Vol. XXIII, #1 Gilbert Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things
Review of Contemporary Fiction
The Athenian Murders, by José Carlos Somoza, translated by Sonia Soto
reviewed by Pedro Ponce
Trans. Sonia Soto. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002. 262 pp. $24.00.
John Gardner once referred to the novel as a “vivid and continuous dream.” José Carlos Somoza explores the more unsettling implications of this statement in The Athenian Murders. Somoza’s novel takes the form of a translated ancient Greek manuscript centered on the mysterious death of Tramachus, a promising student at Plato’s Academy in Athens. When Tramachus’s bloody body is recovered from the city’s outskirts, authorities at first suspect an attack by wolves. But Heracles Pontor, known as the Decipherer of Enigmas, is not convinced. Heracles, an ancient analogue of Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, embarks on his own investigation, which leads from the placid gardens of the Academy to the decadent artistic and religious underground of Athens. While this mystery unfolds, a parallel narrative develops in the form of the translator’s footnotes to the text. The translator believes that The Athenian Murders is an “eidetic text” containing words and images that are meant to convey a secret message to readers. As the translation proceeds, the translator begins to see references to himself within the story that cause him to question not only his own perceptions of reality but the nature of reality itself. It is now commonplace to see language as a problematic way of articulating experience, but Somoza’s complex narrative evokes this idea with eerie plausibility as the translator confronts the disturbing sense that language is the only reality. Both writing and reading become dangerous acts that test the limits of understanding. The thrill of this novel comes from both its ingeniously structured mystery plot and the larger questions it raises about what constitutes knowledge and experience. Language itself becomes a central character whose tenuous yet oppressive power is vividly rendered, albeit only fictional. Or is it?