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Cheops : a cupboard for the sun /
by Paul West.
New York : New Directions, c2002.
261 p. : ill. ; 22 cm.
0811215199 (alk. paper)
More Details
New York : New Directions, c2002.
0811215199 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Osiris loves to have an amaryllis by his greasy plate, even when, as now, he does not eat. With a curt smile, he rises from the table, pauses halfway down the stairs and drops his cigar-butt into the fire-bucket on the landing. A swift faint fizz follows, then he descends the rest of the way, songfully wondering why so few of his tenants have turned out to greet the arriving guest, a "reporter" from 500 B.C., making his second visit, by camel, donkey, and sloop.

Osiris does not know, but he is sure the king will be ready for this visitor, who's hot and bothered, especially when on tedious royal assignments such as this; and after all the fuss and protocol of visas and permits. The visitor, a German-sounding Herr Rodotus, actually a Greek, tends to arrive with one main idea carefully saved up. And here he comes, shaggy from river travel. Already he has noticed something that recalls his first visit. What was missing then is missing now. They have not advanced, he decides, they're still in the pitchblende era, with manure always lurking. Just look. Nothing has changed.

"Mr. Osiris, sir, how good to meet."

"Drop it, do. Please drop the sir."

Osiris is hardly listening, having tuned in to some of his favorite music, which plays from deep within his brain. Once heard, never forgotten, it is certainly not the music of Egypt, this no doubt adding to its appeal. Herr O'Dotus (Osiris can always spot a pen name) bows, providing another view of his tousled dusty locks. Clearly this Osiris is unaccustomed to receiving guests from far and foreign parts. Not unmannerly, Osiris seems much wrapped up in the trance of the yarn-spinner, unreachable by the short sharp bark of a neglected guest.

"Boiled alive, then diced up," Osiris tells him. "This is why, essentially, I dress as a mummy."

Herr O'Dotus shudders. This is the afterlife already?

"Mere biography," Osiris says. "I reminisce for strangers, just to warm them up for the king. 'Twas a fleeting memory of early subjugation. Remember, this is our time: 2600 B.C., not yours, not yet 500 B.C."

"Got it," Herr O'Dotus says, lying. He is deeply bewildered.

"Of horrors," Osiris is telling him, "watch out for those who would put you under, do you in. This place is crawling with assassins and thieves."

It always was, Herr O'Dotus thinks. They use sleds and boats, pack animals and sedan chairs, but no wheel. Their world does not go round.

Osiris, out in the broiling sun that powders a landscape void of wild flowers, yearns for his upstairs chambers, the peace and ivory quiet of them, chambers such as another civilization might have put together far in the future: gold with the blurting radiance of the naked sun, and white with underground plastered alabaster. Polished gold against white matt. He does not want visitors today, which he has set aside for internal music. Despite his holistic, chronic grasp of tongues, he doesn't want to talk, certainly not about whatever this O'Dotus is yapping about. The sumptuous chords of his Delius music are one thing, but the impetuous bark of O'Dotus is another, and he resents it, as he resents many of his duties. Most of all, he longs for his chambers when the Mildew Maids have taken over, waxing and polishing with lackadaisical vigor: plump Katrina and svelte Marlise, who at the primpy climax of their double act set the spigot exactly between the two parallel basins, and fold the lip of the toilet roll into an envelope's point. Oh to have such mildly interrupted, anachronistic serenity, he thinks, instead of having to oversee this and a thousand other places and other times as well. In the old days, when he had less to do, when so-called civilization was fairly new, he would sit at the provided clavier to make music of his own, but, thanks to a defective left eye (not put together quite right after he was dismembered), he could never read the left-hand music on the stand. With experience has come tedium; with augmented power a surly reluctance, and a partially suppressed desire to do appalling things. Don't tempt me, Osiris is thinking, as O'Dotus blathers on. I have unnatural powers at my disposal, and I am not bound by the constraints of time and space. I am the ideal. I am the only one to greet you, and I am not a man at all. "What may I do for you? What do you think I'll do for you? Need you be here at all?"

"Point the way to His Majesty, sire," O'Dotus tells him. "I've come a far piece. I never did meet him, though I did write him up according to legend. Lead the way if you will."

