A review of José Carlos Somoza's La caverna de las ideas
Like Russian dolls hidden inside one another, "The Athenian Murders" is a puzzle swathed in a mystery contained inside an enigma. A self-reflexive, literary murder novel, the first of Jose Carlos Somoza's six books to be translated into English stakes its claim on nothing less than the truth: of words, ideas, writing, reading and existence. It's a heavy task but one Somoza executes brilliantly with consistent, graceful prose.
The book opens in ancient Greece, with the death of a student at Plato's Academy. The Decipherer of Enigmas is contacted to help solve the case, and we follow what appears to be a straightforward crime plot. Yet the presence of a fictional translator, whose comments appear in well-crafted footnotes (adding another layer to a book that itself is being read in translation), clues the reader into another dimension of the novel and to its major conceit: The story set in Athens is actually an ancient text in the process of being translated by the unnamed translator. (...)
"The Athenian Murders" is a seductive, captivating yet intellectual novel. Constantly shuffling through the truth along with the characters, the mind is compelled through the book in a most engaging and satisfying way, a combination that is not easy to achieve. Only in the last chapter are the mysteries revealed, and even then it is we alone who are left to decide what it all means. As one character says to the translator, "Writing is a strange business, my friend. In my opinion, it's one of the strangest, most terrible things a man can do. Reading is another."
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Jose Carlos Somoza was born in Habana in 1959. A doctor of medicine, and specialist in psychiatry, he has been writing full-time since 1994.He has received, amongst other awards, the Cervantes Theatre Prize and the Café Gijon Prize, and in 2000 his novel Dafne Desvanecida was shortlisted for one of the most important Spanish literary prizes, the Nadal Prize. The Athenian Murders won the 2003 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger Award.