Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Mummy

Or, Ramses the Damned... sexy, that is!

Broom_Service recommended this book to me, and I'm really happy she did. I enjoyed it; but at the same time, I feel totally dissatisfied with the ending and as if I never connected with the characters.

I've read Anne Rice before (you know how I love the books about the vampires), but I didn't like her. Her world view is extremely... how do I put it... depressing. It's like her books want to be about good and evil and life after death, but she doesn't really believe in any of those things, so it doesn't work out. And by the way, I did think that about her writing long before I knew she was an atheist (back when she was an atheist... she changed her mind, didn't she?).

The book begins with a Howard Carter-like discovery in Egypt. Lawrence Stratford, a wealthy English businessman and amateur archaeologist, has made a brilliant discovery: an intact tomb from the time of Cleopatra. Only, the writing on the tomb is from the time of Ramses II and, as Lawrence finds out when he opens it up, it's not a tomb. Instead, it appears to be a study with scrolls containing the autobiography of Ramses the Great, telling of how he fell in love with Cleopatra about 1000 after he should have been dead.

Oh, and the tomb/study also contains the mummy of Ramses II.

Except, just like the tomb, the mummy isn't a really a mummy. As Ramses writes in the scrolls, he took an elixir to make himself immortal. After centuries of wandering all over the ancient world, Ramses decided to put himself into an endless sleep, from which a ruler of Egypt could awaken him if they needed his help. Cleopatra woke him, they fell in love, and you probably know how the rest of Cleopatra's story worked out. Broken-hearted by her death and her refusal to become immortal, Ramses put himself into another sleep, from which he planned never to awaken.

Lawrence is not as incredulous of this story as one might think. But before he can investigate further, he's murdered. The not-a-mummy is shipped back to England and placed in the possession of his daughter, Julie. Struck by sunlight, Ramses awakens, just in time to save Julie from being killed by the same person who killed her father. Naturally, Julie is shocked; but by the end of the day she's head-over-heels in love with Ramses. OF COURSE SHE IS. He's handsome, charismatic, he saved her life, and he's probably the only lusty heterosexual male she's ever encountered (seriously, there seems to be a surplus of bisexual men in her life, which is kinda weird, and the one who's not bisexual--that we know of--is sort of a push-over).

Meeeeanwhile, Ramses is in love with Julie, too. Hmm, am I sensing a pattern here? He wakes up, gloms onto the first woman he sees, and pretty soon he's in lurv! Whatever. That doesn't mean he's over his ex, Cleopatra, though. So when Julie and Ramses decide they need to go to Egypt so he can put his past to rest, you can already guess what's going to happen: somehow, some way, Ramses is going to come across Cleopatra's mummy and bring her to life with his elixir of immortality. And yes, he did make more even though he knows it is bad news.

Well, that is exactly what happens, kids! Ramses sees Cleopatra in the Cairo Museum and brings her un-rotting corpse back to rotting state, and consciousness, with his elixir. This is when the book really starts to get interesting. Horrified by what he has done, Ramses backs away from the walking mummy, and then is arrested by museum guards. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Ramses has created life with something that doesn't know its own strengths and is not prepared to handle the real world. Cleopatra, who is the real mummy of the story, immediately starts killing people.

There are several themes running through the book, one of which is the idea of modernity. This is the Edwardian era, well after the start of the Industrial Revolution, and both Cleopatra and Ramses are shocked and disoriented by the noise and speed of the modern world--Ramses pleasantly, Cleopatra not so much. The characters are constantly talking about "modernity," the modern world, etc. I think this is because the elixir is a metaphor for modernity or technology. Ramses has possibly the greatest technological advance of all time--something that can be produced cheaply and easily, with common ingredients, make anything indestructable, and bring people back from the dead. Even though he knows from experience that the elixir is not merely dangerous but "is the secret to the end of the world itself [p. 152]," he cannot stop experimenting with it. Even though he knows what he's doing is horrible and morally reprehensible, he can't stop himself from taking the next step in seeing whether or not it will bring a 1,000-years-dead corpse back to life. And he can't stop producing the stuff because the knowledge is in his head. That's his only excuse--he knows it, and he can't unknow it. The same might be said of modern technology, from the Victorians to today; technology keeps advancing, even though what it's capable of becomes more and more dangerous. Once the technology has been created, there're no re-do's--it's out there, and people are going to use it. Ramses is damned not because he's immortal, but because he's incapable of learning from his mistakes. Oh, he may gain some impulse control for a while, but pretty soon his memory starts to fade and then there he is, pouring the elixir on plants again; in that sense, Ramses is a metaphor for all of humanity.

Another motif running through the book is the opera, Aïda. Both Ramses and Cleopatra are totally obsessed with listening to the opera on their amazing new gramophones; and a performance of the opera at Shepherd's Hotel ("the hotel") provides the scene for the climax of the book. The opera is about an Ancient Egyptian commander, Radames, who falls in love with an Ethopian princess named Aïda (an Arabic name meaning "visitor" or "returning," according to Wikipedia). Unfortunately for him, the pharoh's daughter, Amneris, is also in love with Radames and she doesn't take well to being rejected. To put it lightly. Eventually, Radames is convicted of being a traitor and sentenced to be buried alived. Aïda locks herself up in the tomb with Radames, chosing to die with her beloved, while Amneris simply stands outside the tomb and cries.

It's no wonder Ramses and Cleopatra love this opera so much, because it basically tells the story of their relationship in Ancient Egypt. I know you're thinking Ramses is Radames in this metaphor, but he's not--he's Amneris. He loved Cleopatra more than she could ever love him, and in the end she chose to die with Mark Anthony rather than face eternity (or any length of time, for that matter) with Ramses.

As I mentioned before, I did not like the end of this book. Even though the actions of the characters make sense if my theory that the elixir as a metaphor for modern technology is correct, I felt like there were a lot of questions and issues left hanging. There wasn't much of an emotional resolution to the story at all, and the only character who got shafted was Julie's ex-fiance, Alex, who in all honesty was the only character who didn't deserve it. The others walked away from their actions with little to no consequences. I can understand the impulse not to moralize, but I feel cheated that Rice didn't give me something to frame the story into a wider context. Give it meaning, if you will.

Despite that, however, I did really enjoy the book as a whole. It was entertaining and fun to read (although I wouldn't call it scary), and would recommend it to just about anyone.

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