Friday, 20 June 2003

José Carlos Somoza: The Athenian Murders (2000)

Original title: La caverna de las ideas
Translation: Sonia Soto, 2003
Edition: Abacus, 2003 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1167

This novel seems to have been one of literature's recent success stories. It is basically a crime novel, an investigation into the death of a young student at Plato's Academy, initially thought to have been caused by a wolf attack but leaving grounds for suspicion of something more sinister. The Athenian Murders takes the form of a translation of an ancient manuscript telling the story, complete with copious footnotes by the translator, who is fascinated by the literary convention of eidesis of which it forms part (that is, the presence of meaningful images in the text not part of the story, such as repeated metaphors). He becomes convinced that some secret is hidden in the narrative's images (the word eidesis comes from the Greek for image), and is eventually rather neurotic about them.

Reviewers have described The Athenian Murders as a hybrid of The Name of the Rose and Pale Fire. It is in reality not much like The Name of the Rose, which is a fairly lazy comparison made for any historical crime novel with literary pretensions. Pale Fire is far closer, but it is a comparison which really shows up the shortcomings of Somoza's novel. The enjoyable aspect of Nabokov's idea (which is to illuminate the obsessions of the annotator through his misunderstanding of the text, and thereby satirise at academic literary criticism) is completely missing in The Athenian Murders. The translator does become obsessed, but it is about something so pointless as to be almost unbelievable - the use of the repeated images is interesting, but hardly enough to convince a reader, as it does the translator, that they reveal a secret of vital importance. (I don't know that much about it, but the form of the word eidesis leads me to suspect that a secret does not have to be involved at all, and that it could be used in other ways - as part of an intellectual game, as we have here in the way that the images are used to link each chapter to one of the labours of Hercules, or as by many writers from Aeschylus on, to use the subconscious to heighten the mood of a passage.)

There are other problems with The Athenian Murders, as far as I was concerned. A minor one is the occasional error in the background Some of these are quite obvious and jolted me out of Plato's Athens; an example is the use of the American rattlesnake as a simile in the supposedly ancient text. (Since the novel is full of ironies, this hint of modern authorship may be another, but it doesn't really bear that appearance besides being far more subtle than the rest of it.) The main problem that the novel has is its ending, and this affects the whole of the last quarter or so of the text as Somoza leads up to it. As always when criticising the ending of a novel, it is hard to talk about it without giving it away; the least I can say is that it is banal and dull, pretty much at the level of "and then I woke up, and it had all been just a dream".

It's hard to tell how much of this is the fault of the translator rather than the original author, since my feeling is that anyone who dumbs down by changing the title to something as silly as The Athenian Murders rather than keeping the reference to Plato's famous metaphor from The Republic could easily have completely destroyed the intellectual content of the rest of the novel.

No comments: