by Stan Fogel
STORMIN` NORMANS - Mailer and Schwarzkopf - more or less recently roamed deserts, infected by what Edward Said calls "Orientalism." Westerners, though, have been licking their Cheops, so to speak, for a long time. Too long perhaps for those who, like Said, would regard pyramid prose as one more colonial intrusion. Certainly Paul William Roberts, in River in the Desert: Modern Travels in Ancient Egypt (Random House, 394 pages, $28 cloth), loves the histories and vistas of his chosen terrain. He effortlessly relates large-scale stories of Tutankhamen`s tomb and Mahfouz`s Nobel Prize, of contemporary fundamentalists and 19thcentury Egyptologists. He is equally comfortable in the manic streets of Cairo and the bibliographical byways of Egypt`s extollers. Mostly Roberts writes in an erudite but lively manner, whether his subject is contemporary tourism (which produces the only flooding in Egypt) or Codex Sinaiticus, "the most authentic version of the New Testament yet discovered." Indeed, when Saturday Night published an excerpt from the book, the result was an oxymoron I never thought possible: Saturday Night lively. But sometimes Roberts lets his enthusiasms run away with him, and the curse of the pyramids causes the writing to be excessive. The dustjacket memorializes one such example:
If, as Goethe suggested, architecture is frozen music, then Egypt contains some of the greatest symphonies in the world: compositions of soaring genius that mirror the grandeur of the universe and its Creator.
A larger problem with River in the Desert is of a more social/cultural nature. That is, at this point in time, yet another privileged white-male traveller getting eyefuls in Gaza - an elsewhere - isn`t particularly news. Theorizing about the lure of Egypt or being self-conscious about travel writing itself might have provided the nucleus of a more interesting, more relevant book than yet another paean to a country overmythologized and undernourished.