Sunday, May 03, 2009

Ransom by David Malouf

A professor once said, “Only one story exists – The Odyssey – and from it all other stories flow.” I thought this a ridiculous statement at the time even though I already knew and loved the story of Odysseus and his wanderings at the end of the Trojan War. I had also read The Iliad, but it did not hold for me the charm of the sequel.

This fall, I will teach a class on Mythology, and the centerpiece will be The Odyssey. However, after reading this story of Achilles, Patrocles, Priam, and Hector, I am going to slowly re-read The Iliad and The Odyssey this summer.

Malouf has taken these four characters and rewoven the tale of Hector’s death and the ransom of his body by Priam. David has simplified the story, cut away much of the flowery, epithet-filled language of Homer to focus on the essential theme of the story – fathers and sons and war.

I don’t think I am giving anything away here, after all, the joy of reading Malouf lies in his use of language and the manipulation of words and phrases. If these details of The Iliad surprise you, shame! Get thee to a book store and read these two foundational blocks of western literature! Then read Malouf and experience the glee of noting which details he has added and which he has deleted.

The important things remain: Hector’s farewell to Andromache and Astyanax, the death of Patrocles, the fight between Achilles and Hector, the grief of Priam, and his humiliating plea for the release of his son’s body.

Malouf’s prose echoes the poetry of Homer, and at times, moves us dreamlike through those thrilling legends more the 2,500 years old. I believe I could have read this slim volume in one sitting, but I deliberately took breaks after each chapter. Before resuming, I thumbed through the previous chapters and re-read some passages that struck me. For example, “Why do we think always the simple things are beneath us?” (59), and "'It seems to me,’ [Priam] says, almost dreamily, ‘that there might be another way of naming what we call fortune and attribute to the will, or the whim, of the gods. Which offers a kind of opening. The opportunity to act for ourselves. To try something that might force events into a different course’” (61). 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/3/09

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