The Etruscan: Mika Waltari

★★

Mika Waltari was recommended to me some months ago, particularly for his novel The Egyptian. As he is both out of print and formidably hard to track down second-hand, I had to let Fate lead my steps instead. Last week I found another of Waltari’s novels, The Etruscan, in a first edition paperback from 1959 at the South Bank book market. I just couldn’t resist the cover and so decided that it was time to give him a go.

I’d expected this to be a serious historical novel, but the theatrically shocked Roman dinner guests on the cover promised something enjoyably pulpy instead (Carry On Etruria, as I suggested to Heloise). I particularly enjoyed the fact that the female guests all seemed to be wearing 1950s ballgowns. The tagline and back cover only increased my anticipation. I had never imagined that I would read a book whose back-cover blurb began: ‘Warrior and lover, I defied both gods and men. I was a man of mystery, and I had dared to abduct Arsinoe, the wanton priestess of Eryx‘. (It sounds better if you try reading it aloud in the kind of deep American accent you hear on the voiceovers of film trailers.) Wow, I thought. This is going to be fun.

Few novels have so great a gulf between the promise of the cover and the actual book. For a start, I regret to say the cover bears no resemblance to any scene in the book, which is a shame: I’d been looking forward to finding out what they were all so horrified about. More crucially, the novel takes what could have been a rollickingly good story and turns it into something stilted and dull. I don’t know if I’ve just caught Waltari on a bad day, but whereas some books grab me and pull me down into their depths, I found myself gliding over the surface here without any motivation to care about either the characters or the plot. Alas. The story begins at Delphi, where the exile Turms has come to seek judgement from the oracle, for his crime of burning the temple of Cybele in Sardis. On seeing him, the priestess falls into a divine ecstasy and sends him off to meet his destiny.

Turms embarks on a period of wandering in what is now Turkey, fighting the Persians alongside the belligerent Spartan Dorieus, whom he’d met at Delphi, and then a spell of naval warfare which rapidly develops into opportunistic piracy. Once the risks of piracy begin to outweigh its benefits, the captain Dionysius, on whose ship Turms and Dorieus have been serving, turns west and the characters end up landing in Sicily. They are welcomed to the town of Himera, where they find peace, romance and the prospect of a future. Virtually a third of the book was taken up with this apparently aimless tour of the ancient Mediterranean. Now, you might think – considering the emphasis the cover places on the ‘abduction of the wanton priestess of Eryx‘ – that this is a fairly substantial moment in the plot. Not so. There is no plotting, no breathless rendition of the abduction itself, not even any real reason given why Turms would wish to abduct a priestess. All we are told is that, in the Temple at Eryx:

There appeared to me there a woman whom I immediately recognised – but as several different women whom I had known. I called her Arsinoe and desired her above all women – so irresistibly that by a stratagem I kidnapped her from the Temple… We smuggled her out of the city in dead Aura’s clothes, and brought her with us to Himera.

That’s it. After 94 pages of watching Turms listlessly wander through Greece, Asia Minor and portions of ancient Sicily, that’s the dramatic abduction I was waiting for. Maybe you can already see from the above that the writing of the book is strangely detached and dispassionate. Arsinoe, of course, turns out to be nothing but trouble and, after seducing virtually every man in sight, accompanies Turms on his odyssey to Segesta, to sanctuary among the Sicans and then north across the sea to the burgeoning town of Rome. When she deserts him for a more advantageous match with an elderly Roman senator, Turms himself travels north into Etruscan territory and (spoilers!) begins to find signs of his divine destiny as the Lucumon, a human body containing a reincarnated immortal soul (eyebrows were raised at this point). I should warn you that the blurb on the back of the book not only gives away three-quarters of the plot, but also seems to be inaccurate (at what point does Turms ‘challenge mighty Persia‘ after going to Etruria? Was it not the Greeks he was fighting, alongside the Etruscans, in Sicily?).

