Sunday, May 01, 2005

Today I read...

The Third Translation by Matt Bondurant.

I was thoroughly disappointed. It started so well: a beautiful cover (yes, I admit I pay attention to those things), and interesting premise (a forty-something American Egyptologist specializing in translating and decoding hieroglyphs has just a few days left before his contract with the British Museum expires to find the elusive "third translation" of the Stela of Paser. Once his contract is up he will be evicted from the museum-paid lodging, barred from the Stela, and essentially left penniless. Then he goes out drinking with 'friends' and ends up taking a girl to have sex in the museum. Of course, she steals a priceless papyrus and he's royally screwed. Now he has to find the girl, retrieve the papyrus, and decipher the Stela within 4 days or lose it all -- career, freedom, and maybe life...). I'm also a sucker for ancient Egypt, academia, and translation, so I thought, yum, a thriller that incorporates all these favorite themes must be good.

No. It isn't.

Things I didn't like:

  • Way too many scatological references. Who cares about the state of the characters' intestines and their penchant for using the tiny bathroom in the protagonist's room? I certainly didn't.

  • Too much of the plot is driven by alcohol, hash, and other drugs. And this despite the fact that Walter Rothschild, the main character, is basically a forty-something academic who is socially inept and not particularly attractive, yet he keeps drinking, taking proferred drugs and tripping, and making stupid choices that drive the plot. Please!

  • The absurdity of some plot elements. I can stomach a fair amount of absurd, even surreal behavior in the books I read, as long as there's a reason for it. This novel is marketed as a thriller (which is perhaps unfortunate) and thus carries certain generic expectations. Having some of the bad guys be American wrestlers who first turn up in a riot scene (they get mobbed leaving a Virgin Megastore) is just beyond absurd, particularly when one of them is a hulking, one-eyed brute named Gigantica... need I say more? I could -- these guys keep popping up all over the place, and then there's some sort of cult (with unexplained Hare Krishna ties) that also has a fetish for things Egyptian, though what their point is (and why we should care) is never really explained.

  • The book ends in the middle of nowhere, plot-wise, and therefore, most narrative strands have to be awkwardly concluded in an epilogue.
Something I did like:
The way Bondurant writes about Walter's childhood and young adulthood, including his marriage. It makes me think that somehow thrillers are not his thing and he should write more literary fiction (that is not genre driven). The choice of a thriller/mystery is unfortunate, because The Third Translation just doesn't work. It just feels like a rough draft, and not a finished product. I'd be interested, though, to see where Bondurant goes next.

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