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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Athenian Murders

José Carlos Somoza

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Title: The Athenian Murders
Author: José Carlos Somoza
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2002)
Length: 260 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Athenian Murders - US
La caverna de las ideas - US
The Athenian Murders - UK
The Athenian Murders - Canada
The Athenian Murders - India
La Caverne des idées - France
Das Rätsel des Philosophen - Deutschland
  • Spanish title: La caverna de las ideas
  • Translated by Sonia Soto

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Our Assessment:

B : full of clever ideas, but the writing less than engrossing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 19/5/2002 Judith Rice
The LA Times . 21/7/2002 Eugen Weber
El mundo . 26/10/2000 Pedro de Miguel
The Observer . 31/3/2002 Peter Guttridge
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2003 Pedro Ponce
Salon . 20/6/2002 Laura Miller
San Francisco Chronicle A+ 16/6/2002 Christine Thomas
Sunday Telegraph . 10/2/2002 Susanna Yager
The Times A+ 6/2/2002 Anthea Lawson
TLS . 5/4/2002 Martin Schifino
The Washington Post A 30/6/2002 Sanford Pinsker

  Review Consensus:

  Some very enthusiastic, and most agree it is neatly done

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novelist challenges the weighty influence this surely lively philosopher has had on Western minds, but fails to see the subtlety of his radical thinking." - Judith Rice, Daily Telegraph

  • "So here's a fable for cognoscenti, a flummery that you can take at face value (which is fun) or parse for allusions, a fiction designed to show off the author's talents but one that, if you read on, you won't forget." - Eugen Weber, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Postmodern literary figures such as Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco delighted in using the mystery form for their own purposes. (...) José Carlos Somoza follows in this tradition with The Athenian Murders (.....) Terrific." - Peter Guttridge, The Observer

  • "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. (...) 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." - Pedro Ponce, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "If you're going to write a novel where cleverness is the chief point, then it must be very clever indeed. Part of the charm of The Athenian Murders is that just when it seems about to disappoint on this count, when Somoza appears to have painted himself into a narrative corner, the book ratchets up another level and presents the reader with a new set of enigmas." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "Somoza not only produces a page-turning novel but also seamlessly calls into question and celebrates the integrity of writing and reading, fiction and nonfiction. (...) The Athenian Murders is a seductive, captivating yet intellectual novel." - Christine Thomas, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This fascinating story, which reads like an authentic classical translation, is both a work of scholarship and a thriller of great originality, with a detective in Herakles to rival Chief Inspector Morse as one of the cleverest in crime fiction." - Susanna Yager, Sunday Telegraph

  • "(T)his cerebral murder mystery, which will appeal to fans of Eco, is brilliant. (...) He weaves suspense, gore, a particular corner of Plato's philosophy and layer upon layer of tantalizing reflexivity with ease and obvious relish." - Anthea Lawson, The Times

  • "Antiquity is not an uncharted territory for crime fiction (...) but Somoza may be the first to revisit Athens in order to stage an unashamedly postmodern tale of intellectual vanity. (...) Yet one feels that a less elaborate structure might have served the novel better. Stylistically, the narrative is a medley (.....) The overall effect is rather stiff, and one is left with the feeling that José Carlos Somoza may simply have had rather too much on his hands." - Martin Schifino, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The novel is at once a page-turning murder mystery and an extended rumination on the odd relationship between translators and texts, readers and fiction, and, perhaps most of all, between the pull toward Platonic ideas and the tug of unbridled passion." - Sanford Pinsker, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       First, unavoidably, a note on the title. In the original Spanish the book was published as La caverna de las ideas. This is also the title of the book at the centre of the novel, called The Cave of Ideas in the English version. Set in ancient Athens, and having to do with Plato's Academy, as well as his teachings, The Cave of Ideas is a clever and appropriate title. The Athenian Murders is not. Yes, there are murders in the book too, and they happen in Athens -- but could any title be more bland or unevocative ?
       We thought it was only panicky American publishers who feel they have to dumb down the titles (especially of translated works) to avoid any hint of higher ideas -- of philosophy or, in fact, any sort of thought (recall Amélie Nothomb's Métaphysique des tubes (see our review), sold to American audiences as "The Character of Rain"), but in this case the English got around to it first (though the Americans made no effort to rectify the misjudgement).
       Will it sell more copies with this least inspired and inspiring of titles ? Perhaps "murder" in the title will entice more people to pull it off the bookshelves -- though the epigraph from Plato and the many footnotes might scare that particular audience off if they happen to flip through the book, hoping only for Greek gore. The Cave of Ideas might not sound quite so sexy to your average mystery-buff (possibly the targeted audience), but is far richer, better, and more appropriate -- and, to an intellectual audience (admittedly: if there still is such a thing), far sexier. Surely there are still a few potential readers out there who get the Platonic allusion .... ? The title of the British and American editions is an embarrassment and the publishers should be ashamed of themselves. (And Señor Somoza should kick himself (and his agent) for agreeing to it.)

