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The Egyptologist


The Egyptologist Cover




31 Dec. Sunset. Outside the tomb of Atum-hadu. On the Victrola 50: “I’m Sitting on the Back Porch Swing (Won’t You Come Sit by Me, Dear?).”

My darling Margaret, my eternal Queen whose beauty astonishes the sun,

Your father and I are heading home tomorrow, back to you—the luxurious riverboat north to Cairo, a night at that city’s Hotel of the Sphinx, then by rail to Alexandria, and from there we have booked victorious passage on the Italian steamer Cristoforo Colombo, ports of call Malta, London, New York, from where we shall catch the very first train to you in Boston. You shall embrace your fiancé and your father by 20 January.

Upon my return, our wedding will, of course, be our most pressing business. Then, after refreshed preparations, I shall lead a second expedition back here to Deir el Bahari to conduct a photographic survey of the wall paintings and clear the artefacts and treasures from the tomb. All that remains this evening is to seal up the tomb’s front, leaving my find exactly as I discovered it. And then posting you this package. My messenger is due here presently.

Nothing stands in our way now, my darling. My success here, your father’s reinstated blessing—all is precisely as I promised. You will be relieved to know that your father and I are again fast friends. (Thank you for your “warning” cable, but your father’s misplaced anger back in Boston could never have survived his time here in my company!) No, he congratulates me on my find (“our find, Trilipush!” he corrects me), sleepily sends you his love, and sheepishly begs you to disregard those foolish things he told you of me. He was under terrible strain, surrounded by jealousy and intriguers, and now he is simply delighted that I have forgiven him for succumbing, even for an instant, to such corrosive lies. And now we are returning to you, just as you will return to me.

Of course, if you are reading this letter, then I have not, for reasons I can only speculate, made it safely back to Boston and your embrace. I did not arrive trailing clouds of immortal glory, did not drape around your white throat this strand of whitest gold I am bringing you from Atum-hadu’s tomb. And I did not, taking you gently aside, under the double-height arched windows of your father’s parlour, brush away your tears of joy at my safe return, and quietly ask you to give me as soon as it arrives a package (this package), that you would be receiving from me shortly, stamped with the alluring postage of far-off Egypt, addressed to me in your care, to be opened by you only in case of my extended and inexplicable absence.

No, events will proceed just as I have foretold, and you will not read this letter. I shall arrive before it, shall gently take it from you before you open it, and all of this will be unread, unnecessary, a precaution known to no one but me.

But. But, Margaret. But. You have seen as clearly as anyone the malevolence of those who would have us fail, and one never knows when fatal accidents or worse might befall one. And so I am taking the liberty of sending to you the enclosed journals. Dear God, may it all arrive safely.

Margaret, you are now holding, if the besuckered tentacles of my enemies have not yet slithered into the Egyptian postal system, three packets, arranged chronologically in order of composition. They open 10 October, with my arrival in Cairo at the Hotel of the Sphinx, thoughts of you and our engagement party still effervescent in my head. Journal entries never meant for publication are intermingled with those that were, and with elements of the finished work. Much of the journal is a letter to you, the letter I never found the right moment to send until now. I intend to untangle all that back in Boston. The second packet begins when I exhausted my supply of the hotel’s stationery and in its place relied on the generosity of colleagues at the Egyptian Government’s Antiquities Service; several score pages are on the letterhead of the Service’s Director-General. Finally, I have nearly filled one very handsome Lett’s #46 Indian and Colonial Rough Diary, the preferred journals of British explorers whilst working in faraway heat and sand, advancing knowledge at the risk of their very hides. Do not worry: the pages torn from its back are none other than the pages of this letter. Together the three documents compose the rough draft of my indisputable masterwork, Ralph M. Trilipush and the Discovery of the Tomb of Atum-hadu.

Also, I am enclosing the letters you have sent me here, your words, kind and cruel intermingled. Seven letters, two cables, and the cable I sent you that was thrown in my face yesterday. And your father’s cables to me.

