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THE ATHENIAN MURDERS by Jose Carlos Somoza


by Jose Carlos Somoza & translated by Sonia Soto

Pub Date: June 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-374-10677-0
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A footnote opens this playful postmodern mystery, set in ancient Greece and in the tortured mind of its fictional translator; that is, the first chapter heading carries a note in which said translator mentions a few of his dilemmas in reconstructing and translating the original Greek text, “The Cave of Ideas, written by Philotextus of Cheronnese.” The translator’s accelerating woes are revealed in lengthy footnotes to the text, which concerns the killing of a beautiful Athenian youth named Tramachus, a pupil of Plato’s Academy. Venerable doctor Aschilos thinks the wounds suggest an attack by wolves, but questions remain (for one thing, the heart is missing). Fueled by his affection for Tramachus’ mother Itys, abrasive old investigator Heracles Pontor takes the case, assisted by effete Academy teacher Diagoras and an owlish figure known only as the Decipherer. As Heracles plumbs some of the city’s arcane cults, both carnal and intellectual, that translator struggles to combine what he has found of the original text with a recent, popular version by Montola, an inferior scholar he clearly envies. What does the translator’s feud with his wife Helena have to do with the novel, and why is he incarcerated? The distinction between footnotes and the main text, between the fictional investigation and the “real” translation, becomes increasingly blurred, but a late appearance by Plato enlivens the proceedings considerably.

Though the plot’s deliberate obscurities both intrigue and annoy, the rich, elegant writing will please all comers. Good thing, since mystery fans should be warned that Somoza is more interested in metaphysical questions and literary subtleties than traditional storytelling.