by José Carlos Somoza
The Athenian Murders appears at first sight to be nothing more than a crappily predictable historical whodunnit; the sort of thing that might be adapted for ITV and shown on ITV on Sundays at 9pm, sponsored by 'Past Times' or Old Speckled Hen or somesuch. It concerns a series of mysterious deaths in Athens during the time of Plato's Academy, which are investigated by the ingenious Decipherer of Enigmas, Heracles Pontor, and his pompous bumbling sidekick the philosopher Diagoras (they're basically Poirot and Hastings in togas; I can see them being played by David Jason and Clement Freud in our envisioned adaptation-from-hell). However, fairly quickly the book begins to intrigue; firstly through a noticeable bizarreness of style, secondly through a series of weirdly obtrusive footnotes commenting on precisely this bizarreness, and thirdly through a second story that starts to develop in these footnotes, regarding the book's translator and some quite substantially strange things that start to happen to him.
Before I plough in with my own two cents, I'd like to bring in my learned brother for his initial thoughts...
Well, yes, it doesn't have the most auspicious of starts. I think my main problem from the outset was the style of the book. Having been forced to read many translations of Greek works at University this failed to convince for a second that it was one. It was just a modern novel with a few footnotes added as a pretence at pastiche. This would not be a problem if it was going for straight forward John Nettlesness, but as my brother indicated, style is an important element of the plot. And the style struck me as so clumsy that I was put off from the very start. Plus, Heracles Pontor, really.
Fair enough, but I actually found myself being transfixed by it; the combination of cheesy formulaic thriller with bizarre and arbitrary prose stylings, and some really quite commendably far-reaching philosophical ambitions. There are several layers to ‘The Athenian Murders’, as it is always the first to point out, and I found myself engaged in a really quite compelling and eventful game of 'who's smarter - me or this book?'. I think in the end it worked out at about a draw, but was certainly fun to play. There are several games being played in the novel, one of the biggest of which concerns its own status as fiction. Without a giving too much away by way of spoilers, there is a massive structural confidence trick at the heart of it all, which is only revealed at the very end. It is a very risky trick for the author to play, given that it could be taken (equally validly, I think) either as perfectly executed and dazzlingly audacious or utterly stupid, unbelievable and insulting to the reader. I was having a ball, so I'm going with the former. James?
No, you're wrong. This book annoyed me, especially when it tried to be clever. I think maybe I should give the plot away to spare anyone else having to read it. Anyway, it is basically running the whole idea of literature becoming self aware, like John Byrne's She-Hulk only less subtle. It never really rises above the '’Hmmm... I think I'm in a book' said John' level of sophistication. It certainly had a point to make, but it would've taken a better writer than Jose Carlos to do it. I'm surprised my brother likes it so much, I usually respect his opinion. But if he felt anything other than disappointment and annoyance at the ending, which just plain doesn't work, then either I just missed something, or Neill was drunk at the time. I suppose if the story had been better written then I might've agreed with some of the positive points made, but it wasn't. It might be that the translation was just really bad, ironic considering the role of the translator in the story, but if it hadn't have been for the fact that I must finish any whodunit, no matter what the level of quality, then I would've dropped this book quite quickly. And, having read it, I wish I had. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it, you.
You'll have to forgive my brother, he's clearly stoned. And at work, too. The characters-in-a-book-realising-they're-in-a-book thing is only one aspect of it, and one that is raised quite early on; far more interesting is the way the author uses that slightly hackneyed trick to examine Plato's theory of Ideal Forms in a genuinely novel way. Admittedly, taking pot-shots at Platonic metaphysics is not perhaps the most daring or cutting-edge stance to take in this day and age, but it is done with admirably black-hearted savagery and moments of what seemed to me genuine insight. The book closes with a massive, joyous paradox; it argues that there are no eternal Truths independent of ourselves and that all human reasoning is subjective, flawed, and a matter of imperfect projection. And it argues this exceptionally well, using a sleight-of-hand device that will make you go back through the entire book realising how you have been duped into filling in an entire aspect to the story that does not actually exist. And yet this hilariously inventive argument against values, God, truth and meaning is knowingly presented from within the context of a novel; where in a very real sense there ARE external values, there IS a God, and there IS truth and meaning. The one thing that does strike me as a genuine shame about the whole thing is the terrible, cheesy title. In the original Spanish, apparently the book was named La caverna de las ideas, which would seem much more appropriate.
I think it's a real shame James didn't enjoy this much as I did or, apparently, at all. But then he is a mook. Make no mistake about it, it is a strange, uneven, pretentious and frequently irritating book. But it is also about as much fun as I've had with a novel in I don't know how long. And the David Jason-starring adaptation promises to be a stunna.
No, you're still wrong. I don't know much about Platonic Metaphysics, but I know what I don't like. So many bits of this book for me just didn't work. The arguments seemed to be built up to be knocked down, the characters were wafer thin, and the murder story was dull. And there was too much man love and not enough woman love, but then it is Greek I suppose. And it's quite obviously a Tom Bosley vehicle.
UPDATED: OUR MUM says:
As the person responsible on many levels for the great Athenian Argument, -responsible for buying the book in the first place (it has a very
attractive cover, was only 50p in the charity shop, and contrary to some, I do not find the title offensive), for leaving it on James's sofa by
mistake, and then for suggesting Neill read it, because I thought it was intriguing, and then of course at least partly responsible for the authors of the argument - I feel beholden to cast the final vote. And you'll have guessed which way, by the above. This is a book which messes with your mind on at least three levels, and in the process makes you aware of things books still might do but as yet don't. It may be a crap translation, or the style may well be part of the creation of this weird space into which you are taken - who knows. But all I can say is that James is missing - out/something/the point/whatever.... Or I think so. If I'm allowed to disagree with those far more culturally aware than myself.
There's nothing like your Mum agreeing with you to make you question your own judgement, is there?
Buy on Amazon: The Athenian Murders