. His wife’s handmaiden, Kata, could not go with her because she had, that very morning, given birth to a baby boy of her own. Another servant, Zaya, goes with her instead.

Confronting the high priest, Khufu reminds him that, “Loyalty owed to the Pharaoh obliged him to execute his divine will without the least hesitation.” But which will is really divine? Lord Ra had decreed that his son should succeed Khufu on the throne of Egypt. Who should he obey - Khufu or Ra? Monra suddenly remembers the servant, Kata, and her newborn son, laying in the room next door. Khufu, certain that he is being taken to the room of the high priest’s wife and child, gives Monra his dagger, but instead of stabbing the child, Monra stabs himself in the heart. Enraged by this act of disobedience, Khufu draws his sword and with a single swift blow severs the heads of Kata and her child.

It is not difficult to guess what will happen after this, but it does not matter. Naguib Mahfouz is not writing some cheap thriller, a mystery, whose only interest is in how the puzzle gets solved; he is writing a tragedy as full of meaning as anything written by Aeschylus or Euripides. When he decided to become a writer, instead of pursuing his post-graduate studies in philosophy, Mahouz started reading the major classics of world literature. With this almost unique combination of philosophy and literature, Mahfouz attempts to show what ancient history can teach the present.

Making her escape, Monra’s wife is captured by bandits, but her servant, Zaya, saves the child and, while walking along the road, hopeless and alone, is overtaken by Pharaoh and his men. Khufu tells his architect, who is still shaken by the death of the high priest and his family, “Take care not to accuse your lord of cruelty. Look at how it gratifies me to carry along a famished woman and her nursing baby to spare them the ills of hunger and cold, and deliver them to a place that they could reach by themselves only with tremendous strains. Pharaoh is compassionate to his servants.” He then adds a remarkable, if, from his prospective, logical justification for the murders he has committed: “And he was not less compassionate when that ill-starred infant’s fate was decreed. In this way, the acts of kings are like those of the gods - cloaked in the robes of villainy, yet, in their essence that are actually celestial wisdom.” Pharaoh’s son and heir apparent, the cruel and restless Prince Khafra, tells Mirabu, “to marvel at the power of the overwhelming will that has defeated the Fates and blotted the sentence of destiny.”

Zaya, saved by Khufu, marries Bisharu, inspector of the construction of the pyramid, and they raise the child, whom they name Djedef, as their own. When it is time to choose “that to which he would devote his life,” Djedef enters the military college. Visiting his half-brother, Naja, one of Bisharu’s sons, who had become a portrait painter, he sees a miniature painting of a “ravishing goddess,” a peasant girl Naja has seen once on the riverbank, and immediately falls so much in love that he goes in search for a girl he has never met. He finds her, on the riverbank where Naja had first seen her, and shows her the portrait he carries around his neck. She wants it, and when he tells her that he won’t give it up, she can’t believe her ears: “I never dreamed that I would meet a man of your insolence.”

“And did I ever dream that I would surrender my mind and my heart in a fleeting instant?” he asks in reply.

If Djedef does not find this peasant girl’s arrogance unusual, it is because no girl, no woman, has ever been this beautiful. He tries to keep her talking, but she runs away, and he does not see her again; not until, a few years later, when he graduates from military school and, what no one has ever done before, wins all the day’s competitive events. Prince Khafra is so impressed that he chooses him to become a member of his guard. As he listens to the prince, Djedef’s gaze drifts away to the prince’s sister, Princess Meresankh. “Thunderstruck, he nearly fell on his face. By the gods in heaven, what did he see but the face of the peasant girl whose portrait he carried next to his heart!”

Like the prince, the princess is heir to the throne. As Djedef is told, “The throne rightfully belongs to those two before anyone else.” Nowhere in the novel, nowhere in the trilogy, does Mahfouz explain what this means. In the second novel, Rhadopis of Nubia, in which a young and handsome pharaoh loses the throne by spending all his time, and much of the kingdom’s wealth, on a famous courtesan, the fact that the king and queen are brother and sister is stated as if it were neither shocking nor a matter of surprise. The reason, as we learn from Diodorus Siculus, is that, following the example of the gods Isis and Orisis, children of Cronus who married and brought civilized life to Egypt, the law of Egypt allowed brother and sister to wed. Incest, marriage between brother and sister, kept the ruling dynasty within the same bloodline. What was allowed later became required. Cleopatra, married when she was only twelve, married her brother.

Djedef cannot forget the princess, but he has to keep secret what he feels. Things happen quickly. On a hunt, he saves Khafra from a lion, and, as a reward, becomes captain of the prince’s guard. Khufu declares war on the tribes of Sinai, and Djedef becomes commander of the campaign. With death in battle a real possibility, he finally speaks to the princess about his love, but her only answer is to remind him, “It would have been better if you learned the virtue of silence.” Then, in camp, the night before the battle is to begin, a messenger arrives from Prince Khafra. It is the princess in disguise.

