Barrie Condon’s The Tethered God follows Khafre, a mighty Egyptian God-King, who died four and a half thousand years ago. When he died he expected an eternity in paradise but instead, he found himself in modern-day Cairo, trapped inside the lowliest of creatures, a police dog who earns its living by sniffing out bombs.
Yet, nightly, vivid dreams taunt him, conjuring up a brilliant life of wealth and power. As his past life reveals itself, he discovers himself to have been a man willing to pursue heresies, break sacred boundaries and even murder for the woman he loves. But nothing in these memories explains why the gods have chosen to punish him so severely.
Enduring endless humiliations in a new life he doesn’t understand, and unable to communicate his predicament, he finds himself suddenly thrust into a plot to kill millions of people. Helpless and alone, he must fight to save Egypt and his own soul.
We spoke to Barrie Condon about his dangerous adventures in Egypt and reincarnating an ancient Egyptian god into a bomb dog…
When did you first get the idea for The Tethered God?
I was in Egypt a few years ago, just as tourists were returning to the Nile after years of violent unrest in the country. Things were pretty tense and one day I was in Giza and saw, framed by the Great Pyramid, a lowly Cairo bomb-dog sniffing for explosives in cars. I wondered what a reincarnated ancient king would make of modern-day Cairo and indeed the world.
If any, what were your inspirations when writing The Tethered God?
I like outsiders’ views of things we take for granted because the new perspective can be very revealing. It’s tough enough making sense of the modern world even when you’re born there. Seeing it from the viewpoint of an ancient king would allow me to make some satirical points. Perhaps I should have left it there but I decided to take the outsider’s view to the max by having the king reincarnated as the bomb-dog. Dogs see, hear, smell and taste differently from humans. This is sometimes to their advantage, sometimes not. For example, dogs have a limited colour palette (so long all those beautiful Egyptian sunsets!) but are exquisitely sensitive to movement so they detect all those revealing micro-expressions that flit across our faces. The overarching theme of the book was to look at things we take for granted in an entirely different light.
The Tethered God is set in both modern day and ancient Egypt, why did you choose these particular settings?
Egypt is wonderful but can be dangerous and surreal so it’s a great place to set a darkly comic thriller with the fantasy element of reincarnation at its core (why cross only two genres when you can cross three?). For example, our security detail outnumbered our tour party and we would leave our boat to go to the tombs in an armed motorcade. Three trucks at the front full of heavily armed coppers, plus another three trucks bringing up the rear. Sandwiched in between were the tourists in our bright pink minibus. As we zoomed through the little villages it must have looked like a state visit from the Queen of the Fairies.
Another time we went for a walk around a small town assisted by sixty coppers, rooftop snipers and two SWAT teams. I can’t tell you how relaxing that was…
How much research did you do when writing The Tethered God?
Research is second nature to me and I wanted the half of the book set in ancient times to come across as authentic as possible. Trouble is, the fourth dynasty kings who built the pyramids trod the earth 4500 years ago and so we know very little about them. I had to take what we know about later dynasties and try and work backwards, but avoiding anachronisms such as using the word ‘pharaoh’ which came much later.
Khafre is an Egyptian God-King trapped inside a police dog – what made you decide to choose this particular animal for Khafre to be trapped inside and why a police dog?
I chose a dog for two reasons. Firstly, they can be big and strong with impressive teeth and so they have agency. Cats not so much. Secondly, dogs are not highly regarded in Egypt. Khafre has to suffer because he has committed a terrible crime in his past life, something he is slowly remembering through his doggy dreams of ancient days. He also has to do something pretty spectacular to redeem himself and that’s where being a police dog comes in.
You’ve written fiction, non-fiction and short stories – is there any particular you enjoy writing more and which do you find most challenging?
No, I just go where an idea leads me. Non-fiction is more challenging because you need to back up whatever you’re saying with lots of research. With fiction you can just make it up though sometimes, as in the case of The Tethered God, you can’t leave it at that.
What are you reading right now?
When I was a schoolboy, I was forced to study literature with a capital ‘L’ and so I grew to loathe it. It took me twenty years to recognise my mistake, though I still have an almost physical aversion to anything written by Thomas Hardy. Nowadays it’s pretty much all big ‘L’ stuff and at the moment it’s The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. It’s looking promising.
What’s next for you?
Publication was delayed because of the pandemic so I’ve already finished a spy novel about the rise of China called The Bamboo Cocoon and this is at the publisher. However, I’ve also finished the first draft of a travel book at the encouragement of said publisher. I’ve done a lot of travelling and I rather like it when it has an ‘edge’, as some of the above might illustrate. As a result, I’ve got into a lot of scrapes and so the working title of these traveller’s tales is ‘Safe Travel and How to Avoid It’.