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Eugenides, or How to Lie by Telling the Truth

One of my favorite books is Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, and one of the reasons I love it is because of that TERRIBLE TWIST! There’s a big surprise at the end, which anybody who is a really careful reader ought to be able to see coming. But it tricked ME, and -- I may flatter myself -- but I think I am a careful reader.

I work in a library, and I often give kids this book. I tell them that there’s a twist, but that there are dozens of clues, right in the first few pages, and certainly in the first couple of chapters. I admit to them that I was actually really surprised by the ending, but I started the book over again as soon as I finished reading it, and everything was right there, staring me in the face! And I say that they might be better readers than I was -- maybe they’ll have it all figured out well before the ending. But I’ll bet they won’t!

More than one reader has taken me up on this challenge, but no one has yet come back to tell me they’re a better reader than I am. Which may be just because they are too nice to say so.

But anyway, just for fun.....

I’m now going to dissect the opening of this book -- or at least certain bits of it, the bits that should have made the whole plot so, so, obvious to me, but somehow just didn’t. My dissection follows the cut -- but be warned! There are spoilers!





SPOILER WARNING! If you have not read the book yet, please go read it, and come back and read the rest of this essay later. If you don’t own the book, you can buy it, or get it from your local library. And if your local library doesn’t own it, they should buy it. They really should! Trust me!

So here goes....

Did I say there would be spoilers?

SPOILERS. Only those who have read Megan Whalen Turner’s awesome novel, The Thief should read further.

Eugenides, the titular thief, is known in three countries for his lies. The Thief is his story, which he tells in the first person. He deceives the reader (at least this reader) constantly, but usually does so by telling the exact truth. He is that most sophisticated of liars, a master of indirection.