I just replaced the stylus, my last but one. This is a lovely song.

I am trusting a boy to serve as my messenger to the post.

Over time, Margaret, there is erosion. Sands abrade, rubble obscures, papyri crumble, paints decay. Some of this is, of course, destructive. But some erosion is clarifying, as it scours away false resemblances, uncharacteristic lapses, confusing and inessential details. If, in the course of writing my notes, I have made here and there a wrong turn, misunderstood or badly described something I saw or thought I saw, well, at the time one thinks, No matter, I shall edit when I return home. And I shall. But, of course, should I be beaten to death and shoved inside a gangly Earl’s travelling trunk and then hacked to pieces and my shreds lazily flipped overboard to peckish sharks, well, then, a pity indeed that I did not edit my work when I had the chance. I shall then need a brilliant and courageous redactor who can puff away dusty speculation to reveal stark, cold, obsidian and alabaster truth. You will provide that clarifying erosion.

We come to the crucial task I am entrusting to you, my muse-become-executrix. You are now the guardian-goddess of all that I have accomplished. These writings are the story of my discovery, my trouncing of doubters and self-doubt. I am entrusting to you nothing less than my immortality. I am relying on you, despite everything, for whom else do I have? If something should happen to my body, then you are now responsible—by opening this package, by reading these words—to ensure that my name and the name of Atum-hadu never perish. It is the least you can do for me, Margaret.

You will oversee the publication of this, my last work. Insist on a large printing from a prestigious university press. Stamp your pretty foot and demand shelf space in all major university libraries, as well as with the major Egyptological museums in the USA, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and in Cairo. And the general public! Cover your ears, Maggie! For there will be a clamour like no one has ever heard when the news escapes. But hold them all at bay until you are ready. Do the work as I am telling you, insist that the book be printed exactly as I say, and give the vultures nothing else.

I do not have time to edit just at the moment; events are moving too fast here. And we leave tomorrow. So I shall do it myself when I arrive safely home, but, allow me to provide contingent guidance if events should unwind elsewise.

For example, as I look at them now, certainly some of the early sketches seem not to have been entirely complete. The eye plays tricks in dim light, when one is hurried, but the final drawings are unquestionably precise, so those first efforts can go. And you will extract my ongoing letter to you, my private or overly candid diary entries here and there. What is only for you and what is for all the world fall away from each other; the division is an easy one to see, if you are careful. I was overeager as a diarist and as your correspondent at the beginning. There is no need to publish anything about you and me, the parties and the partnerships. I was excited, and for good reason, Margaret, as history will attest. And I see now also some stray meditation, releasing a little scholarly steam here and there, my second guesses allowed some room to stumble about only to suffocate in the open air. A careful reading, I beg of you, a careful reading in private, careful editing, and then find a typist (call Vernon Collins), use my illustrations from the notebooks, just the last group of them, when Atum-hadu’s paradoxes were all clear, and I at last understood what I was seeing.

If you must be my widow, M., then you will also be my wind. You will gently erode away the inessential. I started crossing bits out just now, but I do not have time, and I might cut into bone, so look here: I shall make your work as simple as I can: the relevant material in order: Kent, Oxford, the discovery of Fragment C with my friend, his tragic end, you and I falling in love, your father’s investment, Atum-hadu’s tomb in all its splendour, the insightful solution to his Tomb Paradox, sealing up our find for a later return, your father and I heading home, our unfortunate murder. Or not, of course. It could not be clearer. Burn the rest as the marginalia of a scholar’s early drafts.

The sunset here is unlike anything I have ever seen. The colour as the sun melts into the changing desert cliffs—such colours do not exist in Boston or Kent. These are the hills and cliffs where my life’s story is indelibly etched.

Last stylus. I do love this song.

