On the eve of the rebellion in Ireland in the year 1824, Fergus Kilpatrick, a patriot, is assassinated. One hundred years later, his great-grandson, Ryan, who is compiling a biography of the hero’s life, tries to discover the identity of the assassin. His search entails the examination of historical records that prove to be enigmatic rather than illuminating. The contents of these documents recall episodes and characters from literature. For example, an unopened letter found on the cadaver forewarned of the assassination attempt in the same way that Calpurnia’s warning did not reach Caesar in time to save him.
Ryan wonders about the possibility of a secret form of time, a drawing of lines that are repeated, like the systems proposed by the Marquis de Condorcet, George William Friedrich Hegel, Oswald Spengler, and Giambattista Vico, and like Hesiod’s degeneration of humankind. However, Ryan notices that history has copied not only history but also literature because certain words recorded from a conversation between Kilpatrick and a beggar are originally from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). Another discordant element in the investigation is a death sentence, signed by the usually merciful Kilpatrick, from which the name has been erased.
Finally, Ryan is able to piece together the clues. At Kilpatrick’s request, Nolan, Kilpatrick’s oldest companion, had learned the identity of the traitor to the cause: Kilpatrick himself. Because of the latter’s popularity among the Irish people, Nolan conceived a strange project in order not to compromise the rebellion. It was arranged for Kilpatrick to be assassinated under deliberately dramatic circumstances that would endure throughout history. To this end, Nolan, who at one time had translated the principal works of Shakespeare and written about the Festspiele (vast theatrical representations with thousands of actors, which reiterate historical episodes in the cities and mountains where they occurred), wrote a script for the assassination. The play was performed, although not without a certain amount of improvisation by Kilpatrick, who, getting carried away with his part, would often speak lines more dramatic than those of Nolan, who had, in turn, plagiarized material from Shakespeare. Ryan suspects that Nolan intended those scenes to be clues for a future investigator.