August 29, 2005

Book review: The Linguist and the Emperor.

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

i wanna read!

p.s. why weren't you at the pool party this weekend? i rode the alligator.

Posted by: michele at August 29, 2005 12:36 PM

Er... I don't know. We just didn't really get around to it. There was the farmer's market and an errand to the bike shop to be run and then the coming home mid-afternoon all tired and thinking that Jacob had to go to lab in an hour when actually it was more like 4 hours and we could have gone to the pool party if only we'd known. But we didn't know. Alas.

You're welcome to borrow the book. Jacob, are you in line for it or shall I loan it to Michele first?

Posted by: Dianna at August 29, 2005 01:04 PM

Ah! Here is the mysterious person (still unknown to me, I should point out) talking about the huge grain of salt.

Posted by: Dianna at August 29, 2005 01:11 PM

I still need to finish The Confusion and The Pinball Effect, so you should loan away.

Posted by: Jacob at August 29, 2005 01:27 PM

And Bee Season and The Ancient Engineers and your book of Vernor Vinge stories and and and and...

Michele, the next time I see you I will bookify you. When will that be?

Posted by: Dianna at August 29, 2005 01:35 PM

ummm....maybe this weekend? you want to go to some natural water slides somewhere up north? we were contemplating planning a trip. they're all, you know, rocky and rivers and waterfalls and rapids and big pools and swimming and sunning.

Posted by: michele at August 29, 2005 01:45 PM

Wh... m... hb... where? What? Me? When? How?

Tell me more, you intriguing creature!

Posted by: Dianna at August 29, 2005 01:56 PM

north, i think 2 hours. waterslides out in the wild, my brother goes to them every summer and says it's marv. you! (kristen and i were thinking about it, so also gene, jacob, anyone else who wants to go) saturday? by car.

i'm trying to get more info from my brother right now. he says yuba river somewhere past placerville.

Posted by: michele at August 29, 2005 02:07 PM

my bro has no further details though he says he can draw a map. and the internet is offering me nothing on the yuba river and waterslides. still, i'm willing to take his word for it. he came back home from it last time sunburned and walking with a bit of stiffness, so if it hurts, it must be fun.

on a side note, currently he's making me listen to a jewish reggae beat-boxer. interesting.

Posted by: michele at August 29, 2005 02:24 PM

Put me down as very interested and hopefully going. Not for the reggae stuff, I mean the waterslides. Saturday sounds good to me.

Posted by: Dianna at August 29, 2005 02:33 PM

excellent! convince jacob too, ok? i'll send an email to you all.

Posted by: michele at August 29, 2005 02:37 PM


Posted by: Jacob at August 30, 2005 09:41 AM

I worked really hard to convince him, you know.

Posted by: Dianna at August 30, 2005 11:41 AM

did you say something like, "jacob, bikini!"?

it was the promise of you in a bikini and possibly losing it on a waterslide that got him wasn't it? he was all picturing the waterfall and you standing beneath it sans top and flipping your hair back, huh? i've seen that movie with brooke shields. i know what you get up to under waterfalls.

Posted by: michele at August 30, 2005 11:54 AM

Well, I was thinking that bikini bottoms plus rough scratchy rock wouldn't be great. So it would be me under the waterfall in my cutoff shorts, but it's still a good idea.

Jacob, half bikini!

Posted by: Dianna at August 30, 2005 12:48 PM

Jacob, in a half bikini!

Posted by: Dianna at August 30, 2005 12:51 PM

does the bi of bikini stand for 2? uno-kini! why would i think this? bicycle, unicycle? is that it? uni-kini!

Posted by: michele at August 30, 2005 01:01 PM

A unikini sounds like a quaint Hawaiian stringed instrument. Of course, if you figure that it's a string bikini then maybe it makes sense.

Posted by: Dianna at August 30, 2005 01:24 PM

Sadly, no. While it seems like this would work (assuming that -kini is latin for "-piece bathingsuit) the bikini was actually named by its designer for the Bikini Atoll, where the US first tested the hydrogen bomb. If wikipedia is to be believed, it acquired its name from the inventor's theory that it would strike the fashion world like an atom bomb.

Posted by: Zach S. at August 30, 2005 03:03 PM

I was going to call you a killjoy, but the thing about hitting the fashion world like an atom bomb is really extremely cool.

Posted by: Dianna at August 31, 2005 11:33 AM