If, Margaret, you are reading this letter, sobbing, horrified at your double loss but girding yourself and your pen for the vital tasks ahead of you, then I do not hesitate to accuse from here, before the commission of the dreadful crime itself, the maniacal Howard Carter, whose name you may perhaps have heard in recent weeks, the half-mad, congenitally lucky bumbler who tripped over a stair and fell into the suspiciously well-preserved tomb of some minor XVIIIth-Dynasty boy-kinglet named Trite-and-Common and who, in his crippling jealousy, has several times threatened my person in the past months, both whilst sober and whilst intoxicated on a variety of local narcotic inhalants. If I have neglected to note in my professional journals Carter’s unceasing attitude of hostility and barely contained violence towards me, such delicacy is only a pained professional courtesy to a once-great explorer, and is, moreover, an example of that certain bravura I have always displayed and you have always admired. Thus I have ignored his repeated threats to make me and my “noble patron, Mr. Chester Crawford Finneran, disappear inexplicably.” Obviously, should your father and I not step off the Cristoforo Colombo in the port of New York, you may be quite certain that we were done in by Carter or one of his thugs, like his money-man, a lanky English Earl, whose mild manner frays and scarcely covers a vicious character, stretch it though he does, or by their hideous orange-haired confederate, whom you know only too well.

Most beautiful Margaret, these months have not lacked in misunderstanding between us. But for all the harsh letters and harsher silence you sent me, I know that your love for me remains just as my love for you; there is nothing in this life that I value more highly than your embrace. The gramophone recording has come to an end again and now only wheezes in exhaustion.

That was my last stylus from the hundreds I brought with me. The thought that I have seen you for the last time, that I shall never again hold you, trembling in the breezes that dance through your ballroom when the windows swing open to the garden, that the pallor of your throat and the colour of your limbs will never again be revealed to me seizes me so roughly that I can scarcely write now. I cannot bear the thought that I shall never see you again. I cannot bear it. I cannot bear that you will think of me as your father described me, not as I really am, as I know you saw me, at the start. Please think of me at our happiest, when you were most proud of me, when you found the hero you had so long been seeking, the only man you could imagine, when we talked of the world at our feet. Please think of me like that, my darling darling. I love you more than you can know, in ways you will never imagine.

I will see you soon, my love.

Your Ralph

Sunset on the Bayview Nursing Home

Sydney, Australia

December 3, 1954

Dear Mr. Macy,

I am in receipt of your letter of the 13th November and I’m delighted to make your acquaintance, if only by post. I’m sickened to hear of your lovely aunt Margaret’s passing. It’s my dearest wish that she thought of me fondly now and again. We met in times of crisis, high drama. You never forget those, I can tell you. She was a beautiful, vibrant woman when I saved her back in ’22. I never saw her again after I brought to justice the man who caused her suffering.

I’m certainly most intrigued by your “small request to tap into [my] no doubt excellent memory.” True enough, sir, it is still excellent, and I’ll make an extra effort to prove it to you. In my day, I was known for having perfect recall.

I might also add that you’re no insignificant sleuth yourself to have tracked me here to this hellhole of a pensioners’ house, this human wastebin, thirty years after the facts, young Mr. Macy. Should the investigative field ever interest you professionally, I think you well-suited, and that’s high praise, that is, coming from me. Of course, maybe you’re the sort of fellow who doesn’t have to work at all, eh?

To answer your first question, which maybe was only politeness showing off your breeding, even in a letter to a stranger, but nevertheless, the answer is: bored. Bored nearly to death, thanks, which I suspect is the idea behind these places. Drink up the last of our savings and then bore us to death to open up the narrow, sagging bed and one of the few stinking pots to piss in, ’cause the next old fellow’s crossing his legs for it.

