Friday, February 19, 2010

Oh, that Troy!

The most favored cliché of the journalist of the past, particularly he or she who worked for a tabloid or a Hearst paper, was the novel in progress, hidden in the bottom drawer of the desk. The novel would not only transport the writer out of the day-to-day operatic posturing so common to such newspapers, it would transport the reader to new levels of human understanding.

A favored vision of today’s novelist is the mystery novel in progress, hidden somewhere on the hard drive of a computer given over to romance or historical adventure. This covert mystery would ply the fecund motives of the publishing world or the academic institution, landscapes where ambitions are as flagrant as a fleet of Hummers on a used car lot.

Although the mystery is for the writer the literary equivalent of the Jungian archetype, the greater likelihood still of the established writer’s hidden agenda is to rewrite a classic.

Of the many authors who have done this very thing, Valerie Martin comes quickly to mind with her memorable take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Named for her invented character, Mary Reilly, her novel pretends the eponymous narrator is an Irish maid who thinks she works only for Dr. Jekyll.

Joyce Carol Oates has taken on a number of classic genres to the point where she may be pursuing them without even thinking about them.

The Australian writer, David Malouf, has edged magisterially toward his venture into the classics, arriving via a previous output of short stories, novels, and poetry. In his latest work, Ransom, from Pantheon, he does a number of remarkable things all at once, and does them all with a seemingly effortless panache. 

First of all, he takes us back to those same wonderful folks who gave us The Trojan wars of The Iliad. Secondly, he provides us with such delicious information about the likes of Achilles, Hector, King Priam, Queen Hecuba, and of course the attendant gods and goddesses that, certain now that we missed a good deal of the subtext in earlier readings, we return to The Iliad for another go round. Thirdly, but by no means the end of his accomplishments, Malouf renders the language in such an exquisite rendition that we lose track of the sense of having read a 2010 text. Rather, we are thrust back into the simple dialogue elegance of such iconic films as A Man for All Seasons and The Lion in Winter.

You may have thought you experienced Troy in your readings of The Iliad, but here is Malouf’s presentation of it:
“Laid out on uneven ground along a rocky bluff, Troy is a city of four-square towers topped by untidy stork’s nests, each as tall as a man; of dovecotes, cisterns, yards where black goats are penned, and in a maze of cobbled squares and alleys, houses of whitewashed mud-brick and stone, cube-shaped and with open stairways that at this hour mount to dreams. On the flat roofs under awnings of woven rush, potted shrubs spread their heavy night odors, and cats, of the small-skulled breed that are native to the region, prowl the parapets and yowl like tormented souls in their mating.” One thing impresses us from this: we know Malouf has been to Troy. Not, by the way, Troy, N.Y.

As the original begins with the consequences of Achilles’ anger, so too does Ransom, but already Malouf’s reinvention is busily at work, showing us the mounting impatience among those involved in the siege of Troy. Achilles is in “an endless interim of keeping your weapons in good trim and your keener self taut as a bowstring through long stretches of idleness, of restless, patient waiting, and shameful quarrels and unmanly bragging and talk, “Such a life is death to the warrior spirit…War should be practiced swiftly, decisively. Thirty days at most, in the weeks between new spring growth and harvest, when the corn is tinder-dry and ripe for the invader’s brand, then back to the cattle pace of the farmer’s life.”

You probably already know why Achilles was angry from having read The Iliad, but David Malouf also spells it out to the point where Achilles takes a step that precipitates the greatest rage and bluster he has ever known. The consequences lead directly to the death of Hector, but what you probably missed in The Iliad were Hector’s last, whispered words to Achilles.

Were Hector’s words a taunt or merely a reminder that even though Achilles has a goddess for a mother, he is still a mortal? And was it merely these words or a growing dissatisfaction with all Achilles had held previously dear that led him to the rage-driven slaughter and desecration of Hector’s body?

Along comes Hector’s father, King Priam, seeking a way to ransom his son’s body, give it a proper burial so that it may start its journey to the underworld, and set in motion the deeply disturbing and memorable meeting between two men who wear such jagged battle scars from their encounters with grief.

Ransom begins appropriately enough with Achilles. “The sea has many voices. The voice this man [Achilles] is listening for is the voice of his mother.” His mother is a goddess of the sea, she occasionally comes to him. “Do you hear me, Achilles? It is me, I am still with you. For a time I can be with you when you call.”

Ransom continues as King Priam watched the body of his dead son being dragged about. His mind clouded by the grief of his doomed kingdom and its people, his son, Hector, and yet other sons who have died in battle, Priam sits disconsolate. “Seated close by him on the couch is the goddess Iris.” She smiles, indulgently. The soft light has a calming effect as he bends to listen to her, telling him about “the way things are. Not the way they must be but the way they have turned out. In a world that is also subject to chance.”

In the communication from Iris, Priam devises a scheme to get Achilles to release his son’s body from further abuse. Before he leaves on his mission, Priam reveals to his wife, Hecuba, a secret he has never told another, one that links him to this world Goddess Iris has described, a world governed by chance, where there is always a chance of redemption.

Scene after magnificent scene rolls forth from this magical book. Magical? How? Magical in the sense of it only being 220 pages and yet containing so much poetry, emerging as if from only the desolate personages of two men, mortal enemies, for a time brought together for rituals of healing and understanding.

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