For a long time I was only familiar with The Story of Sinuhe from Mika Waltari’s historical novel The Egyptian (1945), which I read when I was 12 years old. Having now read the source material, the strangest part is that The Egyptian is historical fiction based on historical fiction. Like The Report of Wen-Amon, the events in The Story of Sinuhe are at least fictionalized if not outright imaginary. The supposed autobiographical account takes place in the early 20th century BCE, the earliest manuscript dates from about two hundred years later. Taking that as somewhere near the date of composition, it’s like a novelist today writing a story set in the Victorian era. Judging from the various copies floating around, it was extremely popular, an ancient Egyptian bestseller.
The Story of Sinuhe also reads absolutely nothing like the 20th-century (CE) bestseller The Egyptian. This should surprise no one.
The narrative framework is quite simple: Sinuhe flees Egypt after the death of Amenemhat I, wanders for a while until he ends up in Palestine, eventually becomes a ruler there, then returns to Egypt when the new Pharaoh invites him back. He gets a pyramid built for him–the only commoner to receive such an honour. It’s very short, and you can read the whole thing here.
The Egyptian, on the other hand, is a long novel (and even longer in the original Finnish–the English translation I read was heavily abridged) where Sinuhe is a brain surgeon who gets mixed up in the religious reforms of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. Akhenaten lived a great deal later than Sinuhe (supposedly) did. Waltari also throws in one character glimpsing the biblical burning bush, a trip to Crete where Sinuhe encounters a giant mutant bull in a labyrinth, extended stays in Babylon and among the Hittites, and plenty of sex. So much sex, paired with so much brain surgery, that it generated quite a bit of controversy in the 1940s.
Meanwhile, the main events of The Story of Sinuhe, get glossed over or omitted entirely.
If the original writer took this many liberties with the historical Sinuhe’s life, supposing Sinuhe existed at all, we’ve received a truly distorted picture of his life twice over. But since there is no actual pyramid to Sinuhe to back up the story, I guess we’ll never know for sure what’s fact in The Story of Sinuhe and what’s fiction. All we can do is see how two storytellers approached the same story in wildly different eras, what they considered important to the narrative, and try to guess why they made the literary choices they did.