Copyright © 2004 by Arthur Phillips

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gretchs, June 12, 2012 (view all comments by gretchs)
This is a difficult book to get through, but, like life of pi, is all about the ending. When I reached the end, I found myself searching through the rest of the book, looking for passages to prove what I suspected. The characters aren't necessarily 'likeable' but they are interesting, and encouraged me to continue through the book to see where they would end up. Not all the issues/ questions are answered, of course. The format of the book is also different, and the unreliability of the different narrators kept me interested page after page.
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Peter Saucerman, November 29, 2011 (view all comments by Peter Saucerman)
With all due respect to the cheerleaders - this book was like castor oil for me. I took three runs at it, could not stomach it beyond page 100. Not a single likeable character, not a mystery that engaged, full of pomp and bombast - I could not care less about any of the so-called characters. The memo dates, jumping backward, forward, one day, twenty years, two months - one would need a dedicated white board to chart this fluff, and still what would be the point? Anyone want a nice clean copy? you can have it for postage.
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
KimMiE, January 28, 2010 (view all comments by KimMiE)
The Egyptologist is one of those wonderful stories that's about the journey rather than the destination. Disguised as a mystery, the novel doesn't try to hide the solution (it's easy to guess long before you reach the end), but revels in letting the reader figure out what's going on in spite of the characters' delusions, vagueries, and outright lies. Unfolding by way of masterful self-revelation, the Egyptologist is clever, well-told, and one of the most fun reads I've picked up in a long time.
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Product Details

Phillips, Arthur
Random House Trade
Historical - General
Historical fiction
General Fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.08x5.18x.93 in. .68 lbs.

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History and Social Science » American Studies » Popular Culture

