August 01, 2004

Behind the Book: Pyramid scheme

Behind the Book by
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Arthur Phillips' critically acclaimed debut, Prague, was a bestseller in 2002. His inventive second novel, The Egyptologist, takes readers into the competitive world of post-World War I Egyptology, where a glory-seeking young archeologist bets his career and his fiancée's fortune on the discovery of the tomb of an apocryphal pharaoh. Phillips, who studied at Harvard and is a five-time "Jeopardy!" champion, explains here what prompted his interest in this unusual subject. We'll leave it to readers to decide just how much to believe.

Readers often challenge authors to identify the myriad streamlets that flowed together to form the river of a novel: How did you think of that? How much is true? How did you research it? To the best of my recollection, here are the tributary events that led to The Egyptologist.

Several years ago, I was at a Kinko's in Sink, Oklahoma, bored, photocopying my remarks for The Sink Literary Festival's panel on The Self in Flight from Itself: Understanding the Author as Pathological Liar when, in the blue recycling bin at my feet, I noticed the distinct first page of a handwritten letter. Despite the poor toner quality, I could make out a date from 1952 and a series of lovelorn complaints. The writer accused Beloved, hated Doris of any number of violations of his love. Oddly, among the other crimes, the writer's wrath was most righteous over a betrayal of some obscure academic debate: But, Doris, your decision to side with the know-nothings of Egyptology in denying the historical veracity of King Atum-hadu has wounded me more than all your petty cruelty, your crude tauntings, your low-cut End of page, and none beneath it. I didn't know anything about Egyptology (I still don't) but the idea of a lover enraged over such a dusty topic caught me.

I certainly didn't have a novel, just a sniff of something, and I didn't smell it again for two years until, at a museum in Thailand, battling the heat and jet lag while walking through an exhibit on the 18th-century Siamese Queen Shlipralithpur, I was bored again. I noticed four young women speaking a Slavic language, maybe Polish. I recognized only two accented words: Shlipralithpur and Atum-hadu. The coincidence awoke me, and I recalled Doris' love-shattering controversial position. What possible relationship could that ancient king have to this opium-gobbling girl-queen of Siam or to these sun-burnt Slavic beauties (who spoke not one word in common with any language I could sputter, but one of whom, when I repeated Atum-hadu, smiled broadly and slowly drew in my notebook a series of the most exquisitely vulgar hieroglyphs)? I was hooked; I smelled the simmering stock of a novel. The process of inspiration is impenetrable, at least at the time, but I remember that I was fiercely determined (in a way I rarely am, as laziness is my ruling humor) to learn about Atum-hadu.

My research took a year. The only public documents even mentioning Atum-hadu were located in the People's Library of Ancient Cultures, a squat 1970s concrete lump in a Beijing neighborhood split between lesser university disciplines and adult-video importers. It took some finagling, but I was permitted a scant 90 minutes of supervised access to the archives. I didn't know what I was looking for, but I found it at minute 86: the same series of obscene hieroglyphs I had last seen 13 months earlier in Bangkok. I began feverishly copying everything, though of course I couldn't understand the symbols. I managed to scribble only one paragraph in my four minutes. And then the document was snatched away.

Home a week later, I went in search of an Egyptologist to translate the paragraph for me. A cosmic sigh: the very first Egypt scholar I found at my local community college was a young, sun-burnt Russian emigre named Doris. Her translation:


The invaders cut through Atum-hadu's defenders. Their faces spattered with the blood of a decade's slaughter, their howls ringing out as they reached at last for their prize, maddened by their strict diet of war, promised blinding plunder and terrified victims, they poured into Atum-hadu's court. There they gaped at the defiantly exuberant courtiers of Atum-hadu: feasting, dancing to the intricate music of their king's composition, riding trained camels and, along the defenses, on the floors, and on tables engaging one another in combinations and postures the invaders could never have conceived of, even after a decade of desert isolation where their thoughts had nowhere to turn but upon the faraway pleasures of the flesh.


Doris read the translation to me in her lilting accent as a dusty sunbeam alit on her face, and soon after I began work on the novel which is now The Egyptologist.


Arthur Phillips

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The Egyptologist

The Egyptologist

By Arthur Phillips
Random House
ISBN 9781400062508

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