The book should have been gripping, but it moseys along in a curiously indeterminate fashion, without any clear indication of the date at the outset; and, no trace of a map. Not being a classicist, I had never heard of the Ionian Revolt (499-493 BC, for those similarly floundering) and it wasn’t until there was a chance mention of Salamis and Thermopylae later in the book that I was able to orient myself. This is a fabulous period: we have the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Etruscans, not to mention fascinating subcultures like the forest-dwelling Sicans of Sicily. But we don’t feel them enough here! Furthermore, although Turms lives in interesting times, he and his fellow characters don’t have the individuality or the depth to be interesting themselves: Arsinoe, who is set up as a femme fatale, is merely a cardboard cut-out cipher of Female Fickleness, and although Dorieus and Micon have their amusing moments, Turms himself never comes to life, which is a problem for someone who is both the protagonist and the narrator. One moment he can see right through Arsinoe, who is deceiving him with his best friends; the next moment he is compulsively swept into a frenzy of desire for her.

There is a lot of telling and not much showing, and very little convincing psychological depth (people impulsively become friends, swear loyalty and switch from passionate distrust to melting adoration in the space of a page, which is explained by the intervention of the gods). Moreover the declamatory dialogue reads no differently from the descriptive prose. I really don’t know how much of all this is due to the original text and how much to the translation, but it makes me a little wary of embarking on The Egyptian just yet.

Perhaps the book is more enjoyable in a different translation; or perhaps it has some overarching point to it, stylistically or philosophically, that has completely passed me by because I know nothing about Waltari’s work and his ideals as a writer. Unfortunately it just never sparked to life in my mind and – perhaps partly because of the Sicilian setting – it reminded me of Manfredi’s Tyrant. However, it’s not even much use as an introduction to the period or places, because the historical context is so vaguely defined. I’d been very much looking forward to it, because I always like discovering new historical authors (and Waltari’s other works include books set in the Roman Empire and in the Renaissance), but I found it obscurely frustrating – and probably even more so because I’d been expecting something much more entertaining on the basis of the cover. Reading this just makes me realise, anew, how astoundingly good Mary Renault is…

Buy the book

Details from the back cover in all its 1950s glory

25 thoughts on “The Etruscan: Mika Waltari

  1. Isi says:

    Ohh When I saw the title of the post I was expecting a very positive review, but I see you felt just the opposite!
    I haven't read this book but I read The Egytian many years ago. In fact, I have taken a look at Wikipedia to remember the plot, but I don't remember much of it apart from the main character being a doctor. But I know I liked it very much when I read it, so I was keen to keep on reading this author.

    Now I see that perhaps not all his books are as good as The Egyptian. The lack of a proper plot and the excuse of the gods about the behaviours of the characters are things I don't like a lot in a novel, not to mention the lengh of a book like this 😉

    So I think you should try The Egyptian if you feel like it, and then just decide if this author is worth your time.

    PS: I don't like the cover, but yes, I would like to know why they are so horrified. Perhaps it's for the gods, that made them feel like that 😉

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    I'm very lucky in that most of the time I read wonderful books, but if something doesn't grab me, then I feel I have to be honest. And as I said, it could be that the translation is responsible in some way for me just not gelling with the story.

    Yes, I think The Egyptian is the one everybody talks about and admires, so maybe I just had the bad fortune to start with one of the less wonderful novels. I would still like to read The Egyptian one day, and The Dark Angel (about the fall of Constantinople in 1453), which sounds intriguing.

    I think you must be right about the cover. Maybe they've suddenly had a divine revelation… 🙂

  3. Isi says:

    I'm glad to hear that this book hasn't made you forget about the other books of Mika Waltari. 🙂

    My father has a copy of The dark angel and I remember he liked it too. So perhaps this one has to be my next Waltari's. Definietly it won't be The Etruscan!

  4. Heloise says:

    I really, really love the cover (and “Carry On, Ertruria” just so nails it), and it's a pity it was wasted on such a bad novel. In fact, the more I look at the picture, the more certain I am that the reason everyone is so horrified is because they have just been told that they'll be put on the cover of Mike Waltari's The Etruscan… 😛

  5. The Idle Woman says:

    There we are. You've solved it.

    The book wasn't *terrible* – I've just seen the classical period done so much better, and I felt that it just couldn't really make out where it was going. One thing happened after another – but there felt as if there was no evident theme, motivation or purpose behind it all. Maybe this was deliberate – after all, there is no evident purpose behind real life – but since I didn't find the characterisation believable either, it just began to grate.