       The Athenian Murders is a very clever book. It is presented as an authentic Greek text, a murder-mystery of sorts from classical times. From the first, however, a translator also peeks through -- and he gets far more involved with the text than he could have imagined.
       The translator appears essentially only in footnotes, beginning with the first which comes before the text proper starts. These aren't your usual dry, academic footnotes: they tend to be a bit more chatty -- and self-involved. There also aren't too many of them: the classical text dominates, and the translator only pops up from time to time.
       The novel being translated is called The Cave of Ideas, apparently by an unidentified author. The translator is using the one known version of the text, which was prepared by a scholar named Montalo.
       The Cave of Ideas begins as a fairly straightforward mystery: a youth has been found dead, apparently attacked by wolves. He was a student at Plato's Academy, and one of the teachers there, Diagoras, is a bit concerned about what happened to the youth. He enlists the help of Heracles Pontor, "known as the Decipherer of Enigmas", and the two of them look into the death, which turns out to be more puzzling than originally imagined.
       The two are contrasting figures, especially in their philosophies. Heracles Pontor has little use for abstractions or ideas: he accepts only what he sees. Platonic Diagoras, of course, relies almost entirely on airy abstraction. This conflict between the abstract ("the cave of ideas") and the tangible is central to the novel -- something Somoza, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of subtlety, sledgehammers home at every possible point.
       The reader is also made aware of the fact that the novel is an "eidetic text". As the translator explains, eidesis 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.
       And so the contrast between appearances and reality, abstraction and the tangible, arises again.
       As it turns out, this is the mother of all eidetic texts, packing one hell of a punch -- as the translator finds out.
       Odd things start to happen: the text occasionally turns abruptly to the second person, addressing the translator. Another, very different, philosophical acquaintance of Heracles, Crantor, recounts a "widely held belief in many place far from Athens": that:
everything we do and say is 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 to the text of our lives. That Someone is known as the Interpreter, or Translator.
       And, as if that weren't enough, a prime suspect (and general seducer of Academic (and other) youths -- or ephebes as they are annoyingly (if authentically) referred to here), the sculptor Menaechmus, is working on a piece called ... The Translator.
       Some of this is very cleverly done, and the layers and layers of abstraction, reality, and interpretation that Somoza piles on are largely entertaining.
       The murder mystery itself plods on. There are additional deaths. There are Dionysian rituals. There is a visit to the Academy. There are dangers from unexpected corners, and slowly an explanation emerges.
       There is a decent explanation for the murder-mysteries. More fun, however, is the fact that it doesn't quite end there: the puzzling text still has a few more mysteries that need be plumbed, and Somoza offers a very satisfying final twist explaining the whole thing.

       The Athenian Murders is filled with very clever ideas and twists -- just the sort of thing we generally love. Unfortunately, Somoza's presentation (and, perhaps, Sonia Soto's translation) can't keep up with the goings-on. Stripped of the extra-textual frills the Athenian murder-mystery is rarely better than pedestrian. The story stumbles along, and little of the writing rises above the merely tolerable. Only in combination with the footnotes do pieces stand out -- especially some of the fancier eidetic images.
       Unfortunately, the writing in most of the footnotes is even worse. Somoza doesn't have a delicate touch, and his footnote-writing translator doesn't convince most of the time. Many of the comments are forced, pointing out the obvious, or apparently irrelevant, while much that one might expect to find annotated isn't.
       Only when the translator gets more closely (and personally) involved with the text does Somoza manage to convince, almost redeeming himself.
       Despite the relatively poor presentation The Athenian Murders is worth reading. It's just a shame the very fine ideas couldn't have been better realized.

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The Athenian Murders: Reviews: Other books by José Carlos Somoza under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       José Carlos Somoza was born in Cuba in 1959 and now lives in Spain.

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© 2002-2011 the complete review

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