Monday, July 25, 2005

Review: The Third Translation

One has seen a plethora of books dealing with real or imagined ancient mysteries, from the Da Vinci Code to the "Rule of Four". I found the Rule of Four an intereresting read, given that it dealt with a very real mystery, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. I was delighted to find the Milwaukee Central Library actually had an original copy of this Renaissance manuscript.

The Third Translation deals with another ancient mystery manuscript, or stela in this case, the Stela of Paser. This is a hymn to the Egyptian Goddess Mut, from Karnak at Thebes, Egypt, dating back to about 1150 pre-C.E. The hieroglyphs are laid out on a grid, crossword like, allowing both horizontal and vertical interpretations. The mystery, yet unsolved, lies in the notation at the top of the Stela, that there are 'three ways' of reading the inscription. Much analysis and theory has been spent in finding the 'third translation'.

Dan Brown, or many other authors, would perhaps have used this as a springboard to reveal a secret conspiracy passed down the ages, one enveloping everyone from Yves St Laurent to Michelangelo. While Matt Bondurant does introduce a conspiracy, involving a modern-day cult dedicated to restoring Aten/Amun, it is not a conspiracy of the grandiose sort, made up instead of giant wrestlers, 'Krishnas' who turn out to be a group of 'Saudi and Egyptian Muslims operating some kind of stolen-artifacts ring to support extremist groups', and a half-mad, deranged collector of antiquities named Oldcastle.


The book encompasses much more interesting themes. It promises to make one an Egyptologist of sorts, or evoke an interest at the very least in the field. The lead character, Dr Walter Rothschild, is an American Archaeologist on loan to the British Museum, and on contract to solve the Paser mystery. A woman influences him to show her the Stela, and rewards him, in a manner of speaking. She steals, not the Stela, but a mysterious Song of Amun.

This is the launching point for a multi-layered quest to retrieve the Song, and for Walter to re-appraise his life, his work and his unfulfilled dreams. Along the way, we learn much interesting stuff, including details of the secret Canadian mission to the Moon.

The writing style is literary, given to flashbacks and expositions on Egyptology, perhaps along the lines of Dr Crichton, with the concommittant drawbacks in loss of pace, breaks in the story, et al. Grammatical errors and redundancy persist. All the same, it is an interesting, well-written book, with visual descriptiveness. One excerpt should suffice, with interesting themes.
If the fabric of space is made of strings, tiny vibrating strings, forming looped dimensions that shimmer with the music of eternity, then we must walk through eternity at every step. This need to return, to follow the line of linear history to try and reel it back, gasping and flopping in the boat, desperate under the knife of the present; it still can only be understood in terms of the relative position of the observer as the entire world moves past him. History is so much like physics in this manner. But my position was no longer stationary; I had allowed myself to be caught up in the currents of the great river. The third way was a solution that could not be translated, at least to anyone else. I would have it in my heart, alone.


British tones abound in the novel, with scenes set on the Cam, in Soho, and elsewhere in the London metropolis. Reading this book soon after the tragic bombings of July, one wondered how the hustle and flow of SoHo, and the teeming crowds might have changed, if at all.

The Third Translation : A Novel/Matt Bondurant The Rule of Four/Dustin Thomason The Egyptologist: A Novel/Arthur Phillips The Historian/Elizabeth Kostova Angels & Demons/Dan Brown The Da Vinci Code/Dan Brown

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Time traveler, world traveler, book reader