    But Isi speaks highly of the Egyptian and suggests that the Dark Angel is good, so I'm fully prepared to admit that I just didn't get on with this particular one. 🙂

  6. The Idle Woman says:

    Please do let me know if and when you get round to it. His books seem to be so scarce (and / or expensive) in the UK that I suppose I'll have to be guided by what I can find next… But I am reassured to hear that all may not be lost!

  7. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Arno – thanks so much for your comment! Well, if the book really has been cut by that much then that would explain much of the unevenness and the sometimes jarring hops from one episode to another. Also, the title as you translate it makes *much* more sense and would have given at least some forewarning of a plot development that seemed rather sudden in this translation.

    Let's hope that there are some plans afoot to translate Waltari anew for those of us who regrettably can't read him in the original. I really think a new translation would do him a great deal of good – partly because this 1950s one is pretty dated (and evidently doesn't do justice!) and partly because the existing translations are so difficult to get hold of, even second-hand. I'm deeply reassured to hear that many of the flaws I mentioned above can probably be laid at the door of unsympathetic editing and translation – that gives me more courage to have a go at another of Waltari's novels one day. It will probably be dictated by whichever novel I can get my hands on – but Arno, if you had to recommend one, which is your favourite of his works?

  8. Arno says:

    Dear Madam,

    I was horrified when I read your review on *The Etruscan* — not because of your amusing and witty review but
    learning how the unspeakable “translator”, the publisher, and the editor have raped poor Waltari.

    The original Finnish name of the novel is (my translation):

    Turms, the Immortal
    His mundane life circa 520–450 B.C. in ten books (length 677 text pages)

    Book Four: The Goddess of Eryx, contains 73 pages!

    Mika Waltari was a typical Finnish intellectual of the pre-WW2 era: he spoke fluent Latin, Swedish and
    German and adequate French — but no English at all. He was totally at the mercy of his American agent
    and publisher.

    Cordially yours, Arno

  9. The Idle Woman says:

    Hello Arno – oh, I'm sorry the blog's misbehaving. Bear in mind that comments don't show up immediately because I moderate them, but in this particular case I am sorry to say that your earlier comment does indeed seem to have been eaten, as I can't find any trace of it. Sorry about that.

    Thanks for the recommendation of 'The Egyptian'. I will keep my eyes peeled for that in due course. (And of course, if there are any other Finnish historical novelists I should be aware of – who are available in translation – please let me know! Always delighted to be introduced to new names.)

  10. Arno says:

    Dear Leander: I am having trouble with your text-editor — it ATE my earlier attempt to reply without saving or
    sending it. I try again. My personal favorite is *Turms/The Etruscan*, but, as we know, it can't be recommended
    to an English reader. You could try the French edition. *Sinuhe, the Egyptian* is his most magnificent novel but
    it is rather a melancholy and bitter book, having been written just after we lost our war with Russians.

  11. The Idle Woman says:

    Oh gosh, that sounds promising. You might notice, Arno, that I'm going through a bit of a Viking phase at the moment, so that would be perfect… I might have to see if I can get hold of a copy of it. Many thanks! (And doubts of American translations duly noted.)

  12. Arno says:

    Please, Leander, remember that my doubts of American translations apply to *The Egyptian*, too. There are a
    couple of Finnish ladies who are writing historical novels which are enormously popular here (among the ladies)
    but I don't know whether they have been translated. A historical novel I like very much is Swedish: *Röde Orm*
    by Frans G. Bengtsson, translated as *The Long Ships* (It is about the Viking Era). See reviews in Google.

  13. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you! Duly noted, and I went to look it up… I don't normally get into the 20th century very much with my historical fiction, but I have read a couple of WWII novels in the last year or so – and this looks extremely powerful. Plus it would do no harm for me to learn a bit more about modern history!

  14. Arno says:

    Dear Leander, I forgot to tell you about the newest Finnish success in historical novel: *The Purge* by Sofi
    Oksanen. I haven't read it and neither has my wife, but her two literate sisters used to RAVE about it.

