I have to preface this review by retracting almost everything I said last week about The Ancient Engineers. I need to do that so that I can then take those things and say them about The Linguist and the Emperor instead.
The Linguist and the Emperor (Daniel Meyerson, 2004) is not, as I first imagined, a history. It's ostensibly the sweeping historical tale of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, the recovery of the Rosetta Stone, and the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphs by the linguist Jean-Francois Champollion. It is undoubtedly a sweeping tale. It was undoubtedly written with the aid of a great many historical sources. That isn't necessarily saying much; The Clan of the Cave Bear was written with a great many historical sources too. It is not a history. This is not a history either.
This isn't to say that histories are the only acceptable reading material. I finished this book in under a week and raved about it the entire time. The writing is lyrical and sensual, and the main characters - Napoleon and Champollion - are written as strange, vivid, twitchy visionaries. The book's timeline is so bizarrely turned around on itself that without the year and place headings at the beginning of each chapter the reader would be utterly lost. With the headings, of course, the reader is merely (delightfully) lost after three paragraphs when, say, Champollion is reading about a late Egyptian prince who is reading about an early Egyptian prince who has heard of an ancient book made by the god of writing himself. At points like that a single unclarified "he" can unseat the reader for pages at a time.
That's part of the reason it's not a history: stories from the texts that the characters are finding and reading are woven into the main story anywhere and everywhere they'll fit. In some parts there are so many secondary stories tucked in that the main story is more like a framework for them than a proper story of its own; think Arabian Nights with the book itself as a narrator, if that's not too self-contradictory. The other part of the reason it's not a history is that, wherever a piece of a story (digressive or otherwise) is unclear, the author grabs freely whichever interpretations of it are most interesting and dramatic. If the most interesting version isn't the one most likely to be true, well, truth can go and hang.
So is this a rave review or a scathing one? Mostly rave. It's a lavishly, flowingly obsessive book that's impossible to put down. It imparts to the reader the wild-eyed engrossment of the characters: as long as there's more story to unfold (which, thanks to the convoluted storyline, there always is), you the reader can no more stop reading than Champollion could stop deciphering or Napoleon could stop trying to conquer the world. That's a fantastically enjoyable experience.
Now the comparison to The Ancient Engineers. If that was a history, this is a novel. If that was a description of people's work, this is a paean to their personalities. If that could be trusted on the essential facts, this should be read with a real history in the other hand. Er, if that tended toward war, this one tends toward pederasty. No, I'm not too sure why. It's a good book. It's a fun book. It's not necessarily a true book. As someone (please claim your credit because I can't remember who you are) said about the last Star Wars movie, you need a separate seat for the huge grain of salt that sits next to you. Buy it a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the book, both of you.Posted by dianna at August 29, 2005 11:56 AM