The Third Translation, by Matt Bondurant, Read by Nick Sullivan, Sound Library, 2005
I have to admit, as bad as so many of these erudite historico-thrillers are, I have a weak spot for them and will always always always pick them up off the shelf. Thrillers that offer me some new bit of knowledge are always a treat, unless they’re Tom Clancy style military hardware catalogs which are just a fucking drag. I don’t care where these bullet casings were made nor what out of nor how many fire per second.
What I do care about is ancient manuscripts, lost civilizations, hidden codexes, migratory patterns of Hittite culture or Phoenician burial practices. As a kid, I could just devour anything about Atlantis or the Roanoke Colony, I’ve actually read Budge’s translation of The Egyptian Book of the Dead, and numerology and mystical symbolism (even though they’re horseshit) just knock me out with fascination.
So I had great hopes when I tracked down the audiobook of The Third Translation by Matt Bondurant. I’d seen an ad for it in The New Yorker, I’d read the jacket summary, and I’d rather enjoyed Arthur Phillips’ The Egyptologist. This sounded like just the thing.
Well, let’s just say that plenty of dusty of papyrus rolls translated and transliterated make far more fascinating reading than this poorly plotted, poorly conceived, and poorly written snoozer. Rather quickly the book hooked me when the narrator said something along the lines of “I knew that was how I remembered them, because I was responsible for their deaths.” It’s an arresting line, and it’s a shame it comes so early in the book, because it’s the very last time The Third Translation held my interest.
Told by Walter Rothschild, an American Egyptologist working at the British Museum and trying to solve one of the last mysteries of ancient Egypt, the Stela of Paser, the novel purports to be a thrilling race against time yet you’d never guess that by following the meander Rothschild embarks upon. Rothschild is a bit of a pedant who tends to ramble and editorialize with windy pseudo-deep reflections.
There is no such thing as arbitrary expression, the illusion of randomness is nature’s joke, the humor of the gods who hide the framework in our own shallow chaotic urges. To think otherwise suggests an unwillingness to confront the code of our purposes. I began to arrange the grid in my mind, to sort the pictographs, to set up groupings.
After reading this kind of nonsense, I think I would like to take Rothschild out for a little wine from the cask of Amontillado. I grew quickly tired of the entire business within the first one quarter of the book; by one third of the way through, I was sighing heavily at the prospect of listening to another eight CDs.
What happens basically is this: out with some colleagues and friends, Rothschild is seduced by Erin, a spiky-haired younger woman who tricks him into taking her back to the British Museum at night, whereupon they have kinky sex with her dressed up in a number of crusty old funerary relics. (A prize can be awarded for worst sexual simile in the history of English language literature for Bondurant’s mind-boggling line: “...she was climbing on me like a koala bear.”)
Rothschild wakes, put things back together, loses the girl, then is called on the carpet by his boss who has not only discovered the tryst, but has noticed the disappearance of a recently acquired papyrus supposedly related to the Stela of Paser. Fearing a scandal, Rothschild’s boss gives him three days to recover the manuscript or else he’ll notify the authorities, very likely Rothschild will go to prison, his career and life will be ruined, and everything will be misery oh misery.
Now, you would think this might be a spur under you to begin searching for the girl in question, which Rothschild does, never you fear, and you might have good reason to suspect we are about to embark upon one of those pseudo-real-time novels where every second counts and our hero frantically sets off, etc. etc.
No. You are thinking of some other book. Maybe a good book, maybe a bad book, but definitely not this book.
The pursuit of Erin gets underway in what can only be called low-gear despite Rothschild recognizing that the business will have “cataclysmic” repercussions on his life and career. He tries the bar from last night but no dice; he tries some other bars in Soho; he has drinks in each of these bars; in the last of the night, he smokes some hash with some Dutch men then becomes intensely fascinated with graffiti. What the fuck? you’re thinking, and you’d be right to think that. From there we are treated to a discursive rumination on signs, symbols, and signifier based on pictographic representation before this is interrupted by one of the Dutch hash smokers slapping some headphones on Rothschild’s head so he can listen to some Scottish accented man reciting poetry.
