- Josef Skvorecky (Author) and Káca Polácková Henley (Translator)
An Inexplicable Story. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz
For those familiar with Josef Skvorecky’s prose and who think of him as a lively raconteur, this work is a surprise. He seems an unlikely author to be concerned with a Roman scroll found by Mayan archaeology students in an urn in an ancient tomb in Honduras.
However, soon we find that this is essential Skvorecky for several reasons. First, we encounter his typical mingling of fact and fiction, as the tale moves from the impaired scrolls, written by a young Roman Questus, to the turmoil (political, artistic, linguistic) of our times. Secondly, the work enfolds several mysteries (beloved and often practiced by the author). Thirdly, it touches in an oblique way on the perennial theme of a writer in exile.
Patrick Oliver Enfield, an editorially talented mystery writer, has produced an edition of the Roman script that abounds in learned footnotes. Here is another reason for recognizing Skvorecky’s handwriting: the scholarly apparatus is, of course, the author’s own; hence, he supports his tale with verifiable scholarship.
Questus’ diary illuminates for us the Roman world of the first century BCE: its politics, habits and intrigues, its wars and erotic encounters, from which several memorable figures emerge. The secret protagonist (whom we never meet) is Publius Ovidius Naso, called Ovid, famed author of Ars Amandi, exiled for life by Emperor Augustus to Tomi on the Black Sea. The diarist, young Questus, who refused to embark on a political career but instead studied Eratosthenes’ trigonometry and later appeared to have equipped his ship with “a new system of sails” gradually discovers that Ovid, a well-loved uncle hitherto, is actually his father.
The last third of the novel expands the text: chronologically, geographically, thematically. Four commentators—fascinating inventions, rooted in history and literature—find connections with Fedeau’s farces, the German World War II navy, and Poe’s novel about travel to the South Pole, and the Roman text to our days.
Mysteries multiply. How did Questus get where he seems to have gotten? The clincher comes when a French student of Jules Verne discovers in a virtual archives that Questus’ body was found pinned to a cliff in the magnetic sphere of the South Pole. Finally the web of literary mysteries—all hovering in close proximity to actual possibilities—is dissolved by Skvorecky’s “Author’s note.” The one remaining mystery is the historically verified question of why Ovid was banned.
The book is beautifully published, with irregularly trimmed pages and easily readable print (a treat in contemporary publishing). A bibliography of sources vouches for the research contained in the work’s imaginative flight. The translation from the Czech—a challenging task—by Káca Polácková Henley, reflects the various styles of the text, from Questus’ youthful exuberance to editor Enfield’s academic stolidness. Not an easy read for the weekend, yet written with a light touch, this text deepens the historical, technological, literary, and artistic perceptions of our relatively young country. This, I would argue, makes it a literary treasure.
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MLA: Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa. Roman Mysteries. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #187 (Winter 2005), Littérature francophone hors-Québec / Francophone Writing Outside Quebec. (pg. 169 - 170)
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