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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth

Naguib Mahfouz

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To purchase Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth

Title: Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1985 (Eng. 1998)
Length: 172 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth - US
Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth - UK
Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth - Canada
Akhénaton le renégat - France
Echnaton - Deutschland
Akhenaton. Il faraone eretico - Italia
Akhenaton, el rey hereje - España
  • Arabic title: العائش فى الحقيقة
  • Translated by Tagreid Abu-Hassabo

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done portrait of a significant historical figure and his failures

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 12/10/1999 Navid Kermani
The LA Times . 2/4/2000 Jonathan Levi
The NY Rev. of Books . 30/11/2000 Edward Said
The Washington Post . 7/5/2000 Gelareh Asayesh

  From the Reviews:
  • "Nagib Machfus hat eine Parabel über ein Grundthema dieses Jahrhunderts geschrieben: das Versagen der großen Lebensentwürfe in ihrer real existierenden Anwendung. Sie lässt sich auf die kommunistische ebenso wie auf die islamistische Ideologie beziehen, aber auch allgemein als eine Reflexion über den Verlust der Utopien verstehen. Nagib Machfus scheint diesen Verlust zu bedauern und ihn dennoch für unausweichlich zu halten. (...) Echnaton zählt gewiss nicht zu den wichtigsten Werken des Nobelpreisträgers; der Roman hat weder die Lebensfülle seiner Kairoer Stadtgeschichten noch die erzählerische Dichte der Kinder unseres Viertels, das auf ebenfalls allegorische Weise die Geschichte der semitischen Propheten erzählt." - Navid Kermani, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Akhenaten is as much an investigation into the nature of heroes as it is an inquiry into the nature of history." - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Mahfouz's slim little novel, originally published in 1985, is as light as a souffl and deceptively linear. It offers none of the complex layering of minutiae that lent such richness and depth to the Egyptian author's signature work, the Cairo Trilogy. Yet perhaps because of its simple language and storyline, the book retains an element of magic and a lingering resonance. By the end, Akhenaten emerges as a deeply human character rushing upon a tragic yet inevitable fate." - Gelareh Asayesh, The Washington Post

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:

       Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth, set in the late 14th century BCE, begins with a young Egyptian named Merianum traveling with his father down the Nile past the now practically abandoned "cursed and infidel city" of Akhenaten (Amarna) and deciding:

I want to learn everything about this city and its ruler. About the tragedy that ripped the country apart and laid waste the empire.
       The former, disgraced ruler Akhenaten (originally: Amenhotep IV) -- who built the city, and moved the country's capital there -- may be dead, but as the boy points out: "Most of his contemporaries are alive", and a letter of introduction from his high-ranking father would open many doors for Merianum. The novel, then, is the history he pieces together, fourteen personal accounts by the eyewitnesses he speaks with; fourteen who knew Akhenaten giving their versions of events, and their opinions. It's a clever idea, and an effective approach to considering a significant but distant historical figure about whom relatively little is known.
       The first person Merianum approaches is the High Priest of Amun, who can offer an overview of Akhenaten's life and reign. Worship of the god Amun was the dominant religion before Akhenaten came to power -- and regained its position after the end of his reign -- but for a while Akhenaten posed a great threat to the powerful Amun-clergy, embracing the worship of a single god and essentially deposing all the others. Akhenaten remains best-known for (briefly) introducing monotheism in polytheistic ancient Egypt -- a heresy the High Priest of Amun (and many others) found shocking and unforgivable.
       The High Priest's overview covers much of Akhenaten's life, public and personal, and is -- predictably -- highly critical. There's his ascension to the throne -- his more suitable older brother having died --, his marriage to Nefertiti (a figure about whom there are also many disparate opinions in these accounts), and then his fall from power, well-stoked by the High Priest who had done his best to spread the word that the new pharaoh was a heretic. Akhenaten is already described as physically frail and unattractive, and effeminate -- "I still remember his repulsive appearance, neither man nor woman", the High Priest says -- and others will describe him in similar terms. In other respects, too, ambiguity seems almost a defining feature of Akhenaten, his former teacher finding, for example: "He was neither mad nor sane like the rest of us. He was something in between".
       Among the gossip that is reported is that Akhenaten had sexual relations with his mother -- whom he was certainly close to -- and that none of Nefertiti's six children were fathered by him. His death is also shrouded in mystery -- several suspect murder, though the official line is that he fell ill and died -- while the reason Nefertiti left him, and why she remains as the only inhabitant (save a few guards and the like) in the capital he built and which shared his name is also something Merianum finds shrouded in mysteries. His last visit and interview is then with Akhenaten's wife -- though of course here, as throughout, he can hardly be certain just how accurate and truthful her account is: almost everyone, whether still in official functions (as several are) or withdrawn in some form of retirement, has motives to present Akhenaten in a particular light and way.
       The picture that emerges is, appropriately enough, an ambiguous one. Even about what there is agreement -- that he was physically slight, for example -- is seen differently, depending on the observer. There does seem consensus that he wasn't particularly interested in ruling -- but this is also something of a matter of interpretation: Akhenaten's approach was certainly laid-back, especially compared to that of previous regimes, but arguably not so much out of indifference as because of a fundamentally different outlook. He enacted comprehensive reforms -- notably, reducing taxes and abolishing all punitive measures (even though he was correctly warned that it would lead to damaging corruption, people taking advantage of the system). His outlook could be considered either naïve or enlightened, but he believed in fundamental human goodness; the sculptor Bek summed it up even more basically as: "Akhenaten lived for truth, and because of the truth he died".
       Akhenaten's belief in a single god, and insistence that there was only one god, made him an easy target for criticism from all those who benefitted from the polytheistic system and/or a harsher and stricter regime built on a much more clearly hierarchical social and political structure. The "chief epistoler in Akhenaten's chamber" suggested that: "He should have been a poet or a singer. Instead he was king of Egypt. Catastrophe !" And he sums up:
He created a fantasy world, with ludicrous laws and customs; even the people in it were his own fabrication. Akhenaten was master and god of an illusion. It is no wonder then that his kingdom tumbled down with the first winds of reality, and the mob of cowards he had gathered fled at the first sign of danger.
       Mahfouz offers an interesting panorama of Akhenaten's rule, that period in history, and the various personalities and ideologies that were at odds. The one area where Mahfouz's version(s) fall short is in conveying just how long Akhenaten was in power, as he ruled Egypt for seventeen years, suggesting a greater hold (and, along with it, influence) than the impression given by the accounts. (Of course, after the fact, many are presumably eager just to brush over the past as quickly as possible -- a partial, if not entirely satisfactory explanation why his rule is treated as something better only recalled as a brief, failed aberration.)
       Mahfouz's approach favors description over interpretation, and he carefully skirts most of the deeper questions posed by Akhenaten's radical reforms and (monotheistic) philosophy -- but the differing perspectives do shed some interesting light on some of these. The overlapping quilt-portrait has its limits -- much about the man remains a mystery, and not just because of the differing versions of some of the specifics -- but it's a quite rich portrait of this unusual life and reign. Mahfouz is a grand storyteller, and these accounts and episodes show great variety, a convincing presentation of one individual and the many different ways people saw him and his actions at different times in his life.
       Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth might seem a minor (though certainly not lesser) effort, but it's an accomplished and insightful work about a fascinating historical figure -- and a good read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 January 2020

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Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth: Reviews: Naguib Mahfouz: Other books by Naguib Mahfouz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz (نجيب محفوظ, Nagib Machfus) was born in 1911 and died in 2006 He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

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