Finnish writer Mika Waltari's 100th jubilee year was celebrated in London earlier this month with a seminar entitled The Egyptian: The World of Sinuhe at the British Museum. Lecturers professor Panu Rajala and Dr Richard Parkinson from the British Museum and Mr Faruk Abu-Chacra from the University of Helsinki discussed Waltari's life, his world-famous novel Sinuhe, The Egyptian and the reception of the novel in the Arab world. The seminar was partly organised by the Embassy of Finland in London.
Professor Rajala's lecture covered Waltari's life, his background and career. He also unfolded the writer's true persona. Rajala noted how Waltari superbly captured the spirit of the 1920s and introduced urban romanticism into the Finnish literature scene. Rajala described Waltari as deeply patriotic and referred both to the writer's trilogy From Father to Son and the over a thousand newspaper articles he wrote for use in psychological warfare. The aim was to boost the morale of the soldiers fighting on the frontline and evoke the national spirit.
Rajala described Waltari's book A strange man came to call as a powerful tragedy with erotic and violent scenes. At the time the book was published, it received harsh critisisism and condemnation both from the critics and the audience. As a strong and self-confident man, Waltari disregarded the negative feedback and wrote a sequel for the book, aptly titled The Sequel, which at the time became well-known around Europe. In his lecture Rajala also mentioned Waltari's more popular productions such as the Inspector Palmu books, which are nowadays hugely popular among the younger generation. Rajala stressed that the Palmu books were a pleasant hobby for the writer.
Waltari had always been interested in spies and it came as no surprise that the main character of his principal work, Sinuhe, The Egyptian was a spy as well as a doctor. Another theme that had fascinated Waltari since he was a child was ancient Egypt and the poems depicting it.
The war influenced Waltari's thinking profoundly. It deepened his view and enriched his outlook. Sinuhe, the Egyptian was published in 1945 and it was immediately an immense success, especially in America. Sinuhe was the basis of a big Hollywood movie, which was however a disappointment to both critics and viewers who felt the movie did no justice to the novel's rich and elaborate world. The excellent plot, superb literary standard and in places, bold erotic scenes, gave the novel the brilliance it is known for and established it as one of the greatest books in Finnish literary history.
Rajala cited Waltari's exceptional ability to put common feelings into words. During the time of war people were undoubtedly in low spirits, dreams were shattered and illusions collapsed. Rajala also mentioned how Waltari took note of the astonishing parallels between Europe in a time of war and ancient Egypt. He also skillfully reflected the common feeling towards the ancient world. Waltari's manner of writing forces the reader to challenge himself.
Something that amazes readers is that Waltari never visited Egypt. His highly detailed historical and architectural description of places was so sharply accurate that even many Egyptologists find it extraordinary. It has been said that Waltari consciously wanted to avoid visiting Egypt because it might have ruined the image he already had in his mind. He said: "I have lived in Egypt although I have never visited the place".
Waltari was deeply devoted to ancient Egyptian life and particularly to the old Egyptian tale on which Sinuhe, The Egyptian is based. Challenging the audience Rajala asked rhetorically if Waltari's conservative reputation did him justice. He ended his lecture by saying that despite all the anxiety, Waltari's novel was filled with desperate hope. This aptly reflected the writer's own frame of mind.
Escaping the clutches of Egyptologists
Dr Richard Parkinson, the director and the curator of the Egyptian department of the British Museum, delivered the second lecture on the ancient poems on which Waltari's Sinuhe is based. Thanks to Waltari, Sinuhe - both a doctor and a poet - could “escape the clutches of Egyptologists”, as Parkinson aptly put it. He praised the writer's literary abilities and compared him to the likes of Shakespeare. According to Parkinson, Waltari drew on the themes of the original poems and explored the troubled ethos of life; how life was neither simple nor perfect.
Parkinson criticised the way many writers trivialized the ancient Egyptian life. In a way it is reduced simply to an exotic adventure story. This was widely apparent in modern attitudes and especially strong in Western discussion. Parkinson was highly critical of the Hollywood -made film based on Waltari's Sinuhe, describing it as demeaningly simple and a downright travesty of the novel and the original poem. According to Parkinson, the film tried to justify its existence and importance by using the authority of the novel. The film flopped, as expected.
Parkinson sees Sinuhe as a serious intellectual achievement. It depicts a culture of real human beings in a way achieved by few other novels. Waltari connects ancient Egypt with the modern world and treats it rightly with respect and without belittlement. The novel is an important example of how an ancient work of art - in this case a poem - can attract new audiences. Power of literature can triumph over time.
The last speaker of the evening was Senior Lecturer Faruk Abu-Chacra from the University of Helsinki. He discusses the way Waltari's Sinuhe was accepted in the Arab world. Abu-Chacra brought the importance and appreciation of the novel's translator Taha Hussein. He described Hussein as one of the greatest and most beloved Arab thinkers in history. Abu-Chacra also mentioned that his outspokenness and rebellion were particularly characteristic to him and that Hussein's translation increased the novel's significance in the Arab world.
Abu-Chacra noted how Hussein's influence and way of thinking is evident in the final translation. According to Abu-Chacra it is a considerable flaw that Sinuhe, The Egyptian has been translated into Arabic from English instead of the Finnish original. The English version has been harshly criticised because it has been heavily shortened and many key facts are missing.
According to Abu-Chacra Sinuhe appears to the reader as a travel companion as he talks about his journeys. The novel's artistic aspects and its magnificent literary competence is beyond comparison. Abu-Chacra says that none of the Arab writers reached Waltari's level of accuracy in the preciseness of detail. All in all Sinuhe, The Egyptian received praise throughout the Arab world. The opulence and richness of Waltari's writing was truly unique.
Text and photos: Sofia Pöyhönen, Embassy of Finland