Reading Challenges

January 8, 2011

Napoloen's Pyramids by William Dietrich

Napeoloen's Pyramids (2007) begins in Paris where Ethan Frame, an American expat who once assisted Benjamin Franklin and carries a tomahawk, wins a mysterious medallion of unknown origins during a game of cards. His prize turns out to be a grave liability and unknown adversaries will stop at nothing to retrieve it. As a result, Gage is framed for murder and looks for a way out of France. With a little help from his Masonic friends in Paris, he devises a plan to set sail from Toulon with Napoleon's army for the French invasion of Egypt. Instead of remaining incognito among the expedition forces as he'd hoped, things become even further complicated on the African continent. Both the medallion's value and purpose remain a mystery that newfound friends (or foes?) in Cairo may be able to solve...

Like so many classic mystery adventures of note, Napoleon's Pyramids has all the trappings of a good travelling story: from the bustling City of Light in transition to the cradle of civilization, with an appearance of Gypsies, a British renegade and an evil Italian count, it's easy to be swept up in Dietrich's compelling tale.  Added to the excitement of the narrative is the historical accuracy found in the first half of the book that details Napoleon's great strategy and the lives and pursuits of the savants invited to Egypt alongside the army: artists, scientists, and other academics of note. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt is one of the most important events in world history that changed our understanding of culture as we know it. Prior to 1789, Egyptology was non-existent. Imagine a world without the archetypal mystery of the pyramids, the decoding of the Rosetta Stone, or our seemingly timeless obsession with mummies! All of it can be traced back to this invasion, which is by no means an endorsement of the invasion or colonialism, but a reminder of just how different our world would be without the love affair we've had with Egypt since the time of Napoloen's conquest. 

Aside from my overall enjoyment of the novel, I'm not very keen on the author's attitude towards women. On one hand, we can argue that our hero's only trustworthy aide in Egypt is the slave (later revealed to be a priestess), Astiza.  She's learned, quick thinking and gets Gage out of more than one jam. However, the way the women are described in the book, from prostitutes to the more educated variety, deal with their breasts or other physical attributes in a way that I found unsettling.  These passages don't last long and aren't even a central aspect of the book, but for readers sensitive to gender issues, they are problematic nonetheless. The setting of the book is certainly that of a man's world, but we're left with the unpleasant feeling that the author rather likes it that way...

You can read an interview with the author about writing Napoleon's Pyramids HERE.

Napoleon's Pyramids also allowed me to make an interesting connection: the French artist Vivant Denon (1747-1825), famous for his engravings, accompanied Napoleon during his invasion of Egypt and is responsible for some of the West's first images of Egyptian antiquity. Recognizing the name from a local museum, I learned that Denon is from the same département (French equivalent of a county)  that I live in. I'll be revisiting the Musée Denon soon to see if I can get a glimpse of his engravings, many of which are also housed in the Louvre and at the British Museum today. 

Vivant Denon

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