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An Inexplicable Story: The Narrative of Questus Firmus Siculus

by Josef Skvorecky

In his slim new novel, Josef Skvorecky riffs on a pair of historian’s hobby horses: the mysterious exile and disappearance of legendary sex poet Ovid, and the argument that the Romans might have invented steam power if their empire hadn’t collapsed. It’s an obvious departure for the Czech-Canadian writer, and is perhaps destined to be a curiosity beside his major works. But An Inexplicable Story is still a good yarn told with all the humour and intelligence (and Edgar Allan Poe references) readers expect from Skvorecky.

The story revolves around Ovid’s nephew Questus, a teenage tinkerer who’d have been a computer whiz if he lived today. Questus’s distant father is one of Emperor Augustus’s top aides, while his mother, Proculeia, is a sexy beauty. When Augustus exiles uncle Ovid to a remote island, and the latter subsequently vanishes, Questus sets out to solve the mystery. Meanwhile, inspired by the machine-like precision of the Roman legions, he begins work on a strange new engine for ships.

It’s an odd mix. The first half of the book is related by Questus in diary entries in scrolls. The conceit is that the scrolls have been badly damaged over the centuries, and Skvorecky uses cleverly placed gaps that force us to play detective ourselves, speculating about various dangerous liaisons and their hinted link to Ovid’s fate. The second half consists of commentaries by fictional contemporary scholars. These reveal a series of bizarre, Poe-inspired twists, including the scrolls’ discovery on a remote island off the coast of South America.

Skvorecky uses his encyclopaedic knowledge of Roman history to complement his realistic, anti-mythic character portrayals. This realist tone nicely balances the plot’s many strange turns, underscoring a postmodernist argument that history is always half fiction, its essence ungraspable. It’s not exactly a new idea, but it’s handled here with assurance and wit.


Reviewer: Nicholas Dinka

Publisher: Key Porter Books


Price: $32.95

Page Count: 182 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 1-55263-368-3

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 2002-10

Categories: Fiction: Novels