18 January 2012

Blood and sound

José Carlos Somoza's The Athenian Murders is turning out to be a detective novel of wit. A whodunit forged in pale fire. Caustic humor in the same mold as Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans by Luis Fernando Verissimo.

I picked it up yesterday after finishing The Savage Detectives, that book of monologues of hyper poets in a mock-up detective novel. I knew for some time that Bolaño has read and praised the work of Somoza. I'm a third into the book and it's becoming clear to me why this recommendation is a good one.

Somoza, born in 1959 in Cuba, is a writer from Spain. He is a psychiatrist by profession before becoming a full-time writer. The Athenian Murders, translated from Spanish by Sonia Soto, is his first novel to come out in English. The book was originally published as La caverna de las ideas (Alfaguara, 2000). The title should translate as "The Cave of Ideas", which, considering the milieu of the novel, is an apt title. The novel is set in ancient Greece, in the time of Plato and his school, the Academy. Plato's allegory of the cave is a philosophical sound that issues from it, bouncing and reverberating in its pages.

It's quite possible the English publisher wanted to market Somoza as a crime writer. (His second translated novel, The Art of Murder, was originally called Clara y la penumbra!) Nothing wrong with that except that it murders, in a manner of speaking, the self-referential elements of the story whenever the title itself was mentioned in the text, via footnotes. Yes, there are footnotes, it's that kind of book. The notes are provided by the fictional translator of the actual text (his supposed translation) that we are reading. As given by an extract from one of his more than a page long footnotes:

   The Athenian Murders, the novel I had just begun translating, was an eidetic text. She stared at me for a moment, holding one of the cherries on the nearby plate by its stalk.
   'A what?' she asked.
   'Eidesis,' I explained, 'is a literary technique invented by the Ancient Greeks to transmit secret messages or keys in their works. It consists in repeating, in any text, metaphors or words that, when identified by a perceptive reader, make up an idea or image that's independent of the original text. Arginisus of Corinth, for example, used eidesis to hide a detailed description of a young woman he loved in a long poem apparently about wild flowers....
   'How interesting,' smiled Helena, bored. 'And would you care to tell me what's hidden in your anonymous The Athenian Murders? [14]

Substitute The Cave of Ideas to the title in the above and one realizes it's more faithful to this 'eidetic' novel of ideas. Here is a striking passage from the "translated" text itself:

   There was a scream. Then another. For a moment, absurdly, Heracles thought they came from Itys' mouth, which was shut; as if she had roared internally, and her thin body were shuddering and resonating with this sound produced in her throat.
   But then the scream, deafening, entered the room; clad in black, it pushed the slaves away; crawled from one side of the room to the other, then collapsed in a corner, writhing, as if seized by a holy madness. At last it dissolved into an endless lamentation. [10-11]

I marked this up because I remember a similar passage of a sound's motion in The Savage Detectives.

He whispered that he loved me, that he would never be able to forget me. Then he got up (twenty seconds after he'd spoken, at most) and slapped my face. The sound echoed through the house. We were on the first floor, but I heard the sound of his hand (when his palm left my cheek) rise up the stairs and enter each of the rooms on the second floor, dropping down through the climbing vines and rolling like glass marbles in the yard. When I could react, I made a fist with my right hand and hit him in the face. He hardly moved. [194]

I was wondering about the resemblance between them. And then I came upon this passage from García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude:

A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.

Blood and scream, the sound of slap. What to make of their trajectories?


  1. this sounded interesting then you chucked in bolano, Márquez & the idea of a subtext beneath the everyday message & I had to wishlist it.

  2. Great quotes, Rise - this sounds fascinating - and even without the internal echoes the original titles are far more interesting.
    I like the way you 'came across' the Márquez - I now picture you stumbling over mountains of text, stopping every now and then to read something closely, some Márquez hidden under a tuft of Bolaño, picking it up and slipping quietly into Somoza's cave, where Plato lights a fire with Nabokov's footnotes...

  3. Funny how that passage from Garcia Marquez seems so dated now compared to the Bolano; it's a nice side-by-side example of their very different styles.

    The Somoza "scream" passage reminds me of one of the children's stories invented by Terry Andrews in The Story of Harold, in which a scream is anthropomorphized in much the same way.

  4. Gary, definitely for the wishlist. It's mysterious, wicked, playful, and laden with black humor.

    Séamus, that's a cool (or hot?) way of putting it. I'm deep into Somoza's cave and the shadows are confusing but entertaining.

    Scott, glad you note how the passages (pun?) reveal their distinctive styles. César Aira took anthropomorphism to the extreme in his story A Thousand Drops which was said to feature drops of paint escaping into space.

  5. Another use of the "anthropomorphic scream" is some of the poetry in Crow by Ted Hughes, the brackets are mine not the poems

    Lovesong - Ted Hughes

    He loved her and she loved him
    His kisses sucked out her whole past and future or tried to
    He had no other appetite
    She bit him she gnawed him she sucked
    She wanted him complete inside her
    Safe and sure forever and ever
    (Their little cries fluttered into the curtains)

    Her eyes wanted nothing to get away
    Her looks nailed down his hands his wrists his elbows
    He gripped her hard so that life
    Should not drag her from that moment
    He wanted all future to cease
    He wanted to topple with his arms around her
    Off that moment's brink and into nothing
    Or everlasting or whatever there was
    Her embrace was an immense press
    To print him into her bones
    His smiles were the garrets of a fairy palace
    Where the real world would never come
    Her smiles were spider bites
    So he would lie still till she felt hungry
    His words were occupying armies
    Her laughs were an assassin's attempts
    His looks were bullets daggers of revenge
    Her glances were ghosts in the corner with horrible secrets
    His whispers were whips and jackboots
    Her kisses were lawyers steadily writing
    His caresses were the last hooks of a castaway
    Her love-tricks were the grinding of locks
    (And their deep cries crawled over the floors)
    Like an animal dragging a great trap
    His promises were the surgeon's gag
    Her promises took the top of his skull
    She would get a brooch made of it
    His vows pulled out all her sinews
    He showed her how to make a love-knot
    Her vows put his eyes in formalin
    At the back of her secret drawer
    (Their screams stuck in the wall)

    Their heads fell apart into sleep like the two halves
    Of a looped melon, but love is hard to stop

    In their entwined sleep they exchanged arms and legs
    In their dreams their brains took each other hostage

    In the morning they wore each other's face

  6. Thank you for that scream of a poem, Gary. Made me chuckle. :DD

  7. I'm always looking for these unusual detective novels. Thanks for the recommendations. I'll try to find them in Spanish.

  8. Welcome, Miguel. Thanks for taking the time to read these old posts of mine.