Before the Throne – Naguib Mahfouz
When it comes to twentieth century Arabic literature, it is no exaggeration to say that Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz towers above his contemporaries. His career as a writer was so long, and so prolific, across so many topics and concepts, that it seems his contemporary authors must, at least a little, write within the shade of his greatness. That said, Mahfouz is primarily remembered for his Cairo Trilogy, which is a trilogy in the panoramic spirit of Dickens or Balzac. Added to that are his tightly focused novellas, among which include the psychological drama, Wedding Song, the crime thriller, The Search, and the redemptive The Thief and the Dogs. There are also stories, and fables, and – but it is pointless to go on. He was a phenomenal writer, immensely skilled when it came to recreating, and savaging, the Egypt of his times. What, perhaps, a familiar reader of Mahfouz' commonly available (in English) works might not appreciate, though, was his experimentalism, his willingness to try out new forms and genres. Before the Throne is a surprise because it is so dazzlingly constructed and intricately conceived, because it comes from the pen of a man who was also able to craft a masterpiece of the 'ordinary' realist variety, an author, in short, who it seems can succeed at anything to which he directs his immense talents.
Before the Throne imagines the court of Osiris, and involves the judgement of the rulers of Egypt from the very first, Menes, to its (at the date of publication, in 1983) most recently deceased, Anwar Sadat. These rulers come out, one by one, chapter by chapter, to be judged first by Osiris, Isis and Horus, but then also by those rulers deemed worthy to join the ranks of the Immortals.
Before the Throne has very little by way of action or scene setting. In the beginning, we are given this brief description,
“In the center of the hall Osiris reposed on his golden throne; to his right was Isis, and to his left Horus, each seated on their own thrones. Not far from Osiris' feet squatted Thoth, Scribe of the Gods, the Book of All laid open across his thights. Meanwhile, chairs plated with pure gold were arrayed on both sides of the hall, ready to receive those whose ultimate fates now would be written.”
And, apart from that, we learn little else of Osiris' hall. Egypt's rulers come to us in order of lineage, and they are forced to justify their decisions as ruler. Mahfouz ranges widely, touching on rulers that have become part of popular Western culture (Nefertiti, Tutankhamen), as well as those perhaps those less well-known, including “The Sage Ptahhotep...vizier to King Izezi, one of the rulers of the Fifth Dynasty.”
Mahfouz introduces not only rulers but also wise men, viziers, Queens and even peasants who held the flame of Egypt alive when the nation itself had vanished. Ptahhotep, an early vizier, is encouraged to provide some of his famous wise sayings, including,
”'Do not betray one who trusts you to bolster your glory, or to build your house,'” said Ptahhotep. “Here I was speaking of the provincial governors, who were constantly expanding their own influence – thus threatening the nation's unity.”
And then there is Abnum, the nominated spokesperson for the rebel peasants and artisans who ruled over the “Age of Darkness that fell between the collapse of the Old Kingdom and the creation of the Middle Kingdom”. Mahfouz allows for the greatness of Egypt's rulers to be seen not just in their war-like attributes, or their habit of creating huge monuments to their own glory, but also in the achievements of the ordinary man. Abnum justifies himself before Osiris, saying,
”The peasants set up a government drawn from their own sons. As they ruled the country, security was established while justice spreads its reach, along with the shade of compassion. The poor were satisfied; they gained science and knowledge, filling the highest positions. The nation ascended, with no less greatness than the state of King Khufu, yet without wasting money on buildings pyramids or waging wars. This renaissance was financed through agriculture, industry, and the arts, plus the revival of the villages and towns.
The ninth chapter shows us the first of Egypt's rulers to not take their place among the Immortals. These weak Kings are Sebekemsaf, Neferhotep, Si-Hathor, Neferkhera, Intef and Timaios. Mahfouz shuffles them in, and then out, rather quickly, with Osiris, Abnum, and a few of the other rulers casting swift judgement against their weaknesses. They are condemned in part, “for your hearts lacked nobility, and good intentions as well.” The are sent to Hell.
One of the most interesting aspects to this very interesting novel is the way in which the previous Kings, having taken their seat amongst the Immortals, quarrel among themselves when judging the fate of a newly arrived ruler. These previous Kings (and rarely sages or viziers) argue from the perspective of their backgrounds, and these arguments serve to augment the history provided for them within their own short chapter. Abnum is an excellent example of this, for he argues tirelessly for the people, for the democratic objectives of rulers; but they each offer new and detailed facets of themselves. Menes is the opposite, a warrior King who cares little for those who 'wasted' their rule on peace.
