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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Before the Throne

Naguib Mahfouz

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To purchase Before the Throne

Title: Before the Throne
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Genre: Novel
Written: 1983 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 159 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Before the Throne - US
Before the Throne - UK
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Before the Throne - India
  • Arabic title: أمام العرش
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Raymond Stock

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Our Assessment:

B : fascinating idea, but too condensed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 30/11/2000 Edward W. Said

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The complete review's Review:

       Before the Throne offers a roll-call of those who have led Egypt, from its earliest days through the presidency of Anwar Sadat. The idea is simple and brilliant: in the afterlife Osiris presides over a 'trial' of Egypt's historical rulers, to determine their final fate -- do they join him and Isis in the Other World as Immortals, or will they spend eternity elsewhere (Hell or Purgatory, for example) ? (Some, however, -- mainly the foreign rulers who led Egypt for a time -- also face trials elsewhere, though judgments on them are also passed here).
       In sixty-four chapter many dozen leaders pass through this Hall of Justice; several rulers -- such as Akhenaten and Nefertiti -- appear together, too, and so there are more than seventy rulers in all. Almost all the 'trials' are only a page or two in length, so the book proceeds in rapid pace across the ages. And as those who have been judged take their (golden) seats as Immortals they get to join the jury -- or at least make comments and pose questions of those who are up on trial after them.
       The proceedings begin with King Djoser -- founder of the Third Dynasty -- and his Vizier, Imhotep, and Djoser acknowledges already inheriting: "A unified kingdom -- vast expanse, plentiful in resources, and dwelling in peace". Others inherit -- or make -- more of a mess, as the account follows the ups and downs of Egypt across the ages. Each defendant's accomplishments and flaws are summed up in a few sentences, and the defenses are fairly summary as well: these are quick proceedings. Familiarity with Egyptian history helps in the understanding of some of the specifics, but the highpoints are well covered and the chronological proceedings give a decent sense of the changing local circumstances.
       The vast majority of those who appear before Osiris do go on to become Immortals; most failings are fairly readily forgiven, at least if there are some worthy accomplishments or good intentions to go along with them. Some of those who make an appearance barely rate any notice: the Kings Ramesses IV through XII -- all nine of them -- don't even bother to truly speak up when brought before the tribunal (all at one go), and are dismissed in barely more than half a page (though they all get to go to Purgatory, rather than suffering eternal damnation). Only a very few fail completely and are damned to Hell itself -- Mahfouz is fairly generous in his historical judgments, at least when taking the long view.
       The novel is, of course, particularly interesting when it gets to modern Egypt and its most recent rulers, in sessions that do last a bit longer. Nasser and Sadat both get closer treatment; it's still fairly summary, but obviously more relevant to present-day Egypt.
       Mahfouz packs a surprising amount into the book, and there is sufficient context woven in so that even readers not familiar with specific reigns and rulers can make sufficient sense of things, but it's a shame that the idea was not fleshed out much more fully. The cross-examination of such a large pool of leaders, covering such a sweep of history, is fascinating, but here far too often there is only a very brief give and take. Many -- indeed practically all of these rulers -- deserve much longer and more in-depth trials.
       Before the Throne feels too condensed, but is still quite accomplished, a very tight version of an enormous undertaking. Translator Raymond Stock's Afterword is also fairly helpful in offering some background about Mahfouz and his approach in this book.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 November 2009

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Before the Throne: Reviews: Naguib Mahfouz: Other books by Naguib Mahfouz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz (نجيب محفوظ, Nagib Machfus) was born in 1911 and died in 2006 He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

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