Writing Sinuhe

Issue 4/1995 | Archives online, Authors, Fiction

Extracts from the novel Neljä päivänlaskua (‘Four sunsets’, 1949): in this novel about a novel, Mika Waltari gives a fictionalised, humorous and melancholy account of the birth of his most famous novel, the international bestseller, Sinuhe, egyptiläinen (The Egyptian, 1945). His ‘Egyptians’ do not leave him in peace, so he retreats to his summer cabin with his typewriter and faithful dog to write

Critical notes

In offering this work to the public, furnished with the requisite comments, we do so with considerable hesitation, for even the superficial reader will very soon realise that this disguised and sentimental love-story has no educational or morally uplifting intent whatsoever. On the contrary, the thoughts contained within it are often so amoral and perplexing that they are repellent to the enlightened reader. For this reason, the spontaneity of the narrative does not of itself legitimise publication of the work.

Since, however, with the aforementioned reservations, we are offering the work to the public, we do it for entirely other reasons. For this work is, by type, a terrible apotheosis of human selfishness. One must remember that it was written only a couple of months after the first use of the atom bomb for practical purposes, when the world had hardly achieved the so-called ‘cold peace’ after the so-called Second World War. If we remember this background, the author grows, in his unremitting selfishness, into a cautionary example in the reader’s eyes. For he does not, in his book, spare a thought for the sufferings of humanity, but speaks incessantly about his own heart.

On the other hand, taking into account the time when the work was written, it is clear that, unknown to its author, this childlike novel about a novel represents the individual’s headlong flight from the real world, its lurking horrors and its burning problems which, in his time, demanded the participation of every thinking person, even if it was impossible to influence the way of the world. The work is thus born of the death throes of a certain social class and human type, and it is characteristic that the author could not think of any other solution but a cowardly flight into illusion, without even feeling shame on account of that flight.

We have not attempted to furnish the work with exhaustive comments or references, because the work is not of sufficient importance, but have merely from time to time directed the reader’s thoughts on to the right path, avoiding over-meticulous pedantry. In addition, it has of course been necessary, in certain obscure passages, to augment the reader’s factual knowledge in order to render the text comprehensible.

My Egyptians pursued me more hotly than before, so that at last I realised that I would not escape them unless I wrote myself free of them. A certain Sinuhe was particularly troublesome. I was extremely annoyed about this, for I am a lazy man and detest effort. In any case, I bought plenty of paper, put a new ribbon in my typewriter and cleaned its letters with the point of a drawing-pin. My dog growled incessantly and even showed its teeth in its eagerness, for it knew the symptoms and sensed my state of mind, for an old, wise dog, even if it is a small one, can easily sense things that others do not see. I believe that at this time he began to love Sinuhe the Egyptian, who incessantly leaned against my writing desk, hand on chin, importuning me to start my work. And so, at last, there came the day when I was ready to make my departure, and I said to my wife:

‘As you well know, a man must leave his wife and his children and follow his star if he really wants to write. I have a feeling that my star will take me into the wilderness, and I must needs follow my star in order to rid myself finally of these damned Egyptians, although I greatly dread the solitude of the wilderness, where wild beasts cry at night and damp branches scratch my roof. I shall also miss your eyes, and our daughter, but the dog I shall take with me, for he is necessary to me in keeping my Egyptians in check.’

My wife said: ‘I have already packed your things, and put your slippers and plenty of woollen socks and warm underclothes in your suitcase, and I thank the Lord that we have finally come this far and that you are really going, for in truth life with you has become more intolerable day by day as you prattle on about your Egyptians and do not heed my words, but even while you eat you stare before you unseeingly, like an idiot. Go, then, to the wildwoods, by the side of the lake, to grandmama, where your attic room awaits you, already warmed, for I have seen to that during your endless and pointless shilly-shallying about your departure. You will, of course, have to live on fish, which you will have to catch for yourself in the lake, but I believe it will do you nothing but good, and I do not doubt that grandmama will bake for you far too often and that you will not suffer any deprivation. With the exception of a few wild cats and a lonely fox, you need have no fear whatsoever of wild beasts there, and I believe you will sleep well, if only you work hard, as befits a decent man.’

