Review: The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza
An interesting idea which the author, unfortunately, simply does not pull off. The internal logic is flawed, as is the logic of his (straw man) detective character. The author's presentation of philosophy and logic, as well as Plato's theory of the forms (which he insists on calling 'the existence of Ideas") are simplistic, and will annoy anyone who has studied it in any depth, at least as much as the liberties his translator claims are his right to take with the text, will annoy real translators. But none of that is what made it so haaaard for me to force myself through this book (it's for a book club, so I had to.)
I found it impossible to become in any way absorbed in the story because Somoza constantly distracts the reader with the two parts of the project, which appear to be most interesting/important to him and, which the critics are loving: the translator commenting on the piece (don't worry, I'm going to avoid spoilers, despite my rating) and the fictional literary device 'eidesis.' I'm sure plenty of people will say that this distraction was a deliberate part of the metafiction or, at least, that literary books aren't supposed to flow, they are supposed to make the reader work. I accept neither of those objections; It is clear in the latter parts of the book that we are supposed to be absorbed, or at least care about these characters (in the main text and footnotes) and I'm afraid I was never given the chance to connect with them, because of these two devices.
First, the eidesis, which at one point is described as 'subtle' but is the opposite. The repeated imagery (it's no spoiler to define "eidesis") stands out incongruously from page 1 so that a) it just reads like bad writing and then b) once we know what it is, it still jumps out as bad writing but now we're thinking, "alright already we get the image" and THEN we have to put up with the translator popping in to exclaim about the eidesis he has so cleverly discovered. Which brings me nicely to my second point.
Second, the translator. Any time I had managed to get past the writing (the eidesis wasn't the only problem,) and just when I was starting to become absorbed in the main story, the translator would appear with his thoughts on the matter. That would be fine if I wanted to know what the translator thought but, unfortunately, he is not only unnamed but un-introduced and simply forces himself upon us. I quickly began thinking of him as "the interrupter" and it stuck. What's worse, until fairly late in the piece, his comments are rarely anything that isn't painfully obvious to the reader, already; in fact, on page 263 the translator comes up with a 'revelation' that I had wondered about on page 33 - now, an author has every right to reveal their story as they want but being 230 pages behind the reader suggests a need to credit their readers with a touch more intellect.
The sad thing about this book (without giving spoilers) is that there actually is no need for 'eidesis' to be invented to achieve what the author (fictional and real world) is attempting to achieve with it and so the language need not have been burdened by it. I know that might sound absurd to those who have read it, but it's actually not needed - I'm sure plenty of others will have seen what I'm referring to, as obliquely as I can, I don't think it takes a degree in Philosophy (though it will help!)
The saddest thing about the book, for me, is the portrayal of Plato's theory of forms as some life-quashing philosophy, because it's exactly the opposite - but that can be forgiven, after all, it is hard to see it from inside the cave.