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Josef Škvorecký: Nevysvetlitelný príbeh aneb Vyprávení Questa Firma Sicula (An Inexplicable Story or the Narrative of Questus Firmus Siculus)

In the dedication to this novel, Škvorecký says that it is a jest and so it seems to be. It is ostensibly the text of a manuscript found in Copán, Honduras during an archaeological dig. The manuscript was found in a cracked pottery urn inside a royal tomb, possibly of K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. The manuscript is in Latin and was dated to the first century A.D. and has been confirmed by experts as being a genuine first century manuscript. It was written by (the fictitious) Questus Firmus Siculus, who seems to have been close to Ovid. Indeed, it is suggested that his mother was one of Ovid’s lovers. He calls Ovid uncle but admits that he is not really an uncle or, at best, a remote one. Questus comes from a patrician family and it is expected that he will follow the seven-year training to follow a career in politics and administration. He is not very keen on the idea and tells his father so. What he really wants to do is be an inventor. However, when the Emperor Augustus tells him that he has to follow in his father’s footsteps, he has no choice. He is sent off to war and is injured.

Meanwhile, his father is killed in the battle in which Questus is injured and his mother remarries – a rich and overweight senator called Caecina, who has always loved Proculeia, Questus’ mother. Questus, who had initially disliked him, warms to him. However, much of the book is about Ovid and his exile. It seems clear that Corinna – the lover he is writing about in his poetry – is Proculeia. Indeed, Questus suspects that Ovid may well be his father. Proculeia remains a very attractive woman, as Caecina attests, and even Questus admits to Oedipal feelings towards her. We continue to follow Questus’ life, including his visit to Tomis to meet Ovid and find out about his death (in reality, we do not know how Ovid died or where he is buried.) We see him ending up in South America. It would seem that his invention had got them there.

The manuscript ends with Questus in South America and apparently setting out on another journey. But that is not the end of the book. The appendix consist of various commentaries. The first is by a mystery writer, who has been selected for his ability to solve mysteries. His name is by Patrick Oliver Enfield. It is no coincidence that his initials are Poe. He offers his theories but subsequently receives further information. This includes the similarity of the fragment of Ovid’s play with a more modern play, a new manuscript purporting to be by Questus and found in South America, which details his further explorations, and a letter comparing this story both to Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and to Jules Verne’s Le Sphinx des glaces (The Sphinx of the Ice Fields; An Antarctic Mystery), a novel which is both a follow-up and elucidation to the Poe novel. It concludes with a commentary by Škvorecký as to the genesis of this novel.

The whole thing is told tongue-in-cheek fashion, something which Škvorecký admits in his afterword. Given that there are many gaps in our knowledge of Ovid’s life, such as the identity of his lover, why he was exiled, how and where he died and where he is buried, Škvorecký has much scope for invention which he freely does. It is great fun, particularly if you know a little about Ovid’s life or have read other Ovid novels, even if it will not be considered as one of Škvorecký’s best works.

Publishing history

First published by Ivo Železný in 1998
First published in English by Key Porter Books in 2001
Translated by Kaca Polackova Henley