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Murder in ByzantiumReview - Murder in Byzantium
A Novel
by Julia Kristeva
Columbia University Press, 2005
Review by Tony O'Brien
Jun 20th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 25)

If your name is Julia Kristeva you would need to add the subclause 'A novel' to the name of a work of fiction. Given Kristeva's cultural and intellectual pedigree, Murder in Byzantium could be a work of literary analysis, psychoanalytic or feminist theory, or historical deconstruction. But at heart, Murder in Byzantium offers no ambiguous space between the signifier and the signified: it is a murder mystery sect in an exotic location.

The autobiographical Stephanie Delacour, Parisian detective-cum-reporter, heroine of two previous novels by Kristeva, is sent to Santa Varvara, a decadent coastal town stalked by a mysterious serial killer. Santa Varvara shares with the Byzantium of the book's title the distinction of  being everywhere and nowhere. Kristeva explains on the first page: "Santa everywhere...good luck if you are able to identify the particular Santa Varvara that I am speaking about right now!" The serial killer (The Purifier) is not an impulsive thug; there is a mind at work in his killings. Victims are related to the New Pantheon, a religious set that could be modeled on Opus Dei. Corpses are left with a figure eight (or is it an infinity symbol?) carved into their flesh. There's computer hacking (not the most convincing part of the story), DNA testing (but not enough at the right time to spoil a more conventional thriller), murder, infidelity, sex and lies. But that's not all. Woven into the whodunit plot are historical anecdotes, speculations on language and memory, self-mocking references to Kristeva's own life, and reflections on the post 9/11 world of global politics, treachery, and intrigue. And if that's not enough there's a love story of sorts, or rather two; one played out in real time by Stephanie and the thoughtful Inspector Rilsky, the other a virtual romance between a modern scholar of history and the world's first female historian, the Byzantine Princess Anna Comnena.  

One of the central characters of the novel, Sebastian Chrest-Jones is also one its most problematic. He is an intriguing character, a Professor of human migration, obsessed with Anna Comnena, and determined to retrace her life. Chrest-Jones is also, by a curious accident of birth, the illegitimate and younger uncle of Rilsky. Chrest-Jones might have been likeable in a geeky sort of way if he hadn't killed his Chinese lab assistant and lover Fa Chang after she announces she is pregnant. The cold manner of her killing, and the disposal of her body doesn't exactly encourage us to engage with Chrest-Jones as a character. Nor do we care especially for the Purifier's victims; the sect is suitably faceless and obscure so that its initiates do not seem to be people like us.  

As the main character of the novel, Stephanie Delacour is able, like Kristeva, to range over historical analysis, cultural studies and literary theory. Delacour refers to Kristeva on several occasions, and not always with the respect due to an Important Thinker. The excursions into theory are tantalizing more than satisfying, but they are not mere asides designed to give an intellectual flavor to an otherwise run of the mill murder mystery. There is some real intellectual stimulation here. There are times when Kristeva becomes rather didactic, listing rather than hinting at the world events she wants readers to think about. But there are also times when the novel takes off for long absorbing diversions that are genuinely thought provoking.   

As the novel lurches from the 11th to the 21st century, the religious extremism of the New Pantheon is juxtaposed with that of the Crusades; there are references to the new millennium in both ages, suggesting the persistence of superstition and fundamentalism across time. There is also the optimistic message that the cultivated intellect can find a way beyond the tribal barbarism of religious wars and border disputes. In both periods the 'other', as the foreigner, is a figure of fear and mystery, someone who is both threatening and exciting. Kristeva's native Bulgaria features in this book, and identity is a theme in Sebastian's musings: " is never at peace when one pulls at one's roots, and only a satisfied curiosity can occasionally calm the rushing waters of anxiety." However Kristeva is not so grave that she is above a little humor in getting her message across. In describing the 'crazed leaders of the Axis of Evil' (surely itself an ironic phrase), Kristeva says "To begin with their were the fundamentalists of Al Qaeda who sought to one-size Islamasize the entire free world..."

With Fa Chang's death unexplained, Chrest-Jones missing (but followed by readers in his trek towards Byzantium), and with a serial killer still at work there is plenty of suspense. Kriseva brings it to a skilful conclusion, and although the late arrival of Stephanie in the climactic scene and her decisive role in it are a little contrived, we can tell ourselves that this is, after all, a murder mystery. Even literary theorists are allowed a little action now and again.

Murder in Byzantium is unlikely to have the sort of crossover appeal that would project it from a scholarly and critical work to the thinking man's conspiracy thriller. But there is a lesson here for those who would write fiction as fact. A credible fictional plot, even one that stretches credibility, can provide a perfectly solid platform for exploring the real events of history. There will not be the cheap satisfaction of creating a spurious conspiracy, but neither will the author be tainted with the reputation of gullibility, that they might even believe their own fictions. There are probably too many self references and knowing winks to fellow theorists and academics (and who knows who else) to extend the readership of Murder in Byzantium much beyond those who enjoy seeing what happens when a French theorist meets Ian Rankin. But there is something entertaining about seeing grand ideas set against the most basic of human drives: the drive to kill. Perhaps Kristeva is suggesting that theory must have something to say about such lowly acts if it is to be relevant to higher questions. Or perhaps she's just having fun, showing that a life dedicated to intellectual refinement is still capable of seeking thrills.  


© 2006 Tony O'Brien


Tony O'Brien is a short story writer and lecturer in mental health nursing at The University of Auckland, New Zealand:


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