The Amarna Period: Akhnaton, King of Egypt, by Dmitri Merezhkovsky, trans. Natalie Duddington (1927)

Thanks to this list, I was able to find some more fiction for this project of mine.   Merezhkovsky’s novel is one of the earliest listed that is available to me in English.  Nonetheless, it is Russian through and through.

Historical accuracy is beside the point in this work.  Tutankhamon-Tutankhaton is not depicted as a little boy or teenager, but as an officious ambassador of Egypt under Akhnaton.  In a previous book, not available to me, he had gone to Crete and rescued a Cretan dancer named Dio from her execution.  Why he did so is not made clear; he doesn’t have much interest in her, and his personality switches from generous to self-interested to murderous at the touch of narrative need.  The characters wander in and out, ebb and flow from decent to wicked.

This is, however, beside the point.  Unlike most other authors of novels on the subject, Merezhkovsky does not write this book to tell us What Really Happened.  It is a mystical work, jumbling characters and religions from the ancient Near East to ramble towards its thesis – Akhnaton was a pre-incarnation of Christ.  I do not suggest that Merezhkovsky believed this literally, in the way that Ahmed Osman believes that Moses and Akhnaton were the same person, but I also doubt that Merezhkovsky would put so much importance in the question of what he literally believed.

I am not terribly familiar with Russian literature, but this is unmistakably a book written by someone in exile from the Soviet regime, as Merezhkovsky was.  In no other book have I read about a quarrel with a minor bureaucrat to secure a pass to visit the palace.  One lost and despairing character soliloquizes to the dead king: “This is what I am driven to in my dreariness!  It is dreary, Enra, very dreary.  Can it be as bad in your world?  Always the same thing – rotten fish in eternity . . .  Or is it rather different with you?  Is it worse or better?  You are silent?”  Two pages of this.  It’s like an ancient Near Eastern Tolstoy novel, and about as easy to love.

You’re unlikely to run across a copy of this, except perhaps in a good used bookstore.  But if you do, and you pick it up, it shouldn’t be for the experience of typical ancient Egyptian historical fiction.  Merezhkovsky wrote from a time and a perspective that we do not now have, and yet we are no farther or closer to the real people of the Amarna Period than he was.  The book is valuable in itself for other reasons, and those are perhaps best appreciated by a reader of Russian, not myself.

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