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Book Review: Ransom, by David Malouf

David Malouf is one of Australia’s most accomplished writers. This is his 2009 rendering of sections of Homer’s Iliad– roughly, a much abbreviated version of books 16 to 23. But it explores details not in the original, and exhibits a grace and imagination that befits both the story and the writer.

Ransom deals with the death of Patroclus, Achilles’s battle with Hector, his abuse of Hector’s body and Priam’s recovery of it. This last makes up Part 3 of the book, and goes well beyond Homer’s version. When I started reading, I couldn’t help feeling an overwhelming weariness in the face of the apparently never-ending horrors of what men do to each other in war. Why write about it again? But as I read further, the beauty of Malouf’s writing, and the essential humanity of this retelling of the story drew me in.

Malouf was first attracted to the story of the invasion of Troy by the Greeks when he heard part of it as a child during World War II in Brisbane – then the headquarters of General MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the war in the Pacific. The story seemed to him the archetype of all stories about war, especially as at time he didn’t know how the war on his doorstep would end. So rather than writing something new, he wrote about the first war to appear in literature. ‘There’s little new that matters under the sun,’ writes David Marr, reflecting on Malouf’s work. ‘We are what we have always been, what moves us has always moved us; we’re writing now as we have always written.’ Malouf says that the ‘whole story of the Trojan war is really central to my notion in terms of feeling of what war is and what the vulnerability is of people, women or children, but also soldiers in war. So it’s haunted me for a long time.’

Malouf believes that since Achilles and Priam were going to come together at the climax of the book, ‘the reader must know as much about those two people as possible’. Achilles is a very divided figure; a hero, the greatest warrior of the Greek army, but also in his grief and anger, capable of doing un-heroic things, as can be seen from his treatment of Hector’s body, as well as sulking in his tent and letting Patroclus fight in his place. He knows that he will die in the war – his mother, a goddess, has told him so – and it becomes a question of how he will be remembered. He is if you like ransoming his future reputation. Future remembrance is also Priam’s concern. He knows that ultimately Troy will fall and he will die, but in addition to acting out of genuine grief over the death of his son Hector, and his outrage at the desecration of his body, he wants to do something that he will be remembered for. He is offering a ransom for his son in a conventional way, but his manner of doing it is startling – an act of moral rather than physical courage.

But Malouf didn’t want just to re-tell the story; ‘I wanted to deal with different aspects of stories from the ones that Homer deals with,’ he says. Thus he writes about Priam’s childhood, and the chances that brought him to the throne of Troy. He also makes it clear that Priam’s choice of how to act in this instance is quite revolutionary. I think the carter who transports the ransom – and certainly his mule – are also from Malouf’s imagination.

I’ve said the writing is beautiful. It is simple and clear, yet quite profound. One random example can show this. Priam is trying to explain to his wife Hecuba his reasons for making his moral act to ransom Hector’s body; he is telling her how it felt to be a child in danger. ‘Imagine, then,’ he says, ‘what is was like to be that child. To actually stand as I did at the centre of it, of what was not a story, not yet, but a real happening, all noise and smoke and panicky confusion. To know nothing of what is to come and simply be there – one of a horde of wailing infants, some no more than three or four years old who have been driven like geese out of the blazing citadel, along with rats, mice and a dozen other small, terrified creatures, all squealing underfoot.’ The precision of the detail is important in evoking sympathy, as is the use of italics. But it’s more than that. Somehow it just gels –the right word in the right place.

It is now agreed that Homer’s story has a basis in fact. As I read about Priam’s expedition to the Greek camp, I was sharply reminded of the landscape of Troy as it is today. The seashore, where the Greeks were camped, is further away now than it was then; his journey would have been considerably longer. The archaeological site that contains the ruins of Troy sit in the middle of open country, with a scattering of olive trees; it is easy to understand how Troy simple disappeared from history until its rediscovery in 1871 by Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist/adventurer who essentially looted the site, carrying off what may or may not have been Priam’s treasure. The entrance to the site sports a giant wooden horse – a part of the history of the Trojan Wars that comes from Virgil’s Aeneid, not Homer’s Iliad.

You can read more about David Malouf here. And here’s an interesting interview with him about the book, from which the above quotations are taken. I’ve also reviewed another book which has Achilles and Patroclus at its centre: The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller.


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