The Egyptologist New Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
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Product details 416 pages Random House Trade - English 9780812972597 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "How was Phillips to follow up a debut as startlingly brilliant as Prague? By doing something completely different. His story, set mostly in Egypt in the early 1920s, stars Ralph Trilipush, an obsessive Egyptologist. Trilipush is more than a little odd. He is pinning his hopes on purported king Atum-hadu, whose erotic verses he has discovered and translated; now he must locate his tomb and its expected riches. Meanwhile, an Australian detective, for reasons too complicated to go into, is seeking to unmask Trilipush, who may have had some relationship with a young Australian Egyptologist who died mysteriously. Trilipush and the detective are two quite unreliable narrators, and the effect is that of a hall of mirrors. Where does fact end and imagination, illusion and wishful thinking begin? Phillips is a master manipulator, able to assume a dozen convincingly different voices at will, and his book is vastly entertaining. It's apparent that something dire is afoot, but the reader, while apprehensive, can never quite figure out what. The ending, which cannot be revealed, is shocking and cleverly contrived." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "I'd be surprised if you didn't have the central mystery of this caper figured out somewhere before the halfway point. But here's the thing: I'd also be surprised if this bothered you too much. After all, when is the last time somebody made the effort to spin you a tale? When is the last time somebody wrote you a letter? When is the last time you encountered a contemporary writer with Phillips's far-reaching interests and easy facility with far-away places, far-away times?" (read the entire Esquire review)
"Review A Day" by , "Ancient Egypt and detective stories inspire a similar feverish obsession, and Arthur Phillips, in his new novel The Egyptologist, has a pretty good idea why. The novel, disguised as a collection of letters and journal entries, traces two stories, each woven from a mix of fact and fabrication, by two very different men....The real game lies in the slow revelation of why neither man can allow himself to understand the truth and how what we need to believe about the world often becomes more important to us than our own lives." (read the entire review)
"Review A Day" by , "The Egyptologist is nothing like Phillips's bestselling debut, Prague, and yet it's full of all the dazzling talent he showed there. Presented as a collection of letters, telegrams, journals, drawings, scholarly analysis, and ancient (ribald) poems, the book opens like some long-sealed chamber of mysteries. But beware: Trust no one who's read this novel, particularly reviewers, whose damp breath and careless touch could easily disintegrate its wonders before you can enjoy them...." (read the entire Christian Science Monitor review)
"Review" by , "The dueling voices of a nostalgic detective and the monomaniacal archaeologist he pursues around the world are only part of the treasure contained in The Egyptologist. Crafted with nuanced erudition and literary flair, Phillips uncovers the hieroglyphs (not hieroglyphics — but you'll learn that) and building blocks beneath how we construct, interpret, and trust our storytellers. Highly textured, quirky, serpentine, surprising."
"Review" by , "Highly recommended for everyone in search of buried treasure."
"Review" by , "What a splendid, funny, bewitching book....Beneath Arthur Phillips's singular wit and peerless comic timing, lies a spot-on parable of twentieth-century self-delusion and the painfully fruitless quest for immortality."
"Review" by , "A wildly pleasurable, dazzling reading experience, big in heart and execution: crazed, ecstatic, and entertaining in the deepest sense of the word. Arthur Phillips is a terrifically talented writer, and these pages overflow with wit, mad humor, and, finally, a deep undercurrent of pathos."
"Review" by , "[C]lever, labyrinthine....[A] suave, elegant novel, replete with sinuously composed sentences and delicious wordplay....Phillips's formidable research and witty prose make this one well worth your time. He's quite possibly a major novelist in the making."
"Review" by , "Phillips follows...Prague with an equally inventive if totally unexpected foray into ancient Egypt....Phillips proves himself once again to be a wildly creative storyteller."
"Review" by , "This witty second novel plays with fire — Pale Fire, that is — by daring to appropriate the scheme of Nabokov's cleverest novel....Phillips is nearly as deft as Nabokov at parodying the academic mind..."
"Review" by , "One piece of the mystery becomes obvious early on, but The Egyptologist is still an interesting, convoluted sort of puzzle....Phillips has missed an opportunity, though, to create a work that is more than clever."
"Review" by , "[A] wonder, a work of imaginative prowess that more than fulfills the promise of Prague. It's ambitious. It's inventive. It's challenging. And it's the kind of book that puts a writer's career on track..."
"Review" by , "[The reader has] to slog through a lot of details of Egyptology that are, frankly, on the boring side. The novel, which starts out with a great deal of charm and momentum, bogs down three-quarters of the way through."
"Review" by , "[A] kind of brainy animated cartoon in novel form....Some of its contrivances are a bit wobbly, and none of its characters is wholly human, but it often verges on brilliance — though it's inconsequential brilliance."
"Review" by , "While the book is too long and the artifice eventually gets to be too heavy, Phillips has successfully avoided the sophomore jinx and the curse of the mummy."
"Review" by , "The book is a little long on excavation details and Atum-hadu's life, but press on. The payoff is worth the occasional long-windedness. You'll be left to wonder: Where in the fictional world will that swashbuckling Phillips turn up next?"
"Review" by , "Phillips spices things up with a few post-modern twists in characterization....The Egyptologist requires a bit of faith and a lot of digging in places, but it finally yields up its somewhat morbid treasures in the end."
"Review" by , "Among the delights of Phillips' accomplished, exhaustively researched novel is its subtextual fascination with perception and the often willfully blinkered aspects of human interaction."
"Review" by , "The Egyptologist, a novel very much worth reading, will certainly have its fans, but one suspects they will not be the same fans, or at least not fans in the same way, as those who loved Prague."
"Review" by , "Who would have thought archaeology could be so involving? The Egyptologist is a tale as deep as it is tall."
"Review" by , "Phillips' rollicking plot winds down to a finish both poignant and eye-popping — not a combination one finds every day! His entertaining characters are believably two- or three-faced, and his phrasing is gorgeous."
"Review" by , "[T]he reader is happy enough to keep reading, diverted by the characters' clever chatter and the author's zippy prose. the book's midpoint, the reader...has begun to wonder why this novel is as long and long-winded as it is."
"Review" by , "The author deftly shifts back and forth among a half-dozen voices and styles....[T]he audacity of his creation [is] as great as that of his protagonist's, and the success of it even greater."
"Review" by , "Erotic hieroglyphics, a nosy Aussie investigator, and a shocking end make this one of the year's best."
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