Greeks Bearing Gifts . . . and How!
As we trudge toward the inevitable shift of global power from governments to multinational corporations predicted by the cyberpunks, one must find one’s silver linings where one can. The world may not be rife with the hot chicks in mirrorshades and latex catsuits that Mondo 2000 kept promising us, but on the other hand it is a veritable Golden Age for the independent media. As mid-sized publishing houses like William Morrow and Alfred A. Knopf were swallowed up by megapublishers like HarperCollins (itself owned by Rupert Murdoch) and Random House (part of a German consortium), independent micropresses found themselves with a tremendous void in the book market that they’ve been filling with the sort of content larger houses won’t touch. And thanks to the internet and alternative publications like this one, the discerning reader has access to something beyond the latest spew from Michael Crichton or Mary Higgins Clark. Ain’t the future swell?
I am especially a fan of New York’s Akashic Books, which is carving itself quite a niche in the market with its line of books by Latin American authors who, despite rampant accolades throughout the rest of the Western world, have been ignored by the major publishers. Chief among these is Daniel Chavarria, the Venezuelan classicist whose first U.S.-published novel, Adios Muchachos, just won an Edgar Award, the equivalent of the Oscar for mystery novelists. But while a megahouse would have demanded that Chavarria’s second release be a repeat of that book’s Elmore Leonard-esque formula, Akashic gives us The Eye of Cybele, a novel set as far away in space and time from his last as it is possible to be.
Set in Greece during the reign of Pericles, The Eye of Cybele is at once a love story, a mystery novel, a soap opera, a religious farce, a sex romp, and a fascinating glimpse into the daily lives of the ancient Greeks, from the corridors of power to the slums of Athens. Unlike most attempts at recreating the ancient world, however, Chavarria’s novel is neither dry nor pompous. This is because though Chavarria is a Classical scholar by profession, most of the time he resists the urge to flex his academic muscles and keeps the novel moving. This is not to say that the book isn’t densely packed—there is an extensive glossary of terms and historical/mythological figures, but just as in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange you’ll learn more if you don’t use it—but Chavarria’s attention to minute and authentic detail makes the book a slow and scenic ride.
At the heart of the novel is the twisting, complex love/hate relationship between Alcibiades, an impossibly handsome and ambitious young aristocrat, and Lysis, a beautiful temple prostitute in the service of Aphrodite. Spurned once by Alcibiades’ arrogance, Lysis makes it her driving mission to seduce and destroy the man, if only she can stop falling in love with him. The novel tracks the parallel rise in their fortunes, he from spoiled young dilettante on the Athenian party circuit to Olympian champion to general in the Peloponnesian War, she from skilled courtesan to the most prized (and expensive) woman in the City. As they circle each other, maneuvering through a convoluted dance of seduction and rejection, their relationship captures the imagination of the Athenian people, evoking the same sort of forbidden-fruit glamor that surrounds the alleged affair of JFK and Marilyn Monroe. And just like those modern icons, Alcibiades and Lysis are driven by their own secret demons. For Lysis, it is her involvement in a newly risen cult of sexual power led by a beggar with unearthly powers of persuasion. For Alcibiades, it is his growing knowledge of the whereabouts of the most sought-after treasure of the age, an amethyst called the Eye of Cybele, stolen from a statue of Athena in her own temple.
The Eye is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a “MacGuffin,” an object of desire that serves to bring a story’s principals together, and as the mystery of the jewel’s disappearance grows, so does the cast of characters. Pericles, the celebrated orator and populist ruler of Athens, looms large over the proceedings, as does his chief rival, the general Nicias, who provides a great deal of comic relief as he tries scheme after scheme to discredit Pericles and his wife Aspasia. Some of the novel’s strongest scenes feature the philosopher Socrates, employing his famous method to unearth the jewel thief in best Nero Wolfe fashion. Slaves, soldiers, prostitutes, and statesmen abound here, and while the dramatis personae gets pretty thick, Chavarria manages to make them all more or less distinctive and very few get lost in the scenery.
What is even more impressive is the number of different narrative devices Chavarria wields to tell this convoluted story, shifting abruptly from straight narrative to epistolary chapters, from omniscient third-person to individual points-of-view, and most jarring, sudden plunges into stream-of-consciousness scenes that at times result in a single sentence that stretches over a couple of pages. This last device isn’t always effective, and occasionally it seems gratuitous, but it works wonders when Chavarria wishes to illustrate confusion or the effect of being in a crowd, in much the same way Robert Altman uses the roving camera and overlapping dialogue in his films.
But where Chavarria shines brightest is in his treatment of Lysis. As an academic, the focus of much of Chavarria’s scholarly work deals with the history of prostitution, and the protagonist of Adios Muchachos was also a prostitute, an engaging Cuban bicycle hooker named Alicia. It is evident—and refreshing—to see the regard in which Chavarria obviously holds the profession, as shown by the meticulous manner in which he illustrates the courtesan’s art when practiced with skill and taste, reminding us that there are parts of the world where said art was once, and still is, a noble calling. But again, it is Chavarria the novelist writing here, and Chavarria the novelist makes these scenes erotic as hell.
This is not to say there are no flaws in the novel. As I stated, the book is dense. I’m talking Clavell or Michener dense, not something you’ll want to commit to if you can’t put in the time or the attention to suss out many of the terms in context. There are a few places where the plot will suddenly twist for no immediately apparent reason, and depending on which characters you choose to care about, you may find the novel’s ending infuriating.
Still, this is one hell of an accomplishment, with real thrills and surprises, while being in many ways as educational yet accessible as Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and its sequel. A real pleasure to read, and yet another reason to support the independent presses. No latex catsuits, but the future is indeed swell.