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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper

May 1, 2015

HarperCollins Publishers:  New York City
2014 (pb)

British author Tom Harper has written an imaginative and erudite novel that explores the obsessive quests of two men separated by more than 2000 years.

In alternating chapters the reader first joins the philosopher Plato as he sets sail from Pireaus in 389 B.C. on the un-nymph-like Calliste, bound for Taras, Italy.  His journey has been prompted by a request from his close friend and fellow Athenian, poet Agathon.  The poet needs Plato’s aid in purchasing a book of ancient wisdom from a Pythagorean teacher.  The Calliste sinks in a storm just off the Italian coast near Taras and Plato struggles ashore with fellow survivor, Euphemus, a sophist philosopher bound for Sicily, who becomes his often-irritating travel companion as he picks up the trail of Agathon in the “in-step” of the boot of Italy.

His search for the illusive Agathon is aided by a variety of increasingly bizarre characters, all of whom seem to bear some allegiance to the thoughts of Pythagoras.  Near the ancient town on Thurii, Plato is horrified to learn that Agathon, who has apparently become haunted by the need to find the roots of Pythagorean philosophy, is suspected of looting a tomb—a crime so heinous that it calls for the condemnation of the gods.  His fevered need to find Agathon before disaster befalls his old friend leads him back to Thurii, into the arms of the bewitchingly beautiful Diotima, a philosopher and priestess, and to discover a tiny gold grave tablet with inscribed instructions for penetrating the underworld governed by the god Hades.  Telltale clues lead him to Locris and the blind Pythagorean philosopher Timaeus, who claims his friend may be found in Rhegion, which is under siege by the Syracusan tyrant, Dionysius.  Plato plunges on, heedless to the dangers, and is taken captive by Dionysius and pressed into service to tutor the tyrant’s dissolute young son, Dionysius II.  But as a result of this misfortune, Plato finally reunites with the subject of his obsessive search—the peripatetic and enigmatic Agathon.  But the quest is not yet over and it ultimately leads Plato to the sulpherous environs of Mount Etna.

More than 2,000 years later, Jonah Barnes, journeyman rock band guitarist, winds up the last performance of the touring season and deadheads from Berlin to Sibari, Italy, to join his archaeologist wife Lily, on her dig in the area of ancient Sybaris and Thurii.  But Lily has mysteriously disappeared and no one, including her fellow archaeologists and family back in England, seem to know what has happened to her.  Disturbingly, a potentially valuable artifact—a tiny gold grave tablet with directions to the underworld inscribed on it—is also missing.

Jonah refuses to believe that Lily would violate such a sacred tenet of archaeology and at the same time desert him and effectively destroy their marriage.  He sets out on a convoluted and dangerous quest to find his missing wife—a quest that first takes him on a journey of memory to his early days with Lily and her archaeology colleagues that may hold clues to her mysterious disappearance, and then leads him to present-day Athens and confrontations with and old friend (lover?) of Lily’s and the powerful and corrupt Maroussis family that funded Lily’s dig in Italy.  Ultimately the clues embossed on the tiny grave tablet leads him to Sicily and the source of the ancient cults celebrating on Orpheus’s brave journey to the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from the clutches of Hades.

The odysseys of both Plato and Jonah reach their climax within the bowels of Mount Etna and neither will ever again be the same.

The Orpheus Descent is an intelligent and for the most part, satisfying tale of high adventure.  It playfully incorporates the life and travels of Plato and many of the characters introduced in his Dialogues and seamlessly weaves into the book’s plot Jonah’s desperate struggle to save his wife and their marriage.  The dialogue is crisp, the characters are carefully drawn and believable, and the build-up of tension and drama is palpable.  While the discipline and exercise of archaeology play a limited role in the story line, it is faithfully rendered within the tale’s context, and the description of closing down a site after a season’s labors, and the feelings of desolation and emptiness it can bring with it, is uncannily accurate.  Mr. Harper is a discerning and sensitive writer, and The Orpheus Descent easily deserves four trowels.