A secretive archaeologist’s obsession with an obscure Egyptian king uncovers several concealed histories—in Phillips’s clever, labyrinthine successor to his prizewinning debut (Prague, 2002).
In the fuller of its twin narratives, Oxford-educated Egyptologist Ralph Trilipush describes (via his journals and correspondence) his quest for the tomb of Atum-hadu, a monarch of the doomed XIIIth Theban dynasty—financed by American clothing store mogul C.C. Finneran. Trilipush is a grand mal eccentric and megalomaniac, whose translations of Atum-hadu’s erotic “admonitions” (published as Desire and Deceit in Ancient Egypt) have scandalized and irked reputable fellow scholars. Is Trilipush a charlatan? That’s the opinion of retired Australian private detective Harold Ferrell, who, as a nursing home patient in 1954, pens garrulous letters to the nephew of C.C.’s formerly opium-addicted partygirl daughter Margaret, to whom Trilipush had become engaged (though not for her father’s wealth, as Trilipush’s letters fervently proclaim). The two stories are connected by Ferrell’s investigation of the disappearance of young Aussie Egyptophile Paul Caldwell in the very year (1922) and place where and when Trilipush was investigating Atum-hadu’s (possibly apocryphal) history as emblematic of the classic “Tomb Paradox”: attempting to achieve immortality by concealing all evidence that one has ever lived. This is a suave, elegant novel, replete with sinuously composed sentences and delicious wordplay (“brogue” as a verb; “claustrophilia” to describe Trilipush’s pyramidal burrowings, etc.); it’s reminiscent of both Angus Wilson’s brilliant comic novel Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and Vladimir Nabokov’s postmodernist masterpiece Pale Fire (Phillips plants a half-buried allusion to the latter late in the book). Alas, it’s also intermittently labored and redundant. The mysteries of Trilipush’s veracity and sexual orientation are endlessly worried, as is his hubristic rivalry with historical Egyptologist Howard Carter (discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamen).
Nonetheless, Phillips’s formidable research and witty prose make this one well worth your time. He’s quite possibly a major novelist in the making.