Off they go by the boats, the huge diaphanous shape of Osiris going first. Through him, O'Dotus can still see the land- and river-scape: a mirage maybe through another mirage. Perhaps what lies in store will be riot and confusion, mayhem in a blink. Osiris seems to glide above ground, above sand, while O'Dotus limps along behind, legs still cramped from his journey through the Nile Delta southward, against the current as far as Memphis. At one point, a change of boats had been needed for the Nile's tawny embrace, and imprinted on his brain, something emblematic: a marsh cattleman was lifting a huge rat aloft by the tip of its well-planted tail as if in triumph, the whole animal as long as his arm. O'Dotus noted the scene on papyrus, hoping for more. He has come to observe. His vocation is looking. Aisesthai , he murmured to the heaving river, I look, I see; I am a Grecian aesthete. Seeing this, as he sees all things, Osiris scoffed and rocked the boat in his mind's eye, roughening the ride, promising himself the Greek would receive an aesthetic kick in the rear sooner or later.

Meanwhile, the king sits waiting, fondling his daughter in an absent way, pondering his first and last pyramid. Better late than never, he thinks. I have really done it this time. They even come from Greece to admire what we do. I could tease him by offering to build him one of his own.


I learn Greek from his lies (his rosy-fingered dawn and all such semi-military bombast). He tells me how a certain queen had her coffin set above a city gate, crammed with gold: a treasury for paupers, and how the Massagetae ate the corpses of their aged relatives. When I wake, after dreaming of birds of prey that cruise in vain over the ocher desert, wadi upon wadi, I never get back to sleep-the middle-aged lack of which in its profoundest form makes for love-handles and paunch, or so the Greek has told me. Now, I tremble too much that, in the offing, the same pirate awaits me. This fellow's lips are a-bubble with lies about Egypt, and I wonder how any one man can know so much unless lying about it.

To acquaint him with some kind of truth, I have one small working group diverted from the pyramid proper (to reward them, I'll pamper their families, fatten them with fish and beef cut up on open-air slabs). The group will demonstrate to him how we plan a pyramid from the first, clearing a small area as if it were a plateau, and then assembling upon it a dozen or so smaller and smaller square boards, so that the resulting structure resembles an untidy step-pyramid. "That's how," I tell him. "A miniature in the mind's eye, more for me than for them. Lifting big blocks they get injured, but my, how they soldier through out of homage, just to work."

We have the same old argument each day, at the start of our so-called interview. "Tell me again," I say.

"I write so that the deeds of men not be effaced by time."

"Why should they not? Have you never heard of life-weariness, when someone gets sick of everything and wants to lay down his tools, not be remembered for anything , but sink into the dust, sand and lime, be forgotten?"

"Surely," he answers, "you don't have yourself in mind. If I've ever seen a case of grand megalomania, it's you, your majesty, if I may."

"Hogwash, Erodo. I could have your tripes cut out and fried in front of you for that. One Greek more or less would hardly matter."

"Just my point, sire. That's what I'm talking about."

"Oh, you are talking about important men?"

"Men important by their circumstances, no matter who they are. That would include me." I lip-synch his Greek with wry finitude.

This self-styled democrat is a blusterer, really, ever mauled and mangled by interpreters, but clear enough to be recognized for what he is and would like to be. We don't get that many Greeks coming our way, although they've been overrun time and time again by Persians. Perhaps that has put him on the defensive. Like certain women, tempted but ready to flee, he has a special way of loitering, easily plucked back, but light-footed in case of panic.

How he stares at me, wolf-like, seeing (no doubt) how I tend to cock my head to one side, also a dog-like posture; but in my case a quizzical indulgence half-suggesting leniency. My eyes are blue to him (they are really green), their pupils sunk low toward the ground as if to simulate some rising horror, even as my tipped head suggests I might welcome its arrival. What affronts him, I think, is the expanse of white above the iris, which leaves half my eyes buried behind the lower lids. He thinks I am hiding something, refusing to look at something, recoiling from some unmentionable gorgon, some gross beast of the dunes. What a hanger-on he can be, everyone saying to me why don't you deknacker him and ram his severed head into a bag of blood? He's no good to us, he's a bloody Greek who's bound to get it all wrong, slander us to a man, and certainly misreport your own valiant magnificence. I never do, nor do I set him to work building or even sweeping sewage. There is something fiercely intact about him, as if he had been educated almost beyond the resources of his personality, but not quite. A good-humored jester, yes. An imaginer rather than a wise historian. No doubt what I like about him is that he seems to embody licentious guesswork, demonstrating spunk rather than accuracy. So: suffer him another week, then; suck the old coot dry.

