Onyx reviews: The Third Translation by
Since Umberto Eco spawned the medieval mystery subgenre with The Name of the
Rose several decades ago, numerous books have taken the basic concept-scholars
looking for ancient secrets hidden in medieval texts, usually against some
arbitrary deadline-in different directions, some more successfully than others.
Matt Bondurant's first novel, The Third Translation, is an entertaining variant.
His protagonist, Walter Rothschild, is a translator specializing in hieroglyphs
and other Egyptian alphabets. The puzzle he must solve is an ancient stone
funeral slab covered with an inscription that has been previously translated.
The Stela of Pesar is unique in that it can be read in two different directions
to get complementary messages. However, the known texts hint at yet another way
of reading the slab, and this third translation is Walt's goal.
Walt's father was an engineer who worked at some of the world's great
construction sites, including the Aswan Dam where Walt first developed an
interest in Egyptology. It's also where he acquired his model for fatherhood.
His mother was left at home for years at a time while he and his father traipsed
around the globe. Later, Walt abandoned his own wife and three-year-old daughter
in favor of living rough on the banks of the Nile. The contemporary narrative
alternates with Walt's recollections of his childhood.
Though the elusive third translation drives the plot, it's not what the book is
about. The Third Translation becomes a literary cherchez la femme tale after
Walt meets mysterious young Erin at a party, invites her to spend the night with
him among the exotic Egyptian exhibits at the British Museum, and awakens the
next morning to discover that she has vanished with a valuable, delicate papyrus
scroll that may or may not pertain to the Stela of Pesar.
Walt, a middle-aged man who is as self-involved and hedonistic as a twenty year
old, has never solved the puzzle of women. He is so obsessed by Erin that he
risks his career and safety to find her, and would likely have done so even if
she didn't have something he needed. Along the way, he meets a librarian named
Penelope who becomes his sidekick and conscience. Among the other colorful
characters in Walt's world are Mick Wheelhouse, his grungy roommate in their
cramped Tottenham Court atelier, and Alan Henry, who lives down the hall. On the
opening page, Bondurant warns us that Walt will play some part in their deaths.
Much of the book takes place in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze. When Walt and
his friends aren't poring over ancient manuscripts, they're hanging out in pubs,
drinking to excess, and popping whatever pills people are passing around. Walt
has several deadlines looming-he will be in serious trouble if he doesn't
recover the stolen document, his time with the Stela ends in less than a week,
and his estranged daughter Zenobia, a magazine editor, is coming to London for a
brief visit. He's determined to keep his crises from interfering with Zenobia's
stay, giving him the opportunity to show her-for the first time-that his work
doesn't always come before family.
A side plot involves an offbeat cult of the Egyptian god Aten whose membership
includes a group of American wrestlers who believe that the "third
way" of the Stela describes a state of existence between life and death.
Walt is also being followed by a man he encountered in the library the day he
met Penelope. The story crisscrosses the seediest parts of greater London. Walt
and Penelope even manage to save the life of an elderly man, a good deed that
will not go unpunished.
The way Bondurant weaves his research into the story is exemplary. Without being
overly didactic, he presents Egyptian history and the mysteries of hieroglyphics
so that readers understand Walt's fascination with them. Walt and his friends
are also diverted by esoteric discussions of particle physics and the nature of
Though marketed as a fast-paced thriller, the story unfolds at a leisurely pace.
One of the book's literary conceits is the lack of quotation marks around
dialog. The story-and in particular fault-ridden Walt's awakening-is so
absorbing that readers soon won't notice their absence. Ultimately Walt becomes
aware of a world beyond that of ancient texts. For the first time in his life,
he learns to appreciate music. By the end, he, unlike is father, is finally
starting to "see the sights."
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