“You have overcome me totally, so I have come to you.” Smiling, she adds, “And the gods witnessed my arrogance and are amused by my contempt. Have you ever seen such a farce as ours before?” But what future can they possibly have, a princess destined to be a queen and a soldier in service to the pharaoh. She has an answer: “My father would not be the first pharaoh to make one of his subjects a member of his own family.”

With three thousand war chariots “bristling with weapons,” Djedef wins the battle, and on his victorious return sees the princess. In a single stunning sentence, Mahfouz describes their emotions with such power the reader not only understands what they feel, but feels it himself: “Their eyes exchanged a burning message of ardent desire and consuming passion, and if, on its path between them, it had brushed against the hem of one of the banners, it would have burst into an engulfing flame.”

When Khufu asks what he wants, having saved “the life of my heir-apparent,” and “rescued the well-being of my people,” Djedef tells him that he wants the princess. Looking at his daughter, “whose arrogance has deserted her, weakened by bewilderment and timidity,” Pharaoh lays her hand on the hand of Djedef, “and said in his most awesome voice, which made hearts shiver, ‘I bless you both in the name of the gods.’”

Instead of the end of the story, this is the beginning of “great and peculiar events that shook souls to their core and shattered minds completely.” One of the women taken prisoner spoke Egyptian and explained that she was from the city of On, the residence of “Our Lord Ra,” and had been kidnapped twenty years earlier. Having promised that he would ask the king to set her free, Djedef takes the captured woman to his house, where she recognizes Zaya and demands to know what she has done with her son. The woman is Djedef’s real mother, wife of the High Priest of Ra. She tells him about his birth and the “momentous prophecies surrounding it.” Overhearing their conversation, Bisharu realizes that the son he has raised is suddenly the enemy of Pharaoh, the means the Lord Ra is using “to usurp the right of the noble heir apparent!”

Bisharu has to make an awful decision: protect Djedef, who he has raised as a son, or, loyal to pharaoh, reveal Djedef’s real identity to Khufu who will almost certainly have him killed. But before that happens, Prince Khafra, the heir apparent, tired of waiting for power, decides his father has to die. Djedef uncovers the plot, and, just in time, kills the prince and saves Khufu’s life. With an irony that will not long escape him, Khufu explains to the queen the reason for the death of the prince: “The divine wisdom decreed his death because the throne was not created to be occupied by criminals.” And now Bisharu enters and tells him that Djedef is not his son, but “the son of the former priest of Ra, whose name was Monra.” When Djedef confirms this, Khufu understands what the gods have done, and that fate and destiny cannot be overcome: “Here you all see how I repaid the baby of Ra for killing my heir apparent by choosing him to succeed me on the throne of Egypt. What a marvel this is!”

At the beginning of Khufu’s Wisdom, Khufu remarked, “And what is Egypt but a great work that would not have been undertaken if not for the sacrifice of individuals: and of what value is the life of an individual: It equals not a single dry tear to one who looks to the far future and the great plan.” At the end of the third, and final, volume of his trilogy about ancient Egypt, Mahfouz comes back to the beginning of the first. In Thebes At War, Egypt has been under the domination of a foreign, white, race for two hundred years, but an Egyptian army is now on the verge of winning back Egypt’s freedom. On what was expected to be the last day of the decisive battle, “the Egyptians awoke crazy with excitement, straining at the leash, their hearts yearning for the music of battle and of victory.” But as they approach Thebes, ready for the final assault, they discover that the encircling wall has been covered with naked bodies, Egyptian women and their small children, taken as shields.

Angry, uncertain, and distraught, the king asks his commander, if he really thinks he “should give the order to shred the bodies of these wretched women and their children?” The commander, whose own mother is one of the captives, knows what his mother wants: “put your love for Thebes above your pity for her and her unfortunate sisters.” The king issues the order, and, as the battle commences, the women “called out in high, hoarse voices, ‘Strike us, may the Lord grant you victory, and take revenge for us!’

Of what value is the life of an individual? Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the Nobel Prize, suggests the answer is to be found in the ancient belief in the love of one’s own, not our own life, but the life of what gives us life, the life of our birthplace, the country, the nation, that makes nearly all of us what we are.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

Third Reading: Doctor Faustus.

Third Reading: the reading list of John F. Kennedy.

Third Reading: Jorge Luis Borges.

Third Reading: History of the Peloponnesian War.

Third Reading: Mansfield Park.

Third Reading: To Each His Own.

Third Reading: A Passage To India.

Third Reading: Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Third Reading: The Letters of T.E. Lawrence.

Third Reading: All The King’s Men.

Third Reading: The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus.

--Marshal Zeringue