A brief review in the May 22 Book World misstated the first name of the author of the novel "The Third Translation." He is Matt Bondurant, not Max Bondurant. (Published 5/24/2005)
Since The Da Vinci Code arrived in stores two years ago, publishers have eagerly proclaimed a number of titles "the next Da Vinci." Is this marketing strategy actually successful in luring readers? If so, readers of The Third Translation, by Max Bondurant (Hyperion, $22.95), the newest contender for the crown, may be sorely disappointed. This book is a page-turner all right, but you will not find a religious cover-up here, and no great conundrum will unfold only to be rolled up neatly, like a sleeping bag, at the end of your journey.
Walter Rothschild, the protagonist, is a middle-aged Egyptologist at the British Museum in London. His task: to unlock the "cryptographic riddle" of the Stela of Paser, an ancient funerary monument on which is written mysterious text. Though he masters the arcana of the past, Rothschild seems hopelessly incapable of negotiating the present. After a night on the town, he sneaks a young woman, Erin, into the museum. But Erin, we learn, has her own interest in Egyptology; she dupes the dazed Rothschild and makes off with a rare artifact. Instead of deciphering the Stela of Paser, Rothschild must now track down the missing treasure. The central dramatic thread of this novel is therefore a theft. What elevates The Third Translation above this Indiana Jones plot is how it tunnels deep into our individual and collective ancient past in search of meaning.
Rothschild, like this novel, is obsessed with translating that past. His obsession is existential; it is as if in unraveling the mystery of the Stela he will come to uncover the mystery deep in himself. Simultaneously pulled toward two worlds, the past and the present, he is hardly able to work in either. It is this predicament that makes Rothschild so compelling a narrator and not just your run-of-the-mill action hero.
But the story, at times, bogs down. Whole chunks of Rothschild's history -- as well as his father's and his failed family's -- are laid like the foundations of the great pyramids: slowly, each stone carefully and exactly fitted into place. The revelation of Rothschild's identity, a good deal of which takes place backward in time, arrests the progression of the novel as if in mid-thought. Similarly, the author illustrates Rothschild's talent for deciphering hieroglyphs by periodically interrupting the story's flow. Some readers may shy away from this kind of exposition and wish that Bondurant had found some way of grafting this pre-history into present action.
Still, this is an impressive first novel about life and death and how we interpret each. It's not the next great thriller, but if you roll with it, you may just get more than what you'd expected.
Reviewed by Kyle Semmel, a freelance writer and translator.