Monday, August 6, 2018

The Pharaoh and the Priest by Boleslaw Prus

(About as much fun as) an ancient Egyptian civics lesson
The Pharaoh and the Priest, a novel by Polish author Boleslaw Prus, was originally serialized in the Polish magazine Illustrated Weekly (Tygodnik Ilustrowany) from 1895 to 1896 before being published in book form in 1897. It was first published as Pharaoh, but Jeremiah Curtin, ubiquitous translator of 19th-century Polish literature, modified the title for the English edition of 1902. Set in ancient Egypt, the story takes place from 1087 to 1085 BC and focuses on the life of Ramses XIII, beginning with his adolescence under his father Ramses XII’s reign and proceeding to his own rise and fall as Pharaoh of Egypt. Coincidentally, it was published in the same year as another Polish ancient epic, the better known Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz. The two books are drastically different in style, however, as Sienkiewicz’s work is operatically romantic while Prus writes in a more naturalistic style with an emphasis on historical accuracy and realistic detail. Essentially a copiously researched political novel about the fall of Egypt’s Twentieth Dynasty, The Pharaoh and the Priest may suffer from too much authenticity in that it reads like an arduously long and tediously slow-moving Egyptian civics lesson.

The story begins as Ramses XIII reaches manhood and is just beginning to assume a leadership role in his father’s administration. After the son has proven himself an able military commander, the father sends young Ramses on an important state mission: to solve the mystery of why once-glorious Egypt is now suffering from shrinking revenue, a loss of arable land, and a declining population. Over the course of his investigation, Ramses finds himself continually butting heads with a priestly bureaucracy that secretly undermines the Pharaoh’s authority for its own financial and political gain. As he becomes more and more familiar with the workings of state power, Ramses resolves that when he takes over his father’s position as Pharaoh, he will bend the priesthood to his will.

Whatever Prus has to say about the mechanisms of power, he develops his case in a painfully slow manner. Never at any time did I finish one of the book’s 67 chapters feeling compelled to begin another. In each chapter Ramses learns a little lesson about the government, but both the author and his protagonist fail to really capitalize on this incremental knowledge. Prus occasionally undercuts his own attention to historical detail with hints of fantasy such as an unnavigable labyrinth full of treasure and an evil doppelganger for Ramses. For me, some of the more interesting passages in the book concerned Ramses’s relationships with women, but these threads were often only partially developed before being abandoned.

As a political study, it’s difficult to see how this book was intended to apply to the modern era. Prus may have envisioned the novel as a metaphor for the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which took place about a century before the book’s publication. Though its depiction of an evil priesthood would seem to imply an antireligious stance, the real target of the book appears to be the aristocracy or governmental bureaucracy. If anything, Prus argues in favor of a strong central authoritarian rule, which may explain why this was one of Joseph Stalin’s favorite books.

As a literary epic of the ancient world, The Pharaoh and the Priest doesn’t measure up to Quo Vadis, Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô, or even Lew Wallace’s rather dull Ben-Hur. Prus is a writer worth reading, but I much prefer his writing when he focuses on his native Poland, as in his excellent 1880 novel The Returning Wave (Powracajaca Fala).
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