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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



An Inexplicable Story

by
Josef Skvorecky


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase An Inexplicable Story



Title: An Inexplicable Story
Author: Josef Skvorecky
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 179 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: An Inexplicable Story - US
An Inexplicable Story - UK
An Inexplicable Story - Canada
  • The Narrative of Questus Firmus Siculus
  • Written in Czech, but first published in English
  • Translated by Káca Polácková Henley

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Our Assessment:

B : creative, but a bit too playful

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       An Inexplicable Story purports to be a critical edition of 'The Narrative of Questus Firmus Siculus', complete with preface, footnotes, and commentary. The narrative itself is a fragmentary 1st-century text written by Questus Firmus Siculus, apparently a relative (possibly even the son) of Ovid. And what's particularly mysterious about the manuscript is that it was found in the tomb of a 4th century Latin American royal.
       From the first, there are clues that Skvorecky is playing literary games here. The dedication describes this book as a: "tribute to EAP and other literary loves of my bygone days", and the preface is ascribed to a Patrick Oliver Enfield, making for two early Poe-echoes. (Unforgivably, Skvorecky's Author's Note misspells the name as 'Edgar Allen Poe'.) And the manuscript was discovered in Honduras: "by a group of Miskatonic University students" -- a nod to H.P.Lovecraft. In the Commentary that makes up the second half of the book, more Poe-links are found -- moving on also to Jules Verne, with Skvorecky explaining the genesis of the story and all that went into it (and he accumulated a lot of stuff to put into this relatively slim volume).
       The ancient text -- including extensive footnotes that are often informative about Roman history and everyday life -- takes up a bit more than half of the book. It is presented as fragmentary: there are gaps in the scrolls, from missing words to larger sections. It adds up to a sort of memoir of this Questus Firmus Siculus. He has some family issues (he wonders about his Oedipus-like feelings, doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps, and wonders more and more what exactly the relation between his mother and her distant cousin, Ovid, was ...), and has some ideas of what he wants to do with his life: he doesn't want to throw it completely away by becoming a poet or something like that, but, as he explains to the Emperor, he would like "-- to invent -- for the army --".
       Skvorecky does then posit that Quintus makes one very big invention, inspired by the Roman 'war machine' and how battle formations were used in attacks. It's a leap from there to Quintus' invention, but with the help of Skvorecky's diagram's a somewhat plausible one: what Skvorecky suggests is that Quintus designed a steam-powered ship (explaining also how he made it across the Atlantic).
       The other mystery the account addresses is Ovid's exile, including why it took so long for the Emperor to punish him, as well as what became of Ovid.
       Not all the answers are found directly or obviously in the text, as Skvorecky leaves much of the interpretation (as well as some additional clues -- including another shorter manuscript from about that time) to the commentaries and postscripts to successive editions of this critical edition of the original text. Yes, it's very multi-layered, and yes it's quite complex, but Skvorecky has good fun with it, and his presentation makes the larger picture quite clear. Despite appearances, this is a novelist (and story-teller's) book, not that of a scholar.
       Still, there's a lot to it, from echoes of Feydeau in a drama-fragment contained in the original text (yet another mystery !) to Poe- and Verne-connexions to fairly detailed bits of information about Roman history and customs. If anything, there is too little elaboration, Skvorecky holding on to that fragmentary approach in toto. Somewhat odd, too, is the very casual story-telling approach of some of the supplemental material, which wouldn't be quite so jarring in a larger work but here works too much to getting things side-tracked. (And some of the jokes are a bit too simple: did the first edition really have to be: "published by Nary & Trace Publishers" ?)
       An Inexplicable Story is clever and fun, but Skvorecky doesn't make quite enough out of the material. Worthwhile, but also slightly disappointing.

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Links:

An Inexplicable Story: Reviews: Josef Škvorecký: Other books by Josef Škvorecký under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Josef Škvorecký fled his native country for Canada decades ago. He has written many novels and has received numerous awards, including the Neustadt International Prixe for Literature.

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