Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Might be better to pretend that I published this about two days ago - it will be easier all round, and make me appear organised and consistent. Ahem

The Athenian Murders - Jose Carlos Somoza

I find it hard to believe that I have never unleashed the chains on my abiding and unspeakable desire for this book here before. But that's what the mighty power of the search engine shows. Shock. Horror. Smothered yawn. Be afraid. However, I re-read it recently, which makes it count in this mini festival of bookstravaganzic delights, allowing it (the mini-fest, that is) to live another day.

But enough of this introductory flimflam, I hear my inner monkey editor cry, speak more of this unspeakable love. For yes, this book contains innumerable shades of the love that dare not speak its name. Inter-textual love. Academic twistiness and japery of the driest kind. Philosophical shadow puppetry. Flagrant abuse of literary meta-jiggery. Tricksiness a go-go. I love it all with the unholy passion of a thousand geeky monkeys. The ones that are otherwise busily making rude shadow animals, sun-bathing and short-sheeting the Platonic bed.

For verily, these are Ancient Greeks of whom I write, or rather of whom the author writes and from whom I steal jokes. Smart koulourakia to a man, right down to their dusty ankles (except the one in the bath).

Well, actually, it is more that these are Ancient Greeks upon whom the author uses the character of the Translator to write or comment. Or their ideas. Except these might be copies of the original copy of the ideal first idea. And anyhow, what about those lions? See what I mean? This is book which defies anyone, least of all a lowly blogger armed only with the dubious merits of the English relative clause to shove its translated-from-the-original-Spanish-self into a halfway decent summary. It's a tricksy book about Ideas, lightly glazed with a few corpses, a sinister subplot (or is it?) and finished off with an anti-sleuth. I think the Salon article explained it best, and the Guardian review is more entertaining, which leaves me to only do my worst.

Basically it features:
Wolves (or lions)
Greeks (ancient)
Academics (ancient and modern)
Philosophy (mostly Greek and ancient)
Ideas-with-a-big-I. Bigger I. No, a really big I.
Texts. (not the SMS kind)
Budding insanity
Reality. (Jim)
Footnotes. Le sigh. Les bambi eyes. Le sigh.

A quick scan of the Amazon and Salon reviews, which are proper reviews with plot synopses and everything a prospective reader could desire, indicates that this book is of the love-it-or-hate-it Marmite type. I'd agree, although I'd add to my review overview that despite the inclusion of footnotes and such it's closer to Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next (not Nursery Crimes) books than Terry Pratchett, but not at all as cheerfully bonkers and far more menacing and introverted. Thursday Next's rather disturbing great-uncle professor who lost tenure under the darkest of clouds as written by Borges (he comes back later), perhaps.

A scan of the the reviews of the "urrggh, Marmite, blech"-type shows that this isn't the book for readers who just can't abide Umberto Eco and writers of his ilk. But I think that if it's just Eco's prose style that puts you off, rather than his content, it's worth looking at this book, purely on the grounds that Eco can leave the unwary reader feeling trapped in the coils of his rococco prose. Somoza's style (and oh, how I long to write Samosa's style) is less elaborated than Eco's and more lucid. The disorientating, clever twistiness remains, but I didn't feel as if I were also being showered with the shredded contents of a gilded thesaurus by a million pudgy putti.

The other thing to add to the review overview is that I wouldn't read this book looking for the next historical whodunnit à la grecque. Thither lies disappointment. There's a murder, but that's not really the whole point, and the ending isn't exactly Christie.

On the other hand if deep-down, you secretly rather enjoy following digs and snide asides as academics wrangle over obscure points and interpretations via cross-references and footnotes, even though you know this means you are turning into your father (hairy ears and all) you will probably enjoy this. Besides, it's a book about books, playing with other books.* If you like it when an author constantly pulls the rug out from under your feet, even if it's technically cheating (or at least, making up the rules as he goes along) read on.

For me, the best part of the book is sitting back, relaxing and letting the the author, or narrator, or translator or whoever mess with my mind. He or she or it or whoever might make things up. He might even take the piss a few times. But even though I've read it a few times now, this book invariably leaves me with the oddest combination of two very distinct, and yet long-winded feelings:

1.I get the buzz that normally happens when the stars align and somehow I'm able to work out a series of clues for a cryptic crossword.
2.But at the same time, it leaves me genuinely unsettled. Not in the the "AAa! Whatwasthatnoise? AAAaa!" way, though. Instead, it's in the "But what if I go to sleep and it turns out that this life is really something/one dreaming and then who/whatever is dreaming wakes up while I'm asleep and what happens then????aaaahhhh!!! No wait! What about what we see in the mirrors!!! aaah!!!!" kind of way.

Best to put it like this - it's one of the few books that actually made me think it might be a good idea to read some more Borges. One of these days. As long as there's enough coffee.

*Except they didn't really have books in those days. Or novels, as Salon points out. Probably they didn't have philosopher-detectives too, but at least there were libraries and monkeys. There were no monk-how do you know? you were too busy contemplating the exercise non-outfits of those ancient greek athletes. I WAS NO-- And anyhow, My mind was SO COMPLETELY on higher thin- do you know what people think when you stick a footnote like this at the end of this kind of review? Especially one where you name-drop Borges, TWICE. I'll tell you what they think. They think, "What a pretentious tw--"

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