  15. Arno says:

    Dear Leander: Speaking of near history novels, I love dearly the series *A Dance to the Music of Time* by
    Anthony Powell, and reread it — through or partially — every few years. Do you know it? I recommend it.

  16. Tytti says:

    Hi,
    another Finn here. What I have understood from other reviewers/blogs is that this book is slower and many of Waltari's fans have had trouble liking it as much. Actually I think this will be the last on my list of his books, others seem much more interesting. My “problem” with Waltari is that I grew up knowing about him. The novels have always been there, first waiting that I grow up and now waiting for the right time to pick one of those thick books…

    After The Egyptian I will probably try The Adventurer and then The Secret of the Kingdom, though both are duologies, which makes starting to them even more daunting. Though they both seem to be heavily abridged translations, judging by the number of pages. Books in Finnish are a bit longer than in English but not that much (for example 780 and 377 pages respectively (if that's the correct word…))

    But I hope this didn't put you off from Waltari. Even though I haven't read them, so many others have and most have liked his books. My father's favourite was The Egyptian and he had read a lot. (I started reading it just weeks before he died and couldn't continue afterwards.) I do have read his detective stories and the movies made of them are my favourites in Finnish cinema.

    And because you were asking about Finnish historical novelists I have to mention Väinö Linna, though his books are about Finnish history. Under the North Star trilogy is probably one of the most important novels in Finland and tells about one family's story from 1880s to 1950s (a LOT happened then), even though his most read book is probably The Unknown Soldier that happens during the Continuation War in 1941-44. But I don't think I can recommend that, the translation is very bad, I have heard…

  17. The Idle Woman says:

    Hi Tytti – thanks for taking the trouble to leave such a lovely long informative comment! Pleasure to 'meet' you.

    So perhaps I've just made the mistake of starting with one of Waltari's less successful works? Lots of people have come back to me saying that The Egyptian is much better, so perhaps I need to give that a go. It also seems that he's just really not served that well by English translations – your comments about The Adventurer and The Secret of the Kingdom are rather worrying, and I think part of the problem with The Etruscan was that so much had been cut that the story just lost its inner logic. Why do translators cut so much, I wonder? Obviously the whole point is that we want to read what the author wrote!

    Thank you so much for the other recommendations as well. I am shamefully ignorant about Finnish history (in fact, Scandinavian post-medieval history in general!). It's good to know about Linna and Under the North Star – I would like to read that one day.

  18. Tytti says:

    Hi,

    of course some have thought it was his best book, but people have different tastes. The Etruscan was one of his last novels so maybe it was more philosophical? For example The Adventurer sounds more like an boyish adventure story. But, I still have to read it… Even The Egyptian is written in a language that is kind of old style.

    I have noticed/heard that English translators do that often, only once I've read an abridged novel translated to Finnish. (And it was still too long so the editor/whoever was right to shorten it.)

    History is my hobby and Finnish history is pretty interesting. Like during those years told about in the trilogy we were first a pretty peaceful Grand Duchy of Russia, then came the language strife, nationalism, problems of sharecroppers, socialism, Russification, WWI, independence, Civil War, the Lapua Movement, Winter War, Continuation War (Lapland War) and after all that peace and a more prosperous life. The Unknown Soldier is a very realistic war novel, Linna wrote more or less about his own experiences and it struck a chord among veterans.

    BTW, Finland isn't a Scandinavian country, Nordic yes, but we are not a part of Scandinavia. I think their modern history isn't as complicated as ours, living here between East and West…

  19. The Idle Woman says:

    Oh goodness I'm so sorry! Forgive the Scandinavia thing – now you see *exactly* how little I know!

    Thanks for explaining more about the background to the trilogy. It all sounds very interesting. Clearly I *need* to learn much more. 😀

  20. Tytti says:

    Well that Scandinavia thing can be a bit confusing outside of the Nordic countries because Finns are usually added to them. But we (both Scandinavians and Finns) usually agree on this. It's more about identity and has to do with geography, history and languages. For me Scandinavians are former Vikings (minus Iceland), Finns never were and our language is Finno-Ugrian.

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