The Eye of Cybele
by Daniel Chavarria
This book is a bit hard to pin down. It’s part historical novel set in ancient Athens, part raunchy sex tale complete with a detailed glossary of names, places, words, and practices. The main thrust of the story concerns Lysis of Mileta, a girl who worked her way up from common prostitute to the most expensive courtesan in town, all in the service of Athena Pandemos. One of her lovers was Alcibiades, a brash youth who quickly rose from rich hellion to one of Athens finest heroes and political connivers. You start out hating him, then respecting him, then realizing he’s a much larger SOB than anyone you’ve ever actually worked for, or will. Among other things, he desires a necklace that Truncheon, Lysis’s mentor, owns. After some intense sexual thrust and parry, he gets the necklace, only to send it back. Now Lysis is ticked, and the war is on. She swears to humiliate him publicly, and a protracted struggle ensues. Besides Lysis, Alcibiades fight wars on many fronts, becoming an Olympic champion, a war hero, and a public contender, sleeping and conniving his way to the top. When he takes on another established politico, Nicias, and attempt to return the sacred amethyst Eye of Cybele, an odd holy man, Atys of Pamphilia thwarts him. Atys wanders about performing miracles and founding new religions. When the plague claims all the main characters in the story, only he survives to wander east and found Christianity, or something darn close, in 400 B.C. Yeah, I’m still working on that part myself.
Dense and complex, the story is not the easiest to follow. It’s a bit hard to sort out the characters, as the names are unfamiliar, and even knowing the sex of anyone’s partner is of little help sorting them out. The author often lapses into excruciatingly long stream-of-conscious text, and you have to pay attention because it often holds important plot points, motivations, and identities. Atys’ journey to Israel comes as a bit of a surprise. While he’s clearly a powerful person in touch with divinity, his sexual practices contrast sharply with those of either contemporary or a later more Hellenized Judaism. The text just stops short of implying he’s one of the major Old Testament prophets, possibly Elijah, but he seems an unlikely conduit to carry Greek ideas into Judaism.
Having said that, the book does have some merits to recommend it for a summer read. The description of daily life in Athens seems realistic and may be as good as we can see from our present day. The relation of master to slave, local to foreigner, human to god is described in loving detail. Once you figure out who is who, the tales of parties, politicking, debauchery, and the details of mortgages are a delight to modern eyes. Socrates pops alive as an able warrior, a brilliant and insightful thinker, and the sort of dinner guest you would pay to have. Any sexual deviancies by today’s standards were just how society functioned. And the politics? Well, confusing, certainly, but battles were fought with the same ferocity we fight them today, but with just a touch more superstition. The glossary is substantial, and full of useful cocktail party fodder such as Hippopornus (Lewdness on horseback) and Syntax (battle formation of troops). I’d be leery of dropping this in people’s Christmas stockings, but get one for yourself; it’s a naughty thrill for the Grecophile in all of us.
Akashic Books: http://www.akashicbooks.com