Matt Bondurant claims to be social. But it’s hard to take him at his word: He’s soft-spoken and looks at the ground when he’s thinking—and sometimes when he’s talking. And after a few minutes of conversation, it becomes clear that he likes to be left alone every once in a while.
Take, for example, his love for London.
“What’s…wonderful about the English pub—the English in general—is that they’ll just leave you alone,” the 34-year-old author says. “If you want to go in there and sit and have a beer…and stare into space…people will not bother you.”
Bondurant, it seems, isn’t the type of writer who would delight in discussing his latest novel in front of some 100 million people as part of a special aired on the National Geographic Channel. In fact, he didn’t even believe such an opportunity would ever arise.
“I fully expected to write a book that a few people found pretty interesting, and when it came out it [would make] the sound of a feather,” he says. “And then I would continue my teaching jobs, live my merry little academic life, and that would be it.”
That’s not exactly what’s happened. Bondurant’s just-published first novel, The Third Translation, is a literary work, driven by complex characters and a sense of humor drawn from the likes of such postmodern masters as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. But its ancient-mystery backdrop has the author being hailed as a successor to Da Vinci Code scribe Dan Brown. Though Bondurant says that the premise of that book sounds like something he might be interested in, he didn’t set out to emulate it.
“That bothers me,” he says. Later, he adds, “I think [the book is] almost more about London than anything.”
Indeed, Bondurant’s affection for the British capital is obvious in The Third Translation, pinned as it is to Dr. Walter Rothschild, the first-rate hieroglyphics expert who narrates the book. Throughout, Rothschild voices various paeans to the city, culminating in a passage that comes 359 pages in: “[P]erhaps this is why I love London more than any other place in the western world; it is the only place in which I have felt completely a part of the pattern, the ordering equation, where the quiet heart, the tree in the garden, seems to have its moment in the sun.”
Rothschild is tasked with unraveling the mystery of the Stela of Paser, an object in the British Museum that dates to Egypt’s 20th dynasty. Originally tombstone-shaped but now worn and split in half, the 3,000-year-old rock is adorned with a hieroglyphic hymn to the mother goddess Mut.
So far, scholars have been able to create two translations, one that reads the glyphs vertically and another that reads them horizontally. But according to text carved above the body of the poem, the stela’s creators meant for it to be deciphered three ways. The third reading, which has tantalized experts since the artifact was accessioned in 1835, is assumed to have in part eroded away.
This is all in Bondurant’s book. Still, even from the start, he wasn’t trying to solve a mystery. “What I became interested in early on,” he says, “was not so much the piece itself but the character—the guy who’s down there doing it. It just seemed like such an extreme. Obscure and esoteric and essentially just [a] fun life to have. [But] also very pathetic at the same time, because you would have to be so singularly focused on this thing that the rest of your life surely must be falling apart.”
“All these people spending their lives in the British Library…studying the most arcane things,” he adds. “There is a part of me that would love to do that…but I can’t. I don’t have that obsession.”
Still, for the better part of his adult life, he’s been surrounded by it—though mostly the mild variety that afflicts serious readers. The Alexandria native started in pre-law as an undergraduate and eventually earned a Ph.D. in creative writing from Florida State University. And although Bondurant, unlike Brown, has yet to appear on the National Geographic Channel, he has published stories in such respected literary journals as the New England Review and Prairie Schooner, among others.
Now employed by George Mason University, Bondurant was in London in 1999, to teach undergraduate courses in English lit when he stumbled across the stela. As part of its celebration of the 200th anniversary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the British Museum had hauled out an assortment of dusty relics that, as Bondurant says in the author’s note that concludes his book, “presented particular problems of translation or decipherment.”
Bondurant became so entranced by the stela that, in the fall of 2002, he traveled back to London—this time to take a job as an event steward at the British Museum. There, he was able to arrange a private viewing of the piece. “After a bit of searching,” he writes in the note, “we found the Stela simply leaning against the rough stone wall…. My Egyptologist guide simply shrugged when I asked about the ‘third way’ mentioned in the script. I had already begun the novel by this time and it was just as I had hoped: It was still a mystery.”
As luck would have it, his fascination couldn’t have been better timed. In 2003, as Bondurant was finishing up his manuscript, Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code, a surprise hit that broke open the market for art-historical-conspiracy-theory fiction. A film starring Tom Hanks, Jean Reno, and Audrey Tautou is scheduled for a 2006 release.
