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Daniel Chavarrìa’s fifth century B.C. Athens is not the ancient city we learned about it middle school Social Studies. Of course certain elements we might remember from seventh grade echo throughout The Eye of Cybele—the mention of Olympian heavyweights Athena, Apollo, and Dionysus; the lore surrounding the original Olympic games (before beach volleyball and rhythmic gymnastics were events); the military rivalry between the city we learned as the epicenter of art and philosophy and the stoic, no-fun, mean old Sparta–, but Chavarrìa’s epic novel seems more concerned with Athens’s seedier side, fashioning it like an ancient Greek King’s Landing of Westeros. The Eye of Cybele presents an ancient Athens that is impeccably researched—the final 75 pages of the book are dedicated to a glossary of Ancient Greek references in the novel—but holds true to the starker HBO-influenced historical storytelling we know and love, taking us through the city’s prostitution rings, xenophobic slave culture, clandestine political plotting, and morally-perverted religious sects and cults. Even our beloved Socrates is not entirely above reproach.
The novel’s plot revolves around an amethyst jewel, the Eye of Cybele, that was stolen from the temple of the great Athena and the jaded politicos and religious fanatics all racing to find it to serve their own means. Although the mystery of the jewel’s whereabouts pervades most of its story, the novel relies more on the intrigue and drama present in the lives and interactions of its several protagonists. Conflict abounds in a twisted love affair between Lysis, a once impoverished prostitute who rises to social distinction, and Alcibiades, an aristocratic playboy, as they each set out at points not just to spurn but essentially destroy, if not love, one another. Poor General Nicias plots to overthrow Pericles, the city’s very popular political leader, while Alcibiades himself utilizes a manufactured success in the Peloponnesian War to establish his own political career. Lysis, in turn, finds salvation in a new sex cult propagated by Atys, a foreigner from the east, whose own motives seem suspect. All the while, each character seeks to obtain the Eye of Cybele in order to furtively forward his or her position, be it political, religious, social, or emotional.
Chavarrìa’s writing is not particularly difficult to read; however, the novel features several point-of-view and stylistic shifts that might require some patience. Those not used to heavy historical fiction or political fantasy novels might also struggle with all of the unfamiliar character names and references. The dense glossary in the back may not be entirely necessary to understand who everyone is and what is going on in the story, but flipping back to it every once in a while will definitely help foster a more immersive experience in the world Chavarrìa conjures. For example, the characters continually address a pretty acerbic distaste for the metragyrtes, beggar priests of a particular cult in Athens, yet the reasons for this hate are only illuminated in the glossary (turns out they used to give “street performances of self-mutilation, trances, and dervish-like dances,” and thieves would assume their guise to exploit the public). The metragyrtes don’t play much of a role in the plot; however, knowing about them creates a more illustrative understanding of the city and its eclectic population.
Even though the version of the novel I am reviewing is an English translation (Chavarrìa is Uruguayan and so writes in Spanish), its prose is particularly noteworthy. It boasts a variety of narrative styles, switching from first-person epistolary to omniscient stream-of-conscious to third-person limited narration with conventional dialogue fairly regularly, each employed to simultaneously help the reader organize its characters and events and convey a very specific effect. Although a cursory glance at the book’s size and pages might intimidate the tentative reader, Carlos Lopez’s translation of Chavarrìa’s prose, coupled with all of the plot twists, moves the reader relatively quickly through the book to what I found to be one of the most satisfying endings to any historical mystery I’ve encountered.