April 2, 2012

The Athenian Murders (José Carlos Somoza)

The Athenian Murders by José Carlos Somoza, trans. Sonia Soto (Abacus, 2002)

Set in ancient Greece in the time of Plato’s Academy, this postmodern, heavily footnoted murder mystery was ostensibly a scholar’s translation of a Greek text, also called The Athenian Murders, written by an anonymous author just after the Peloponnesian War. Like the Quixote, therefore, it was a meta-translation, a text put forward as a translation of a fictional original by a narrator who was conscious of the fact. (But what does that make of the "Pierre Menard" story?) Here, the fictional translator himself gave his comments on the story and his translation in the footnotes. As he worked on the chapters of the text and immersed himself in the cryptic images ‘hidden’ in the story, his copious translator's notes at the bottom of the pages became more and more desperate in tone. The fictional translator (the qualification was necessary, in deference to Spanish-to-English translator Sonia Soto) of the fictional Greek text was starting to cave in, so to speak. Both the original Spanish title of the novel and the purported Greek text were called La caverna de las ideas (2000, The Cave of Ideas).

The Cuban writer José Carlos Somoza (b. 1959) was fond of what-if stories. His other novels translated after this one—The Art of Murder and Zig Zag—were both set in the future, so the speculative and futuristic may be a constant preoccupation with the author.

'Poetry, tragedy, comedy, prose, epics and many other things.... I must make it clear, Plato, that I do not "see" the future: I invent it. I write it and that, for me, is equivalent to inventing it. Simply for pleasure, I conceive worlds that differ from this one, voices that speak from other times, past or future.... On occasion, Apollo has allowed me to deduce what the future might be like ...'

That was the writer Philotextus speaking to Master Plato. For Somoza, the novel was a literal cave of ideas and possibilities. The hermeneutic puzzle was evident from the novel's epigraph, from Plato of course:

There is an argument which holds good against the man who ventures to put anything whatever into writing on questions of this nature; it has often before been stated by me, and it seems suitable for the present occasion.
   For everything that exists there are three instruments by which knowledge of it is necessarily imparted; fourth, there is the knowledge itself, and, as fifth, we must count the thing itself which is known and truly exists. The first is the name, the second the definition, the third the image ...

The fifth instrument, the thing itself, requires that knowledge of the thing must fold in on itself. Plato's theory of ideas cautions against the very danger of steeping oneself in incomplete, unverifiable ideas, and the (Kafkaesque) danger of interpreting everything.

It was notable how in this story of crime solving, the narrative role of the translator was given utmost importance. Translation became the vehicle for solving the crime at the center of the story and for illuminating the unsolved enigmas brought about by Plato's dangerous ideas. "Translator figures" haunt The Athenian Murders, both novel and meta-translation, in various guises, all plausible roles for the translator: detective, philosopher, sculptor, and reader. On top of the fictional translator, the detective Heracles at one point also considered himself a translator: "I haven't translated that part of the text yet, Diagoras. Although I assure you, in all modesty, I'm not a bad translator." The detective was like a translator in the way he read and interpreted the available clues (words) to decipher the solution to the crime (text). Heracles's official title of "Decipherer of Enigmas" was hinted as a kind of definition for what a translator does.

Another definition was given by Menaechmus, the sculptor (the translator of clay into statues?) who was working on a sculpture with a not so subtle name:

It's called The Translator. The man who tries to decipher the mystery of a text written in a foreign language, not realizing that words simply lead to other words, and thoughts to other thoughts, while the Truth remains unattainable.

Everyone was translating foreign ideas into accessible meanings: characters, translators, novelists, readers. My favorite translator figure was the latter. The reader as a godlike and powerful translator, yet an invisible one, or at least invisible to the characters of the story:

'There's a widely held belief in many places far from Athens,' he said, 'that everything we do and say exists as words written in another language on a huge papyrus scroll. And Someone is reading the scroll right now, deciphering our thoughts and actions, and finding hidden keys [eidetic images?] to the texts of our lives. That Someone is known as the Interpreter or Translator … Those who believe in Him think that our lives have an ultimate meaning of which we ourselves are unaware, but which the Translator discovers as he reads us. Eventually, the text comes to an end and we die, knowing no more than before. But the Translator, who has read us, discovers at last the ultimate meaning of our existence.'

Underneath this passage, the fictional translator's accompanying footnote reads:

Though I've searched through all my books, I can't find a single reference to this supposed religion. The author must have invented it. [Translator's Note]

Certainly, the fictional translator was not to know that we are reading about him. He was too engrossed in his task. And he didn't recognize that the religion he was looking for was possibly, quite possibly, literature. 

Translation is more or less. Translation is the idea of the original. It loses words and gains words. It makes painful choices. It makes fitting choices. It is full of doubts and compromises. Translation is a world of decisions. The fictional translator of The Athenian Murders was well aware that the idea of correspondence was enough to bring comfort to the beleaguered. More or less.
I want to shout, but I think the Idea of a Shout would provide more relief. [Translator's Note]

Related posts:

Blood and sound ; Reading list: Translators in fiction


  1. Blimey I think Borges, is alive & well & living in Somoza. this relating to your cave comment, definitely has his shadow cast on its wall.

  2. Rise - Among a plethora of works focused on the role of the translator, this one sounds like it might scale new heights of fixation on that role. Onto the TBR list it goes!

  3. Gary, the shadow was so long it was cast on many cave complexes. Somoza's cave was definitely Borgesian.

    Scott, being fixated on translation, I downplayed the mystery story here. It was also quite the entertaining whodunit.