Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The character of 'The Eunuch Neferu'

The Eunuch Neferu, originally self-published by Daniel Tegan Marsche in 2002, is an unusual novel about a young eunuch in Egypt in the first century BCE.

Admired for his beauty by a Roman general who was passing through the desert, Neferu was taken from his family of poor farmers and brought to the general's estate in the city of Alexandria to be a sexual servant. His drunkard father had willingly sold him to the general to pay for his gambling losses. Neferu was only eleven, had no sexual awareness, and did not understand the implications of the castration that would be required by the general. He only knew that he was duly impressed at being treated as a guest of honor at a residence that was to him unimaginably lavish. An older eunuch servant, Bo'am, briefly tutored him on sexual subjects so that he could express consent to be castrated.

Rather than undergoing the traditional Egyptian procedure which would have involved being buried in the hot desert sand for days, this boy had the good fortune to be brought to a surgeon who tied him to a chair and drugged him with dark brown opium powder mixed with honey. His mentor Bo'am told him he would feel no pain, but of course he did, despite the painkiller, when he awoke. He hazily dreamed of stepping onto a swimming crocodile's back and imagined himself delivered by a crowd of people who honored him with a new name. Later, recalling the agony of his recovery, he was nevertheless grateful he had not received the more primitive surgery with the higher mortality rate.

With respect to his initial innocence of sex, Neferu seems credible as an eleven-year-old, but in most other respects, including his poise, eloquence and understandings of the subtle machinations of adults, his first-person narrative seems to come from a psyche that is at least sixteen. He does seem to attain that chronological age, too, over the course of the book.

There are other oddities about this story. The very title is an anachronism. The name Neferu was given to the boy eunuch - originally known as Kebryn - by the general, halfway through the book, who says it means "the beauty of heaven." The idea is that it combines the Coptic word "nefer" meaning beauty and the Greek word "utopia" meaning heaven. Unfortunately, the word "utopia," literally meaning "nowhere," was actually coined by the English writer Thomas More over a millennium and a half after this story was supposed to have taken place. Other distracting anachronisms occasionally appear in the text such as the use of the Freudian phrase "anally retentive" and the unexplained use of Sanskrit terms for eunuch including primarily "hijras" and "vadhri" and also "prakrti," "pota," and "sandha." Sanskrit was spoken in India.

There is never an explanation of why the general required his sexual slave to be castrated, particularly as his previous lover had not been castrated and as he intended to leave his entire estate to the eunuch anyway. Nor is there an examination of how Neferu was affected by his castration. In the many homoerotic scenes, there is no mention of his castration negatively affecting his physical drive, pleasure or expectations, and instead there is one positive mention of his "ever so sensitive" scar. He never questions whether he would have liked to be able to father children. Conveniently for him, he is exclusively interested in men; there are no significant female characters in the book, anyway.

The author's biography on Amazon.com calls the story "a cathartic recounting of Marsche's personal, childhood journey of abuse re-wound to a place and time where his emotions could be expressed without contempt." Writing in the first person, he clarifies: "I was not a sexual being as a child, I was used as a sexual object; there is a huge difference." It is unclear why writing about an eleven-year-old whose sexuality is quickly awakened by a much older man was cathartic for Marsche. The eunuch in this story, despite his castration and domination by a Roman general, is extremely sexual. Marsche asserts in this same biography that "there is life after the abuse," an idea distinctly not suggested by the novel's abrupt, dark ending.

This review refers to the first edition published through iUniverse, but a fourth revision has been made available. The author is currently known as Daniel Malloy Smith according to GoodReads. His tale may have been inspired by Mary Renault's The Persian Boy (1972) or Wilbur Smith's River God (1993).

Buy the fourth edition of The Eunuch Neferu:

Neferu's status - slave or free? - is a subject of much contemplation. He seems to be fascinated by his condition of being technically able to leave the general but having no fathomable reason to do so. He wants to wear silk and gold and eat anachronistic foods; this he is able to do. His status with the general is gradually elevated until they are nearly peers. Bo'am consistently reminds him of his good fortune with purrs such as "I know many an indentured eunuch that would have glorified in the liberation to utter such words as your own."

Education is not a large motivator for him. He is told he must learn Latin and Greek in addition to his native Egyptian and Hebrew, but never mentions his studies, apart from how his dancing, which he seems to find somewhat tiresome, successfully impresses his lover.

Initially, Neferu prays to various Egyptian gods, but this habit seems to drop off the longer he lives in luxury. While Neferu is struck by temporary blindness, the Oracle of Bastet, addressing him as "Sightless Pilgrim," advises him to pick an Egyptian god and devote himself to it. Although this would seem to be an important warning, Neferu seemingly forgets this advice and the theme is never mentioned again.

As he is not motivated by ambition, education, religion, family (there is barely any passing mention of the parents he left), or general concern for others' welfare, he seems motivated primarily by appreciation for finery and sex and to some degree by the drive to maintain his honor. The insight he gains during his brief blindness represents a minute increase especially for a young man who should be growing psychologically in leaps and bounds. Finally, for all his apparent exploitation and tender age, he does not display the expected level of psychic vulnerability and therefore isn't even properly pitiable. Thus his fictional existence leaves a limited legacy.

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