Monday, May 14, 2007

Trust No One: The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips

The device of the untrustworthy narrator is an intriguing one. Among other things, it forces the narrator to become more of an active character in his or her own story. Anybody actively involved in interpreting history can tell you that it's a very similar experience to reading a book with an untrustworthy narrator. You have two written accounts of what is apparently the same event, one in a letter and one in a diary. Yet, the letter has the event occuring in 1868, and the diary has the event occuring in 1869. Why? Assuming subsequent diary entries are of no help, who's right? Are there, in fact, two separate events, or one?

In The Egyptologist, Arthur Phillips uses this device to great effect. To begin with, there are not one but two untrustworthy narrators: Ralph Trilipush, the Egyptologist to whom the title refers, and Harold Ferrell, retired and ailing private detective. Both tell their stories through letters. Ralph's letters were written in 1922 (as Howard Carter excavates King Tutankhamun's tomb) to his fiancee, Margaret Finneran. Harold's letters are written in the present, to an heir of Margaret's who has tracked him down in the course of a genealogical project.

Neither writer reveals their untrustworthiness until the story unfolds and you have already won their trust. The story is a tangled one that ranges over four continents and several decades. Briefly put, Trilipush is in Egypt, attempting to locate and excavate the tomb of Atum-Hadu, the last pharoah before the Hyksos invaded Egypt, a plan he has been trying to bring to fruition for four years. On the surface, things sound quite rosy: not only is he in the process of making his professional dream come true, but he is engaged to a beautiful, lively, wealthy woman. He is under a great deal of pressure, though: his colleagues have nothing but scorn for him, his position at Harvard is precariuous, and his fiancee's father is financing his dig and is expecting a tremendous return on his investment.

In walks Ferrell. Ferrell is engaged in investigating possible heirs to a brewer's fortune. Trilipush becomes a subject of this investigation when it becomes clear that he was likely the last person to see Ferrell's quarry, a man named Paul Caldwell. Ferrell tracks Trilipush to Harvard and Boston, where of course, he is not. After an interview with Margaret Finneran and her father, he is engaged to further investigate Trilipush and see what he can dig up.

I have to confess that I saw some of the final plot twists coming, although not all of them. The ride is worth it, however, and leaves the reader with certain lingering questions about where the truth lies, perhaps a strange feeling for the non-historian, but a familiar one with those who do historical research on any kind of regular basis.

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