Bondurant’s agent, Alex Glass, says that he didn’t see The Third Translation as the next Da Vinci Code. “I saw the novel as a literary novel….I did not see it as a potboiler,” he says. Still, when he received the book in January of 2004, he says the success that Brown had had with his thriller was in the back of his mind. “A lot of the works I sell, the literary novels, I try to have some kind of angle to.”
Glass says that by the end of the month, Hyperion had made an offer (reportedly of several hundred thousand dollars) and begun planning for a relatively massive print run of 50,000 hardcovers. Since then, the publisher has been marketing The Third Translation as a work involving the rather Brownian combination of “[a]n ancient mystery, a hidden language and the secrets of a bizarre…sect.”
“They knew what it was,” says Glass, “but they had to sell it.”
According to an article in a recent issue of Publishers Weekly, it’s not the only one. “Between February and June,” writes Natalie Danford, “at least a dozen new titles [similar to The Da Vinci Code] will land in stores in an unstoppable flow not seen since Bridget Jones’s Diary inspired the phrase ‘chick lit.’” She goes on to cite Bondurant’s work as one of the five “Most Likely to Succeed,” along with James Rollins’ Map of Bones and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.
Danford’s not alone. USA Today and Bookpage also anointed The Third Translation as a probable successor to the 18-million-copies-sold juggernaut. The reception has been unlike anything Bondurant expected. “If I was really honest with myself years ago when I was in grad school, struggling…I always figured I’d get something published at some point,” he says. “I wasn’t completely without hope. But nothing like this.”
And it could get even crazier. “We…have a Hollywood agent, and he’s trying to shop [the book] around,” Bondurant says. He adds, “I cannot for the life of me imagine how this would possibly be done in a movie in any way.” Nonetheless, the author has already been asked to think of actors and actresses he could see as his characters. “Paul Giamatti,” he offers, suggesting that the vet most recently seen in Sideways would make a good Rothschild.
Despite the ready-for-the-screen spin marketers may give to The Third Translation, it doesn’t read like the latest Grisham. For one thing, Rothschild is a meticulously constructed character, a hopelessly focused man who’s lost everything to academia and hardly realizes it. There are plenty of absurdist touches, too: giant professional wrestlers named Gigantica, the Bartender, and the Pied Piper, as well as a darkly funny tangent about a lost Canadian mission to the moon that Bondurant and his friend Adam Johnson have now both published versions of. The “Canadanaut,” so the story goes, is a little Saskatchewanian named Jacques sent up in “a glorified set of long johns.”
He’s recruited for the mission after a remarkable sequence of events that Bondurant renders like Jack London in a fever dream. After Canadian Space Administration officials raze Jacques’ house to make way for a new launch pad, the poor guy is left with only his underwear and a few sled dogs. “As the officials watched from the heated cabs of their Sno-Cats,” Bondurant writes,
Jacques stared at them for a moment, then squatted in the snow and defecated grimly. He picked up his excrement and molded it into the shape of a knife. It froze in a matter of seconds and taking hold of one of the dogs at his feet Jacques cut its throat in a quick motion….He butchered the dog…stripping out the meat and organs. Using the cleaned bones and tendons he fashioned a makeshift sled, using strips of hide as ropes he hitched up his remaining two dogs….Then as the officials watched in pure amazement, Jacques mushed the dogs and sped off over the frozen tundra, heading into the whiteness.
Johnson, a San Francisco– area writer who’s known Bondurant since their days at Florida State—and whom Bondurant modeled a conspiracy-minded Rothschild compatriot after—thinks his friend isn’t just lucky. “Matt’s a serious literary writer,” he says. “He’s done something that most first novelists don’t do, [which] is look beyond themselves and have their personal story resonate into history, resonate into culture, then resonate into contemporary society.
“But you can’t blame the publisher for trying to make money,” Johnson adds, crediting Hyperion for trying to put such an ambitious novel “into the hands of as many people as possible.”
For his part, Bondurant says he’s never read The Da Vinci Code. “I asked my mother about it,” he says. “She’s a huge, huge…reader. She said she read the first 30 pages of it and then put it down. She said it was terrible—that the writing was really bad.” CP
Bondurant reads from and signs copies of his book at 7 p.m. Friday, April 29, at Olsson’s Books & Records, 2111 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, and at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 30, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. For more information, call (703) 525-4227 and (202) 364-1919, respectively.