Please Note: All quotes are taken from the 2006 American Paperback edition of the Thief, published by Greenwillow.
The Thief book cover
CHAPTER 1
1. Our protagonist is languishing in jail, describing his situation. The end of the first paragraph is not in the least suspicious, but really jumps out at you on a reread. “I concentrated on pleasant memories.....I reviewed over and over the plans that had seemed so straightforward before I arrived in jail, and swore to myself and every god I knew.....” (p. 1) As my grandmother (and my Dad) would say, there’s more in his head than a comb would take out! SO annoying .... in a good way.
On to paragraph 2. MAN, the clues here are like raisins in a fruitcake (Did I say fruitcake? Really?) So, now for an analysis. Here’s quote 1: “Few prisoners wore chains in their cells, only those that the king particularly disliked: counts or dukes or the minister of the exchequer.... ... I was certainly none of those things, but I suppose it’s safe to say that the king disliked me. Even if he didn’t remember my name or whether I was as common as dirt, he didn’t want me slipping away.” (p. 2) Such sneaky syntax! Notice that little word, “whether,” with its implied “or not?” 
The word “that” would be more usual in this sentence -- but would be simply untruthful. “Whether” sneaks in a bit of truth -- but a bit you can easily ignore. Oh, BTW, did you notice how knowledgeable our thief seems to be about tensions in the court, and who would be likely to go to jail? How does he know this? And what’s with all the playing with his chains at the end of the paragraph? The emphases on silence and gracefulness? The reader knows what this is about before the book ends, but right now, it’s just a detail -- a bit of description.
Ms. Whalen Turner backs off a bit in the next several paragraphs. Eugenides just describes his circumstances in the prison cell in more detail, with a brief flashback to his life in the city before prison, and his “plans for greatness.” A reference to the gods and libations near the bottom of page 3 deftly paints a picture of a mainly irreligious society, in which ancient religious traditions still survive. This is the first statement of a theme that will become central to the plot.
On page 4, there’s an amazing description of the prison, and the adjoining palace. It’s amazing because it reads so naturally, and you can picture the structure and colors of the buildings so clearly, that it doesn’t, at first seem at all odd. But in his description, Eugenides gives a succinct history of “his” entire country and its architecture. It’s actually a scholarly passage -- but it just flows by, as background information, so you forget (or at least I forgot) that the narrator is not a scholar -- at least, not as far as we know at this point.
On page 5, the magus arrives! We then read a very revealing episode in which Eugenides “meets” the king of Sounis in the Magus’s office. Eugenides picks the comfiest chair and sits down in it. The magus orders him to get up, but he is too weak to move -- and doesn’t want to move, anyway. So the magus leans over the thief, who looks up at him, observing ...”He had the high-bridged nose of most of the people in the city, but his eyes were light grey instead of brown.” What? Why is our thief talking about “the people of the city” this way? It sounds almost as though he were not one of them -- and he hints that the magus isn’t, either. Then comes something awesome: the magus threatens Eugenides. (p. 10)
“We might someday attain a relationship of mutual respect,” he said softly. First, I
thought, I will see gods walking the earth.
BEAUTIFUL, isn’t it? And I don’t want to say anything more -- except that I absolutely loved this on re-reading. What a gem!
The conversation continues. The magus says that he saw the thief at his trial. The thief does not say that he saw the magus there, as well (he first mentions this on p. 6). Immediately evident from this -- though not, at first, too noticeable. The thief knows all about the magus, everything from his history to his appearance. But this is knowledge that a common thief would not have -- certainly not in a society without newspapers, TVs, or widespread literacy. Therefore, Eugenides cannot be a common thief -- can he?
(p. 14) And here’s something else -- our “common thief” not only recognizes the current king of Sounis, he also knows what his father looked like. And his description is not flattering, as it might be if he had just seen a military statue, for example. It sounds real. Where could this young thief have gotten this knowledge?
(p. 15) Then comes that “cascade of double-heavy gold coins,” each one of which could buy an entire family farm! When the king pours them out, one rolls onto the floor near Eugenides’ feet, and he almost picks it up, but stops himself and says, “My uncle used to keep that much under his bed and count it every night.” To which the king says, “Liar.” Hah! Eugenides is indeed a liar, but maybe not here! Remember who his uncle is? This could be literally true. But Eugenides misdirects us in the next couple of sentences, describing sleeping on the king of Sounis’s treasure chests one day. So we think that his familiarity with ridiculously valuable coinage actually has nothing to do with his family, and he is “just” a liar.
CHAPTER 2
Here they are, setting off on the expedition! Our thief begins the chapter with a description that emphasizes his own vanity, snarkiness, etc. Until, on the second page of the chapter (p. 19 in my edition), he starts to give us a little bit of specialized knowledge again. But very discreetly. He says, “It’s a funny thing that the new gods have been worshipped in Sounis since the invaders came, but, when people need a truly satisfying curse, they call on the old ones.” Well, maybe I’m being oversensitive here. Perhaps all street thieves in the city of Sounis know the history of the curses they use -- surely every British schoolboy, in the era of C.S. Lewis, knew who he was talking about when he said,”By Jove!” But this little aside seemed like specialized knowledge to me when I’d finished the book. And the passage that follows certainly describes a performance that is -- at least partly -- theater. “I called on all of them, one right after the other, and used every curse I’d overheard in the lower city.” Eugenides is completely in character here, and also completely in control of how his character appears. The description could just recount the experience of an ignorant young thief, but it also does more, especially in context, coming as it does right after the little information nugget about the history of cursing in Sounis.
Next, they mount horses and set out on their travels. One can stop to wonder (in retrospect) why Gen hates horses so much. As a street thief of the lower city, how much could he actually have had to do with them? And who are these people he knows, who think they are noble and graceful animals? Be that as it may, he gets shoved onto a horse, and sets out with the others. And he delivers a real zinger as he describes leaving by the ancient city gate.

     The gate was made out of pillars of stone bigger across than I am tall.
     Something else supposedly built by the old gods, it was topped by a solid
     stone lintel with two carved lions that were supposed to roar
     if an enemy of the king passed beneath them. ... They remained silent as we
     passed under. (pp. 22-3)

In one brief passage, Gen gives us a ton of information. Specifically, we find out that he is an enemy of the king, and that he lacks faith in the gods, old or new, and anything supernatural. Coincidentally, he reveals, right at the outset, that he is very brave. What can it mean for an enemy of the king to be taking part in one of the king’s secret missions? It will definitely mean something particularly bad for Eugenides if he is caught. Consider the tortures with which Sounis threatened him at the end of the last chapter, and those were just for failing in the quest. Which means that if he is discovered to be an enemy, who has penetrated into one of the king’s plots, his punishment will be unimaginably grim. But Eugenides goes, as he has evidently planned to all along, and makes nothing of it. As someone we will come to love remarks much later, he is brave and loyal -- and even if he is not loyal to us, or brave on our behalf, we love him for it.

That is my catalogue of particularly obvious clues in the first two chapters of The Thief. As the book continues, the clues get more numerous --- if there is interest, I’d be happy to keep up the novel-dissection.

In the meantime, what do you think? Queen’s Thief fans, did I miss anything? Please do let me know!