”I unified Egypt with the sword,” Menes reminded Akhenaten, “on a hill of skulls. By necessity, the empire was created by the same means. Yet to our misfortune, an enemy called 'ideas' inflicted itself upon us, invading us from within – and turned our glory into a laughingstock.”
But Akhenaten takes his place among the Immortals as well, for Osiris understands the virtue of peace as much as war. The dialogues, in effect, provide us with an ongoing conversation between all of Egypt's history with itself, which is both a tremendous exercise in future and past history judging one another, and in the possibility of the novelistic form itself.
Chapter forty represents a break, both for Egypt and for the novel. By this stage, we have witnessed the sad and steady destruction of Egypt's great empire, and though a few rulers have taken their place among the Immortals, more now have been consigned to Hell, or increasingly to Purgatory. Osiris addresses the court, saying,
”Members of the tribunal, now we are done with Egypt of the pharaohs. This court is not concerned with passing judgement on foreign rulers, but considers them all accursed outsiders. Rather, it differentiates by degree between the good ruler and the corrupt. Accordingly, it shall render account for the Egyptians, whether their nationality was gained by heredity or earned through residence and loyalty of the heart. Our verdicts shall not be final in the case of Egyptians who accept a new creed, such as Christianity or Islam. Instead, our judgement shall be a sort of historical appraisal that we hope will be duly considered when the citizen is tried by his proper religious court in the Abode of the Everlasting.
Osiris and Thoth gloss over the long stretch of time when the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Christians, rules over the lands of Egypt. But hold, a moment – the statement Mahfouz provides to Osiris above can easily be seen as a criticism of the lack of 'Egyptianness' within the rulers of Egypt during his own time, for where they not generally of Islamic faith, and had Egypt not fallen into disrepair and stagnation, as evidenced within Mahfouz' many novels? Content is not intent, an important bon mot to keep in mind while reading, but the statements of characters can often be seen, and often are, statements of the author dressed up in fictional garb. That said, neither Mahfouz nor Osiris take a particular dislike to any of the religions worshipped by the various people who come out before the court during the turbulent thousand or so years before the nineteenth century (and, indeed, Osiris often mentions that he will commend them to their own, religion-specific, court), but there is definitely a sense that they are missing that essential spark of 'Egyptianness' mentioned above.
Mahfouz was deeply disillusioned with Nasser's Egypt, and saw himself, first and foremost, as a political writer. What all this means is that, as we come closer to the present and the strains of Egypt's modern day existence begin first as whispers and then as roars, the politically charged aspects of his novel become clear.
The distillation of such an immense span of time and huge list of rulers requires a truly remarkable level of erudition and compassionate understanding of a nation's history. In the same way that a rich reduction added to a meal requires a great deal of ingredients, and a huge volume of food and expense of time for such a small and seemingly effortless result, Mahfouz' short chapters on each ruler, and his placing of his characters within these chapters, would have required a remarkable depth of reading and analysis. Indeed, there are indications given within translator Raymond Stock's closing comments that his novel, both in its representation and its judgements, constitutes the culmination of Mahfouz' long decades spent critiquing the state of Egypt, both in its present and its past. A novel such as this is no accident, and cannot be stumbled upon by mistake – there are, behind the 64 chapters and 144 pages, an immensity and generosity of learning and consideration by Mahfouz.
The last chapter, the 64th, takes place after Anwar Sadat has taken his place among the immortals (and he was also the most recent ruler of Egypt to have died). This last chapter, astonishingly, brings together the entire work in a way that made complete and utter sense as it was read, but before reading I had no idea how Mahfouz would bring the novel to a satisfactory close. That he did only reiterates the magnitude of this work, and serves to confirm yet again his place as one of the supreme talents in Arabic literature during the twentieth century, and as an author who can hold his own amongst the other great names of world literature during this period. Before the Throne is a novel that rewards those with a background in Egyptian history, but this is by no means a necessity. For myself, I was vaguely aware of a few Egyptian Pharaohs, and somewhat aware of contemporary Egyptian politics. But the rest? Not a clue, and this didn't matter a whit. Mahfouz integrates his learning well with the central conceit of the novel's construction (which is itself a fascinating and worthy exercise in experimental literature), and the histories contained within are in themselves valuable and entertaining.
Other works by Naguib Mahfouz under review:
---Adrift on the Nile
---The Thief and the Dogs
---The Time and the Place