I arrived in the backwoods on an April evening, when all was very quiet and the forest was black around me and the road, which had thawed during the day, gave way beneath me and I became very frightened and believed that I would sink beneath the earth on this melting, backwoods road. But the cart was drawn by Rylle1, who is a patient and wise old thing and accustomed to drawing milk-carts and useless travellers like myself without caring any longer for heavier loads. So he walked cautiously, as if on skates, along the unsteady road, until I reached grandmama’s light-filled house, and grandmama had been baking and frying and catching fish in her traps where the ice had melted at the edge of the lake, just as my wife had guessed, so that with her I felt comfortable and replete.

My body, then, felt comfortable and replete, but my mind was restless and my eyes were restless and countless questions forced themselves into my head as, in the morning, I looked out over the melting, bluish, frightening and beautiful icy surface.

But I had an appointment with my typewriter, and I took my typewriter out, and it stared at me with its black and white keys, greedy and demanding as ever, so that its impudent confidence irritated me. My Egyptians set up camp around me in my attic room, the lake with its icy surface was huge and frightening outside my window, and the trunks of the birches, white as death, rose with leafless branches outside my window. Sinuhe sat by me on his gaudy mat, his chin in his hand, and his face was dejected with the anguish of old age and experience as he began to tell me the stories of his life. So I began to write at his dictation, for if a person wants to write a book there is nothing for it but to start writing. This is, to my knowledge, the only way of writing books, but if someone else knows a better way, I am always ready willingly to accept advice.

So I began to write2 and the orphan April day shone outside on the blue expanses of the ice and the ice melted and became fragile and grey before my eyes and black water began to well up between the shores and the ice. I began to write, and writing no long brought me sorrow and trouble and pain as it had before; writing was a joy to me, and everything in me rejoiced as I wrote, so that I no longer recognised myself at all.

Thus passed a few days, and all at once the ice disappeared from the lake and the wind took it with them and the last ice-floes melted in a moment before my eyes. The wind swept across the wide sky and spring budded around me and as I wrote everything in me glowed and burned and I felt in my mind the same sweet, gentle fever as sometimes before when my work had begun to go well. Yes, my head really was like a little oven full of glowing coals, but these coals did not burn, but only smouldered, bringing a pleasant pain, and my restlessness lifted and I no longer feared writing, but spent my long days, from morning to night, in the company of my Egyptians, who had lived long, long before me and with whom I now began to make closer acquaintance, so that I began positively to like a few of them. Sinuhe, too, who had earlier seemed so disturbing and troublesome, improved considerably as we became more closely acquainted, even if he still possessed numerous characteristics that I did not understand at all and could not always approve.

But in the evenings, at sunset, I walked to the dairy to fetch the milk or chatted with my dog at the door of the cabin; he had a great deal to do and to worry about, for he had to guard the whole house once more, and to keep an eye on the rats that sneaked about the woodshed. Thus my dog no longer had much time to keep me company, and he did not care for my Egyptians, who made themselves comfortable in the attic room without wandering around the house, but contented himself by greeting me cheerfully in the mornings and, in the evenings, and by walking a few paces with me when it suited his plans. But I did not miss my dog’s simple thoughts, for in the evening, at sunset, the lifeless forest and the icy shore around me swarmed with invisible life, and an incessant hissing, buzzing, whispering, chirruping, peeping and plopping filled the air, if one had the patience to stop and listen. The frogs on the promontory, in particular, kept up quite a life, plopping and din, although their musical rehearsals demonstrated, to my mind, more in the way of goodwill than of educated self-criticism. But I am not qualified to criticise in this matter, for I myself am an unmusical man, and my family claims that I have no ear.

Thus passed many May days, and I felt myself to be happy in all respects, because the embers burned in me, bringing sweet pain and without showing any signs of turning grey or extinguishing. But as the days went by, my mind was seized by a vague melancholy and I longed for my lost heart, longed to share with it my joys and my sorrows, for when, in good moments, I remembered my heart I remembered only its good points and our numerous years of blameless companionship, and forgot all the bad, irritating or troublesome matters that my heart had brought my way during our life together. I also remembered the great, dark red flower that had opened on a coffee­ table in a strange town, particularly large and mysterious, and I was filled with a need to explain my impertinent behaviour to my distant friend. So I wrote her a letter and explained to her that a person who has, year after year, stepped downward on the long staircase of life, always downward, no longer greatly asks from what well he drinks3, but slakes his thirst from every well he encounters. And so I told her that I had already drunk from many wells, large and small, uncovered and surrounded by walls, salt and sweet; I said I had even drunk from dirty wells.