Comments

You quoted but didn't mention that he used cursed he'd 'overheard in the lower city' - suggesting he wasn't from the lower city himself.

And the first one I always spot (can't remember the exact quote): 'The magus asked his name, 'Gen.' He want interested in the rest.'

Also, later, when he's napping in the grass after lunch: 'I'm the most important person here' Of course, he doesn't know who Sophos is at the time, but he's not just referring to his usefullness!

Love the dissection! :)
Thank you!

I didn't make too much of the "lower city" thing in that context, because somebody who actually was from there might talk about it that way when they were somewhere else. I think you're right, but it didn't hit me as hard, somehow.

The passage when he's napping in the grass is beautiful! Totally great!

In my own defense, I missed it because I only managed to write about the 1st chapter and part of the 2nd. There are a few more zingers later in the 2nd chapter, too. The quote you mention, when Gen is napping, comes at the end of the 3rd chapter.

They're just everywhere :-D

thanks again, & I'm glad you liked the dissection.

PS. OK, I'll mention another one in the 2nd chapter. Remember when Gen sees Philonikes? Remember what he says he's doing? Counting the cannons on the kings war ships! LOL It could seem pretty random -- on first reading, I just thought he was full of insatiable curiosity, like Kipling's Elephant's Child ;-D

Elephant's child

Not to nitpick, or anything (okay, to nitpick), but I believe what the Elephant's Child had was "'satiable curtiosity."

Re: Elephant's child

Nitpicking is good! (Well sometimes, anyway ;-D)

And of course you are right, " 'satiable curiosity" it is!
Hello there!

I love what you wrote here. I've done a reread only once, and your post makes me want to do another one, because most of the stuff here aren't things I even thought about! (I know... shame on me!)

First, I'll say the one thing I did come across on my reread (which is easier to say than the things I hadn't!). That line about Gen's uncle having so much gold really had me laughing, because for a moment I had to think of who he was, and I was like, "Oh, that's Eddis's dad! Was he a minister? Oh wait, no, he was KING!"

Ahaha!

I love how you focused a lot here on the scholarly aspect of Gen's personality. I never looked at it that way, and when you pointed all these little facts that perhaps a waif from the street wouldn't know, I realized just how much I've overlooked! At first glance, it really does seem like an authorial device to use the narrator to describe the setting and get the reader familiar with the book's world, but on the second glance, it all seems a little fishy. How would, as you said, a simple thief know all these scholarly, historical things way, way before his time? Seems like he's brushed up on his trivia. A little too brushed up.

Thanks for this! It was fun looking at this essay. (QT and Sounis are the reasons I decided to get an English minor, but none of the things I learn about are nearly as exciting as this. LOL)
Thank you so much!

And good luck with your English minor. That is awesome. ;-D
I read this book many times years ago, and did a re-read early this year. I'm embarrassed to admit that even though I'd read it so much before, I'd forgotten what the twist was.

The misdirection in this book is so excellent that it can fool you even when you really should know better.

Thank you!

I agree, & that definitely makes the book worth rereading -- thanks for reading the essay, and posting!
Some of those I'd noticed, but others (like p4) I hadn't considered, taking them casually as authorial asides through the character instead of considering them as careful characterization.

But there were a lot I hadn't noticed at all.

Much appreciation for your own sleuthing skills as well as for MWT's brilliant writing from me!

Such fun, analyzing all the clues like that! One time, when I had a student book club reading the book, I put sticky notes on every page that had a clue. The book was stuffed full.

How about this one? (p13) "What am I stealing?" That was all I cared about.

Wouldn't you think he'd be more interested in how to get out?

And this, on the same page, "Don't try to be smart." The magus shook his head. "You don't pretend well." I opened my mouth to say something I shouldn't have, but he went on.

Probably something like, "I've been pretending to be a common thief, moron."

Yes!

You're so right! That "You don't pretend well" comment is hilarious!

Thanks for reading, & I'm glad you enjoyed it.

PS Is your icon from the Japanese ed.? So pretty!
Oh, I love this. you should really keep going. :p
As sounis I read this, I had to tell you: you rock!

[weg]

Thanks, and....

were you addressing that remark to me in particular? Or SOUNIS?

Because definitely, Sounis rocks!

Re: Thanks, and....

Yes, to both. Rocking all 'round!

Thanks so much!

I've got a lot going on -- but I probably will try to go on for at least another couple of chapters.

As some of you have pointed out, I didn't cover absolutely everything even in the first couple of chapters -- but this is fun!

~D.