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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Der ägyptische Heinrich

Markus Werner

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To purchase Der ägyptische Heinrich

Title: Der ägyptische Heinrich
Author: Markus Werner
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 207 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Der ägyptische Heinrich - Deutschland
L'ami de Lesseps - France
Enrico l'egiziano - Italia
  • Der ägyptische Heinrich has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable little travels into the past and in the present

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 23/8/1999 Martin Ebel
Le Temps . 15/9/2001 Wilfred Schiltknecht

  From the Reviews:
  • "Markus Werner hat in Bibliotheken und Archiven der Schweiz und Ägypten nach Spuren Heinrich Bluntschlis geforscht; in ersteren fand er wenig, in letzteren noch weniger, dafür aber Anlässe genug, die ägyptische Bürokratie in ihrer Pracht und Lächerlichkeit vorzuführen. Werners Ziel ist nicht die Dekonstruktion eines Mythos, sondern die Konstruktion einer literarischen Figur. Das "Material" für den Roman ist nur ein Sprungbrett. So gelungen die Erschaffung des "ägyptischen Heinrich" aus dem biographischen Nahezu-Nichts ausgefallen ist, beeindruckender und für den Leser beglückender ist die literarische Gestaltung der Annäherung." - Martin Ebel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Sa verve rend pittoresque le plus poussiéreux travail aux archives et donne au héros et aux aléas de son existence une présence vive. (...) Pas un instant dans le roman ne s'atténue le plaisir de dire, de prêter vie à un personnage sans en dévoiler tout le mystère, de faire miroiter à travers le temps, dans des lieux familiers ou exotiques, la fascinante surabondance du monde. Dans son écriture toujours alerte, soutenue ici par une traduction sûre et portée par le même élan, pas le moindre fléchissement, et un enjouement délectable: de quoi ravir jusqu'aux plus exigeants." - Wilfred Schiltknecht, Le Temps

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Heinrich of the title -- itself clearly meant to echo that of Gottfried Keller's novel, Der grüne Heinrich (Green Henry) -- is author Markus Werner's great-great-grandfather, Heinrich Bluntschli, and the novel is both an account of Werner traveling in search of him, as well as of what he then can piece together (and imagine) of the life of his forefather. From provincial Switzerland, Heinrich wound up in Egypt and spent the last five decades of his life there; family lore had it that he contributed significantly to the construction of the Suez Canal -- though, as Werner learns, it might be more appropriate to say the Suez Canal contributed significantly to his Egyptian career.
       Werner has only a few family scraps to go on, though at least a blue notebook in which his grandmother documented what she knew about her grandfather serves as a good foundation for some of the background, notably concerning the time before he left for Egypt. The son of a pastor, Heinrich studied theology some but wanted to try his hand at business. He was not very good at it, and his Swiss career was one of quite sizable failure -- leading his wife to divorce him, and Heinrich to hightail it abroad to escape his considerable debt. (Werner notes that the debt -- accumulated in the space of just two years -- came to 4311 guilders when Heinrich absconded -- at a time when a hardworking weaver might earn one guilder a week.)
       Werner moves back and forth between his own research and efforts to learn more about his great-great-grandfather, and Heinrich's own story. Werner travels to Egypt, trying to follow Heinrich's trail and any traces of him. Bureaucracy -- notably that of the National Archives in Cairo -- pose an enormous challenge, and try as he might, he gets little more than glimpses of Heinrich's long time in Egypt. Of particular interest, too, is whether he can find any descendants, as Heinrich founded a second family in Egypt -- apparently with quite a few offspring.
       On Heinrich himself, Werner spends most of his time on his Swiss years, about which he has more information, and these sections are a sort of Bildungsroman, of Heinrich's youth up and trying to find his way -- wooing and marrying Elise along the way, but then keeping her out of the loop as his silk business never really got off the ground. No-nonsense Elise split as soon as she saw what the situation amounted to -- taking the family silver with her -- and soon enough Heinrich himself had no choice but to flee. The Egyptian years are more of a mystery, but he clearly established himself somewhat more securely -- even if his contributions to, for example, the building of the Suez Canal were, at best, very much at the edges.
       Werner's Egyptian adventures are amusing enough, if largely of the predictable sort, from dealing with bureaucracy to falling into the clutches of the commercially enterprising -- much more enterprising (and successful) than his great-great-grandfather. He is aware of the dichotomy of trying to come to grips with Heinrich's life and following his trail a century and a half later -- noting that he is certain that the 1860s were the most active time of Heinrich's Egyptian life, personally and professionally, yet in the present-day Werner travels to and through Heinrich's stations covering that decade in all of a day.
       It all makes for an entertaining and often quite amusing combination of family-history reëvaluation and travel stories, then and now. The colorful ancestor isn't so much knocked down to size as presented with his foibles -- more muddler-through than outright failure, though certainly not ever quite the success family lore long had it (or at least seemed to hope for). Despite Werner's best efforts, Heinrich remains something of a mystery man, but Werner is careful not to imagine too much beyond what he can at least vaguely document.
       It's an appealing enough little read, nicely done all around.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 November 2021

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Der ägyptische Heinrich: Reviews: Other books by Markus Werner under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature
  • See Index of Travel-related books

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About the Author:

       Swiss author Markus Werner lived 1944 to 2016.

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© 2021 the complete review

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