Where the bloody fucking hell is all this going?
Nor is the pace at all helped along by the man taking time out to compare the various furniture and architectural styles in each bar, pub, and clubs he pops into. And, does he ask his friends for any help, fob them off with some story? Does he hell. And everywhere he goes he notices and comments on the size of peoples’ pupils like he’s some kind of narc out looking to make a bust.
At the same time, we’re supposed to feel some kind of sympathy for this foolish yob because his long-estranged daughter is in town for a business meeting. The molasses pacing of the chase can only be even further frozen by these long bits of reminisce about how in his obsession with Egyptology, Rothschild lost his wife and child, choosing Ramses over Pampers. The wife, a cellist named Helen, only appears in memory, while the bitterly estranged daughter, hysterically named Zenobia (an ancient invader of Egypt, actually) pops up in memory and in real life, though none of these parts of the novel come even close to the kind of low-interest bulk of the novel’s thrill a minute examination of Rothschild’s roommate/work partner Nick, and the kind of Indian curry he likes to eat, the family run restaurant where he gets it, and the delight he takes in ingesting it.
Later, the novel has a chance to get exciting (or at least interesting) when Rothschild thinks he sees Erin hiding out so cleverly at her job in the British Library. After she disappears back in a worker’s only section, does he barge in after her? Does he wait outside to ambush her? Does he do anything you or I or the man on the street would do to save his freedom, his reputation, not to mention a priceless Egyptian antiquity?
Do I even have to ask?
Finally, at long last asking for help, Rothschild enlists another library employee, the young Penelope, in his quest. The two of them embark upon an attempt to get back the papyrus and along the way smoke groovy laced hash, ride on a punt, wrestle with some pro-American wrestlers, and have a showdown with a lord who injects female hormones in through his navel. And you’d think with all of that, Bondurant might have written an interesting novel, yet all of this is just so flatly and dully recounted in Rothschild’s languorous way that none of it seems to matter all that much.
When Rothschild finally does encounter Erin again, it’s almost seemingly entirely by accident, though Erin says it was by design. It’s also ridiculously unbelievable. She works with some crackpot cult who are trying to find some middle land between life and death, some way of moving back and forth between the two, which is even more absurd. This, they believe, is the secret of the third translation alluded to in the text of the Stela of Paser. And they want Rothschild to translate the papyrus because it will unlock all the secrets for them.
Rothschild dupes them, he steals back the papyrus, it is returned to the museum, his daughter comes to love him in the end, and he never sleeps with Penelope. Whoop-de-do. In fact, the end is just as big a pile of mush as the rest of the book, where all loose ends are tied up and things are resolved. There are no interesting developments in any direction anywhere. All of the book is just a blather.
If there is a moment of real humor, real pleasure in the book, a moment where things become lively, it is in the character of Alan Henry’s obsession with a secret supposed Canadian moon shot mission. The tale of the astronaut’s training and testing in the Arctic Circle for his mission provides the lovely anecdote of the man making a knife out of his own frozen excrement to slaughter one of his pack dogs for food and for leather. Now that would have been a novel worth reading.
Reader Nick Sullivan makes rather unpleasant attempts at British accents for the various characters and everyone comes off as some Monty Python caricature, “Oy, wot you say? ‘ere, gi'wuss a kiss.” Every single character then sounds like one of two types. Blimey and Toff. It’s impossible to know for certain if reading the novel on the page gives each British expression, each “shag” or “cuppa” or “Y-fronts,” the bothersome “local color” feel the author was going for, but listening, it just comes across as though Bondurant had dropped some Britishisms on the page for atmosphere. At other points, Sullivan reads like. a. robot. with. weird. pauses. between. words. That. Makes. A. Slow. Novel. Even. Fucking. Slower.