Now, what was it he said about being unable to learn our language? It was as if it was a language unspoken, he said, a silent dumb-show, written with loving care for goats-with clouds (rare), embers and skiffs; but requiring work for the undercover mind.

"Like a code?" I asked, but he seemed to ignore me.

"More like a sign language," he said. "Requiring an instrument more resonant than the human voice to get it across. The race of Egyptians should have been born deaf-mutes so as to best keep their language to themselves."

A Greek joke? I could not tell. I told him Greek if anything was too public, sounding too much used by orators. "You have loudmouths," I said, "you are a loudmouth people. We have heard. You all gather and yell. Our language is a magic lantern show; it flits past you like a daydream. And you wonder if you've been dozing at the public baths, subject to some idyll of plentiful water and soft billowing muslin. You may be right about its evanescent qualities, it being closer to the gods than Greek ever will be, and with all those mathematicians messing about with it; but also I think you have to credit it with its lists, it is a wonderful tongue in which to amass lists of provender. If it is eerie, it is also severely practical. In Egyptian you know where everything is, and whom it belongs to. In Greek? Well, I won't ask you. Different horses ..." He wrote it down. He is learning fast, although he still has trouble adjusting to our chairs with their short legs, an easy sit for crouching Egyptians, but for him a bitterly disguised torment. I tell him to wait until fashions change and there he will be with his legs dangling. (A man on a throne, though, knows how to tuck his feet under as if they might be chopped off by some envious rebel.) He does not like to sleep sloping downward, he explains, his feet touching the bottom rail. Such a posture amounts to slithering, he says, and he always wakes (he's lucky he does wake!) feeling he has lost weight during the night.

I would not indulge him but for his brains, which are agile and constructive, sometimes too much so, as when he equips us with a history we have never known. I ask him why. "Why fake it," I ask, "when you can document everything that is around you?"

"For the sake of pageantry," he says, intent upon his prowess as a writer-not merely a recorder, or a witness. It is not how things are that impresses him, but how they affect his mind and heart, what he makes of them; and this leads him into wild conjectures, voluptuous garblings of the details our lives are made of. I do believe he is an old heroic poet looking in life for what may not ever be there. Tell him a bogus legend and he at once believes it, eager to know how some willing hearer would regard it; and this is how he compiles his "tapestry of facts," as he calls them. In this way, he dotes on curiosities, which he is very quick to discover-as when, peering at my eyes, he finds the minor twist in my left from constant blinking, which enables me to see better with the other one. He says the Greeks have several words for this, but such words, I tell him, apply to Greek eyes only. My own have gazed on wonders that no Greek ever dreamed of, and so be it. Cosmopolitan, he says.

No, only of this region, I tell him, for once playing him at his own game.

He scoffs, but writes it down, as he always does, fattening his load of legend with the story and its author, forever attributing, and thus getting himself off the hook. If a million dead men would write a lifetime's books for him, he would let them. His head is a vast bureau. He is a snapper-up, a diagnostician of morsels. And, on this day, he seems to have an endless fund of beguiling samples (a capital entertainer he seems, needing only a thin rug and a pot of sup). I am glad to humor him, but he will never by my keeper of antiquities.

Oh well, better to have an Erodo on the premises in the springtime of his career than endlessly debate mediocre politics and the captious behavior of the Nile with my juniors, I who have long pondered the chances of an unprecedented exit from this planet, much as Erodo plotted his swoop and dive into Egypt. I always wanted somewhere else to go , much as I loved the people I was born to rule, I wanted a different dimension not mine alone, but as willing to house me as a quite silent pyramid. Not Greece, oh no, where your tenure would be always uncertain, or the Moon, too lonely even for an Egyptian pharaoh.


Excerpted from CHEOPS by PAUL WEST Copyright © 2002 by Paul West
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2002-09-30:
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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, September 2002
Kirkus Reviews, October 2002
Washington Post, November 2002
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