Paul West, in his new novel Cheops: A Cupboard for the Sun, turns his attention to the 4th Dynasty (approx. 2680 BC) of ancient Egypt. Here, we find the pharaoh Cheops, building the great pyramids at Giza, surrounded by workers and solar boats. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, "a hundred thousand men were made to toil constantly for him," and, as Herodotus claimed, Egypt was "plunged into all manner of wickedness." In Cheops, West delightfully has Herodotus transported back in time, to meet the great ...
Paul West, in his new novel Cheops: A Cupboard for the Sun, turns his attention to the 4th Dynasty (approx. 2680 BC) of ancient Egypt. Here, we find the pharaoh Cheops, building the great pyramids at Giza, surrounded by workers and solar boats. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, "a hundred thousand men were made to toil constantly for him," and, as Herodotus claimed, Egypt was "plunged into all manner of wickedness." In Cheops, West delightfully has Herodotus transported back in time, to meet the great pharaoh, face to face. Nearing death, getting ready for his final "transportation to the stars," the blind Cheops is obsessed with preparing for his end. All the while, the intrigues of his daughters, sons, wives, and courtiers are revealed, uncovering murder, incest, and rebellion. Perhaps most intriguing is the overarching narration by Osiris, god of the Nile. While managing to "pipe" the music of English composer Frederick Delius into the dying Cheops's ears, he comments on this swarm of events with hilarious and humane authority.
The rest of us will despair of ever being able to write prose so immaculate as that of Paul West.
West (A Fifth of November) examines the legacy of the Egyptian leader who built the great pyramids in his latest historical novel, a vividly imagined but flawed book that begins with the once-powerful Cheops fighting a series of grave illnesses. Decadent palace intrigue ensues as various relatives and factions try to capitalize on his impending death. The proceedings are wryly narrated by Osiris, the god of the underworld, who provides observations and commentary on the imminent downfall of the great leader. West also offers some other perspectives on the action, including that of Cheops's mother-in-law, Merytyetes, and his poetically inclined daughter, Princess Heduanna. Cheops's troubles come to a head when his late wife's body is stolen from her tomb, and the abduction is followed by two murders. The first involves a key palace figure, while the second strikes down Cheops's son, Ka-Wab. The novel turns hallucinatory and downright bizarre in the final section, as West imagines a link between the music of 19th-century English composer Frederic Delius and the burial plans of Cheops. The historical detail is impeccable, and Osiris proves to be a capable guide through Cheops's final days, despite some ponderous prose and a few decidedly modern interpretations of the leader's dilemma. But while West deserves credit for his formidable imagination, the final section of the novel is so erratic that it overshadows and dilutes the power of the earlier material. (Oct. 29) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
West's unparalleled chronological and thematic range is extended still further in his ambitious twentieth novel, set in ancient Egypt during the time (c. 2700 b.c.) of its Fourth Dynasty. In a tactic reminiscent (and worthy) of Gore Vidal, West sends Greek historian Herodotus back in time to interview the aging pharaoh Cheops, as the latter arranges his own immortality by ordering construction of the great pyramids at Giza. "Herr Rodotus," as he's misidentified, is greeted by God of the Nile (and, presumably, doorman) Osiris, whose own tart comments alternate with those voiced by the pharaoh's family and retinue. But Cheops and Herodotus dominate the story's foreground, bonding cautiously, twitting each other slyly about the merits and failings of their respective civilizations, and debating Cheops's insistence that he can feel himself becoming a god. Rudiments of a plot emerge through the (heavy, though not oppressive) miasma of rhetoric: the disappearance of Cheops's (perhaps incestuously inclined) son Ka-wab; the balancing acts performed by his favored daughter Heduanna (educated as a scribe; ever one step ahead of the men who intend to appropriate her); and the wily marital and maternal maneuverings of Cheops's wife (and, formerly, his father's wife) Merytytes, who knows only too well how females may survive ("Woman must ever expect to marry her father, sleep with her brother, be the constant target of uncles and nephews"). What impresses most, however, is West's gorgeously stylized re-creation (obviously carefully researched and, more importantly, vividly imagined) of a surpassingly strange vanished culture. This is most wittily accomplished through the declarations of Cheops and hisinferiors, and in (often hilarious) illustrations of Herodotus's well-known penchant for lurid exaggeration. This adventurous, high-spirited writer is almost always forgotten when prize nominations are announced. The prize-givers might well note that an indisputably major oeuvre is taking shape right before their eyes.