But when I had sent the letter, I was filled with a quite extraordinary agitation, and often found myself gazing at a pair of flycatchers that, with great energy, were building their nest in a tree-stump beside the steps of the little porch, directly below my window. Joyfully they gathered the scraps of cotton wool that I threw from my window when I had shaved in the mornings, wondering at and admiring the extraordinary richness of human beings. And when grandmama carried my daughter’s toy dogs out into the yard to air them, they used the situation to their advantage by pecking the fine wool fluff from the forehead of the largest toy dog, so that its forehead became quite bald and grandmama grew angry at their unscrupulous behaviour. The damage was not great, however, as this toy dog had already, long ago, lost its eyes, and no one had remembered to sew them back into place. In this way the flycatchers received, through human richness, a great deal that was soft and charming for their nest, and they praised human richness and generosity greatly. Nevertheless, Mrs Flycatcher found it necessary carefully to peck the finest down from her breast as padding for the nest, and from this I decided that this must be the first time she intended to lay eggs and she had not yet become hardened, but had an exaggerated respect for the eggs that she intended to lay in her nest, imagining that they would break easily.

At all events, I awaited a reply to my letter with impatience, and my friend must have taken much trouble and care over her reply to my letter, for she had acquainted herself with the literature concerning wells and was able to employ a number of excerpts and quotations in presenting her own thoughts concerning this well question. She made reference to a poetess according to whom everyone must find their own source and tuft of grass, even in the stony wilderness of the city. And she found one respected poet the most courageous of all because he had remarked that he himself must dig every well from which his thirst wished to drink She also suggested gently that perhaps the size and number of wells or the quantity of water enjoyed was not, finally, the decisive question in the quenching of thirst, but that there was perhaps reason to take into account the quality and freshness of the water. But in the question of the well she did not in any way wish to set herself up as my judge, for she could not understand why a person who valiantly remained thirsty should somehow be superior to a person who quenched his thirst.

Her letter and her wisdom charmed me greatly, so that I replied to her letter, and she wrote again to me, and from time to time we exchanged letters and thoughts. In every letter her clear mind came close to me until, to my amazement, I began to sense the dark bitterness within me melting and disappearing, until it no longer existed. Yes, there came a moment when, as was my custom, I began to taste my bitterness, but the bad taste no longer rose into my mouth and my bitterness was gone. I believed nevertheless that the reason lay mainly in the happy advancement of my work and not in the least in her letters. In this way I rowed in the mornings and the evenings in the company of grandmother along the dark shores of the lake, where the reeds of past years rustled yellowly and grandmama lifted from the fish traps great pikes whose maws gaped cruelly, but grandmama hit them fearlessly on the head with a club as my dog sniffed the various smells of the lake behind my back in the prow of the boat, his muzzle raised enquiringly.

At evening, the chilly cooing of a wood pigeon was sometimes heard from the head of the promontory, and cold nights came. Sometimes, too, the jay quarrelled heatedly at the edge of the forest, and little woodpeckers came and knocked eagerly on tree trunks. But as May shone and the bluebells flowered between the leaves of past years, a strange, large bird came to my window during the grey nights and blew gurgling, glittering notes into the night from its silver flute so that everything in me melted and burned to ashes and my body became aggravatingly restless and I could no longer get to sleep at nights as, night by night, they became a paler shade of grey.

But grandmama made baked pike for dinner, for grandmama was old and wise and knew that there is no sorrow or melancholy in the world that cannot be cured by a well­ cooked baked pike stuffed with grains of barley, eggs and plums4. After that the days grew warmer and after the rain the sun shone and she began to prepare the bream nets, for the bream began to rise from the clefts in the lake bottom to seek shallow shores with serious intent.


1 After extensive research and comparison, we have come to the conclusion that the author uses this name to refer to a horse.

2 It has by no means been proved that the author really began to write. His love of the truth is not to be trusted, and it may equally well have been that he merely lay all day in his attic bedroom in the grip of his paranoid delusions. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that he himself frequently and cynically emphasises his laziness.

3 This entire well business offers numerous psychological problems. It is possible that the author has merely borrowed one of the poetic images characteristic of the period (see the monograph ‘The well of sleep as the symbol of an economic system’). On the other hand, he may consciously have employed a degenerate psychoanalytical concept, an interpretation which is supported by the subsequent talk of ‘dirty’ wells.

4 Apparently the writer feasted only in his imagination, for at the time of writing plums were not available even on the black market, unless the said old lady had saved them since before the preceding World War.


Translated by Hildi Hawkins

English translations of The Etruscan, the Roman and The Secret of the Kingdom were reissued by Buccaneer of Cutchogne in 1994

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