||Back to the Days of Ovid
by Timothy Kevin O'Keeffe
Since arriving in Canada as an exile in the wake of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Josef Skvorecky has¨in addition to his considerable contributions as publisher and teacher¨furnished readers with stories and novels posited in a variety of settings: from Nazi-occupied (The Bass Saxophone) to cold-war Communist countries (The Republic of Whores), to thinly disguised Canadian locales and institutions (Two Murders in my Double Life). As with most writers, much of this naturally emanates from the author's own life experiences. However, in his most recent offering, An Inexplicable Story, Skvorecky invites the reader to accompany him as he embarks on a new and enigmatic sojourn back through time, to the Rome of Ovid and Augustus, in the 1st Century A.D. Along the way we encounter a number of historical, literary and technological mysteries, from the puzzling case of the poet Ovid's banishment by the Emperor Augustus, to the speculative extrapolations of Roman engineering and technological prowess.
The central mystery¨introduced in a preface to the book by a fictitious character named 'Patrick O. Enfield', concerns the perplexing discovery of a manuscript (in the form of a seven-part scroll) found inside an urn in the tomb of a Mayan king. Upon examination it is determined to be of Roman origin, approximately two thousand years old and¨since Enfield assures us of exhaustive scrutiny by linguistic experts¨apparently genuine. The reader is then invited to read the scrolls¨in the form of a personal narrative penned by a brilliant young Roman engineer named Questus (thus, Narratio Questi¨a questionable or inexplicable story), and to judge for themselves the plausibilities of the tale therein.
Unfortunately (Enfield informs us ), the scrolls have suffered over the course of time, with many parts having been rendered illegible or destroyed. We are nevertheless encouraged to persevere and given assurance by Enfield that the quality will improve as we progress.
After this brief preface we begin with in media res, the first scroll which is comprised of little more than fragments (and that peculiar reflex of academia, the footnote, courtesy of Mr. Enfield), from which we deduce the outlines and insights of young Questus, son of Gaius, a celebrated (although remote to his son ) military commander and Proculeia, whom he considers uncommonly beautiful, a sentiment apparently shared by other citizens of Rome¨including the poet, Ovid, who is, according to his mother, either her 'cousin' or Questus's 'uncle', and the Emperor himself. While the fractional nature of the first scroll permits only brief glimpses of his boyhood and youth, we do manage to glean that while devoted to his mother, Questus has no interest in following in his father's footsteps to a traditional military career. Instead, the budding engineer hopes to design for the army¨a hope his father abruptly dismisses as 'playing with toys'. Indeed, perhaps due to Gaius's frequent absences when on one campaign or another, there is little in the way of a bond between Questus and his father. Frustrated with his son's obvious disinterest in the vocation he deems most appropriate, Gaius goes so far as to enlist the support of the Emperor, who admonishes Questus¨"Obey your father." The first scroll ends with the son dutifully, yet with evident frustration, fulfilling his father's wishes.
The second scroll finds Questus several years later, in military service under Germanicus. Although he comes to suffer a serious wound during the fighting, Questus is affected most by the formidable workings of the machine-like Roman army in action. The scene unfolding on the battlefield before him suggests to his engineer's mind other, equally powerful applications utilizing the army's maneuverings.
While recuperating from his wounds Questus is informed of the recent death of his father (for which he 'felt no grief' ); yet shortly afterwards he is shocked to hear that the poet ( 'uncle'?) Ovid has been banished by Augustus without explanation. The ensuing few scrolls reveal that Proculeia is now remarried to a local marble merchant, the deceptively placid and cautious Caecina, who is so smitten with her beauty that he does not even object to his new wife actively lobbying the Emperor to rescind the banishment of Ovid. Strange thoughts begin to occupy Questus as he attempts to analyse the complicated relationships of those around him and, more to the point, their bearing on his own genesis. Seeking some clarification from 'uncle' Ovid, Questus journeys to the poet's place of exile only to be faced with yet another mystery as he learns from the local authorities that Ovid has vanished¨an apparent suicide by drowning. Questus, however, remains unconvinced, and investigating further, discovers a truth of such personal import as to necessitate his immediate return to Rome. There¨with the aid of his mother and stepfather¨a typically Roman intrigue is conceived to prevent any further inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the poet's disappearance and apparent death.
The final scrolls find Questus on the eve of an unspecified 'westward' voyage which will account for the discovery of the scroll halfway around the world some twenty centuries later. A few details are given about the voyage and its purpose, and then, as suddenly as it began, the Narratio Questi ends. Yet Skvorecky is not quite finished, for the remaining seventy-odd pages (nearly the length of the narrative itself) are comprised of a 'commentary on the text' by the enigmatic ('what's in a name?') Patrick O. Enfield, which is followed by a series of letters from fictional characters who inform Enfield of certain similarities between the narrative and the works of such disparate writers as Feydeau, Verne and Poe. To each of these letters Enfield responds with a further commentary addressing the apparent mystery of the synchronous incorporation of elements from the narrative into stories authored centuries later by writers who could not have known of the scroll's existence. Unfortunately, this change in direction occurs at a time when the narrative has reached a most interesting stage, leaving one feeling somewhat perplexed: surely here Skvorecky might have reached further with his considerable inventiveness to provide more of a body for the skeletal outline already rendered? With thematic elements well established¨of a son in search of his real father, the banishment of a famous poet rumoured to be both dead and alive, and an epic Roman voyage to the New World¨and primed for further development, it is somewhat disappointing that the author chose not to expand his vision into a work of greater length.
In terms of structure, Skvorecky presents the reader with a considerable challenge: while somewhat reminiscent of early experiments with the novel form (as explored by Fielding et al with the exchange of correspondence), these parts in themselves fail to enhance the fictional excursion. The fragmentary structure of the narrative frequently proves too sparse to sustain the purpose it seeks to advance, leaving one frustrated because of too many incomplete sentences, missing sections and vague allusions. Although a reader may be appreciative of Skvorecky's erudite skill (especially with regard to his suggestive use of Latin ) in nursing the nuances hidden between lines, she is still being asked to persevere with some determination as the author leads us through this literary excavation. While the integrity of the narrative's text does improve after the first scroll, a tendency to include distracting material continues to impede understanding, lessening the enjoyment of this provocative tale.