A pharaoh, an incubus, life as texture

Novels Of March

March 12, 2000|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

Accompanying this early spring's burst of first novels comes publication of Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mafouz's 1985 "Akhenaten: Dweller In Truth," (Anchor Books, 168 pages, $12), the tale of Pharaoh Akhenaten, also known as the "sun king," and "the heretic." Defying the priests of Amun, Akhenaten chooses to worship a god of love and compassion. For this defiance of tradition and the prevailing power structure of priests and military, he is slandered and driven both from office and from history.

In Rashomon-fashion, a narrator seeks to learn the truth about this mysterious figure. Visiting friends and enemies, and ending with the widow Nefertiti, herself the victim of history's harsh hand of disinformation, he discovers the disparity between reality and official versions of history.

About Akhenaten, little that is rumored turns out to be true, except that he is frail and lacks physical beauty. Mafouz brilliantly suggests that sexual slander, taunting the manhood of a leader, and denigrating his sexuality (Akhenaten is accused of incest), is an inevitable part of any campaign to discredit radical views.

"Do not let the teachings of the dead shackle your hands when you work," Akhenaten advised Bek, the sculptor and his closest friend. Eschewing violence and war, attempting to serve the needs of the people, the first pharaoh to believe in one God is awarded with oblivion. This is a lovely novel, philosopical in bent, and gratifying for the dryness, irony and passion with which it explores its searing truths.

Mafouz, of course, is a master. The current publishing energy now being directed toward encouraging first novels finds expression pervasively in a wide variety of styles and themes. "A Member of the Family" by Susan Merrell (HarperCollins, 350 pages, $25) treats the topical, here the adoption of Romanian orphans by American families.

Merrell defies sentimentality as she depicts Michael, adopted at 18 months and already so damaged that despite every effort he is beyond help. Having witnessed his father kill his mother and then being left for days alone, he is, by the age of 5, a sociopath. The setting is a Sag Harbor of locals descended from whaling captains, which protects itself from all outsiders in what in this context seems a salutary approach.

A sense of forboding permeates this novel. The fascination lies in watching what the incubus will do next, how much damage he will inflict on his well-meaning adoptive parents Deborah and Chris, and their daughter Caro, before he is expelled from the heart of the family. "He's our son," Deborah murmurs helplessly. "He isn't ever going to make us proud," Chris realizes.

This tragedy of psychological deformation implanted early, and becoming pure evil, is powerful. "A Member of the Family" concludes on a dazzling insight. The horror 5-year-old Michael has wrought will color his sister Caro's entire life, even as he disappears forever: "he had made her, just as grit creates a pearl."

Another beautifully written debut novel is "66 Laps" by Leslie Lehr Spirson (Random House, 214 pages, $19.95). Spirson's themes are trust and suspicion, and self-sabotage. Audrey at 32, a victim of a culture gone bad, Los Angeles its symbol, concludes that a few gray hairs presage old age. Persuaded that her husband Jim is betraying her with a groupie named Kim, she undermines the safety of her family with tragic results.

Spirson profoundly challenges the wisdom of women returning to home and hearth to the exclusion of meaningful work. With time on her hands, and too little intellectual and moral occupation, with self and narcissism as her resultant guiding principles, Audrey creates a disaster far worse than anything she had imagined. By the end, as the diminished family attempts to survive, no one has learned anything as, all too often, in life.

"Lunch With Elizabeth David" by Roger Williams (Carroll & Graf, 352 pages, $24.95) mixes real-life figures like food authority David, writer Norman Douglas and novelist Graham Greene with fictional personages. This first novel tellingly invokes the pre-Great War world of English travelers and bon vivants like Douglas, whose trunk is his only residence and who appropriates little boys along the way.

There is little of plot, only settings from Tanganyika to London to Capri, and meals that Douglas chronicles in his diary. Life is texture, Williams proclaims. Mood and the ambiance of a variety of European cultures make this first novel a pleasure to read. Don't miss Greene's walk-on, or Elizabeth David as an old woman who won't eat a piece of fish unless she knows its provenance.

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