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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction / poetry


Dorothy Porter

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To purchase Akhenaten

Title: Akhenaten
Author: Dorothy Porter
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992
Length: 156 pages
Availability: Akhenaten - US
Akhenaten - UK
Akhenaten - Canada
Akhenaton - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B : quite effective, if limited in scope and reach

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 27/2/1999 Emily Hohler
New Statesman . 7/6/1999 Lavinia Greenlaw

  From the Reviews:
  • "An unusual subject, particularly for an Australian feminist poet, and the result is startling, sexually explicit narrative in verse. (...) Rubbish, no; dirty, yes." - Emily Hohler, Daily Telegraph

  • "Those buying it as a strange and stylish piece of fiction about an obscure ancient Egyptian king won't be disappointed. These short, loose, fragmentary poems slip down easily as they recount Akhenaten's life in a mixture of introspection and outburst. (...) Porter has found an intriguing subject and put her unconventional choice of form to good use." - Lavinia Greenlaw, New Statesman

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dorothy Porter lets Akhenaten tells his own story in Akhenaten -- and he does so in verse. The work is divided into four parts -- each titled after stations in his life (the childhood (palace-)home of Malkata, the Thebes where he began his rule, and then twice Akhet-Aten, the new capital) -- each of which then collects poems, most only a few lines or a page or two in length, about that period. The poems in Akhenaten then aren't quite a continuous sequence but rather more a series of episodes and impressions (though chronologically presented, and with some sense of continuity).
       Akhenaten is best-known for his radical reforms -- and, above all else, for trying to wipe out the pantheon of gods that were worshipped in the Egypt of the time and imposing a monotheistic doctrine in their place; this proved to be a blip in Egyptian history, with polytheism soon reïmposed after Akhenaten was out of the way.
       Porter already addresses Akhenaten's embrace of a single deity in the opening poem, which begins with the future Akhenaten (then still child Amenhotep IV) vilifying the popular god of the day:

I've always known
my enemies.

When I was a child
Amun had the better of me.

I was little Horseface
with the wheezing lungs
and the wet bed.

Amun threw me down
in drooling, pissing fits.
       He finds salvation in Aten, the sun-god that he would come to make the center of his religious practice: "I gorged on my God", and finds enormous strength in that/him.
       Porter's focus is much more on the personal than ideological or theological -- though Akhenaten's Aten-devotion certainly figures prominently in that as well. Childhood memories include those of his cat, and his budding friendship with cousin Nefertiti. In youth, politics are mostly distant and of little interest: "My mother is a politician", he acknowledges, but it's simply an observation, and he shows little interest in specifics, understanding simply:
Mummy plays
     with gods
Mummy frightens
       His scorn for Amun, and embrace of Aten manifest themselves more fully once he comes to power; an early episode from his reign concludes:
There, Ay,
that's Him
that's Aten
simple, perfect

the one true God.
       But, from the first time he sleeps with Nefertiti, Akhenaten is also a man who takes great pleasure in sex -- and, while Nefertiti long satisfies him he ultimately descends into increasingly perverse debauchery. His harem affords him some pleasure -- "When Nefertiti / is sick of me // I spend the night / with Kiya" -- but even here he fails to sire a son: he has six daughter with Nefertiti but has a sense of obligation, because: "my kingdom /prefers boys". In the novel's most disturbing scenes, Akhenaten looks way too close to home to satisfy both pleasure and obligation:
I have six daughters
where else can I lay
     my seed ?
       It gets very incestuous, as he also takes to bedding his younger brother, Smenkhkare, who is then married off to Akhenaten's eldest daughter, Meri -- who, when he asks her whether she is happy with the arrangement, tells him off:
'I don't like fucking
my uncle
any more than I liked fucking
       Akhenaten's reaction -- "Only twice ! / Little girls / have such vicious memories" -- is one of the work's strongest and most shocking bits, but also typical of the general tenor, Akhenaten both transgressive ("in sex and art / I'm like a Hittite army / I don't recognise borders") and blind to how others see his often deeply hurtful actions. So also, of course, with his imposition of Aten on a population that isn't necessarily as blinded by that hot, bright light as he is.
       Porter does use historical figures and events in her story -- including, for example, Akhenaten's teacher Ay and the sculptor Bek -- but much is very freely (and intimately) imagined. Her Akhenaten is profligate and a true --if very limited -- believer; her story deeply personal, giving only a very limited impression of the world over which Akhenaten ruled, and how it reacted to that rule. The contrast to the Akhenaten of Naguib Mahfouz's novel is fascinating, as are the very different approaches the authors take to presenting the historical figure.
       The poetry -- very free verse -- is crisp, at times almost terse, and deliberately exposing; Akhenaten's pleasures are conveyed as both indulgent and raw, a full gamut of the erotic, from the joyous (such as his first experience with Nefertiti) to the guilty (sleeping with his brother) to the unconscionable (his lust for his daughters) The poetry in Akhenaten is very plain-spoken -- effectively so, but also disturbing.
       Overall, it makes for n interesting take on a historical figure.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 January 2020

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Akhenaten: Reviews: Dorothy Porter: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian author Dorothy Porter lived 1954 to 2008.

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