Monday, February 23, 2015

Colleen Manassa, Imagining the Past: Historical Fiction in New Kingdom Egypt - A Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.02.27

Colleen Manassa, Imagining the Past: Historical Fiction in New Kingdom Egypt.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xxviii, 339.  ISBN 9780199982226.

Reviewed by Nikolaos Lazaridis, California State University, Sacramento 

Colleen Manassa, the William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Associate Professor of Egyptology at Yale University, has demonstrated in her publications over the past decade a remarkable breadth of research interests and scholarly skills. In this latest monograph she revisits four previously published New Kingdom texts, exploring their themes, form, language, and scope, and considering them as fair representatives of ancient Egyptian historical fiction. These texts are: the Quarrel of Apepi and Seqenenre, the Capture of Joppa, Thutmose III in Asia, and the Libyan Battle Story. Her study is thorough, well-written, and multi-layered; it may serve not only as these texts’ proper introduction for an audience not familiar with them, such as students or non-Egyptologists, but also as a well-rounded reconsideration of these texts’ reconstruction and interpretation for experts.

The four central chapters constitute her text-by-text analysis. These are preceded by an introduction to Egyptian historical fiction and its important interconnections to other Egyptian genres of writing and are followed by a short final chapter where the author summarizes the results of her analysis and treats them as defining features of this genre.

In Chapter 1 the author first discusses her definition of historical fiction as “narrative in which a process of historical events is itself an actor within the plot and whose characters are directly and repeatedly influenced by those events” (p. 3).1 Then she proceeds to introduce the four tales, relating their production and circulation to the intellectual context of Egypt’s temple and scribal cultures and stressing their dynamic intertextuality with earlier and contemporary historical narratives. Next, the author engages with Mikhail Bakhtin’s famous “chronotope”, arguing that these tales’ particular treatment of spatiotemporal aspects distinguishes them from other types of Egyptian narrative. Finally, the author briefly discusses the tales’ “paratextual elements”, pointing out, among other things, that their mixed Late Egyptian and Middle Egyptian grammar could be taken as an additional sign of their fictionality, and that possibly the tales’ transmission followed parallel oral and written paths.

The next four chapters are structured in the same way: each begins by discussing first the historical events that are integrated in each text’s narrative and second the papyrus (or papyri) containing it. The text is then broken into short units which are analyzed in terms of their language and meaning. Among the numerous strengths of this analysis, one may single out the following: (a) the nearly exhaustive discussion of debatable terms and passages, leading in most cases to intriguing new interpretations (e.g. the notion of “pestilence” and its mythico-historical connotations on pp. 43-6);2 (b) the significant connections drawn to other Egyptian or foreign texts that demonstrate in many cases intertextual potentials (e.g. parallel references to aspects of real military life for pragmatic purposes in the Capture of Joppa and Sinuhe on p. 79);3 (c) the author’s tireless attempts to use meaningfully the sociohistorical context in her interpretations (e.g. the discussion of Egyptian military campaigns against the Libyans and their influence over the plot in the Libyan Battle Story on pp. 118-120); and (d) the author’s laudable flexibility in interpreting some of these texts’ features as entertainment-oriented and other ones purely historically (e.g. the note on possible physical humor in the Capture of Joppa on p. 84).

In the last chapter the author sums up her major observations on the four texts and draws several interesting conclusions on their function, theology, and relationship with historiographical writings, for instance that Apophis and Seqenenre is a humorous introduction to a manual of letter writing or that despite Seth’s role as protector of foreign peoples in such stories he never acts against Egypt Following the insightful observations by Richard Parkinson on earlier Egyptian literature, the author concludes that “New Kingdom works of historical fiction served the same role as Middle Kingdom literature in addressing comparable societal change and anxiety, while at the same time not losing sight of humor and playfulness” (p. 145).

The book ends with four appendices in which the author provides the reader with each text’s transcription, translation, and brief philological commentary. These appendices are addressing exclusively an expert audience, since her comments are clearly intended to fill in gaps or revise earlier publications and scholarly arguments.

Overall, Colleen Manassa’s study of New Kingdom historical fiction is well-researched and elegantly-written, illustrating well the significant amount of historical and cultural information a well-versed scholar like her may be able to extract from such (sometimes frustratingly fragmentary) ancient tales. For non-Egyptologists her book may serve as reliable introduction to New Kingdom narrative writing, offering important insight into the literary expressions of Egyptian imperial culture.


1.   By choosing this definition the author skillfully distinguishes between Egyptian narratives whose plot actively involved a sequence of historical events and narratives that used historical events or persons only passively as settings for their fictional tales (as is the case, for instance, with the Eloquent Peasant). 
2.   Despite the fact that the author acknowledges on several occasions the limitations caused by gaps in the evidence, there are some interpretive attempts which are based more on speculation than concrete evidence. For example, the assumption that the initial part of the Libyan Battle Story was set in Heliopolis is supported solely by the epithet “Heliopolitan”, which referred to a god whose name is lost in the lacuna (123 and 198). 
3.   Some of the proposed signs of intertextuality, however, seem stretched. This, for instance, is the case with the assumed echo of a statement from the Kadesh Battle poem in lines 2-3 of the Thutmose III in Asia, discussed on p. 111.

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