Olympiad: Tom Holt

★★★★

Now for something very topical. Although best known for his comic fantasy books, Tom Holt has always been a classicist at heart and this is one of his three historical novels based in Ancient Greece. Deliciously tongue-in-cheek, Olympiad offers a gleeful romp through the Peloponnese of the 8th century BC, as a group of hapless travellers set out to create a whole new kind of sports event.

The premise is this. The brothers Cleander and Cratus, two retainers at the court of King Leon of Elis (in the north-western corner of the Peloponnese), come up with a plan to raise the profile of the king’s generally inept son Coroebus. Since the prince has proven hopeless at the usual kingly tasks of leading men to war and providing justice for his people, they have to find another way for him to shine in the eyes of his subjects. They have to find something he really excels at. Unfortunately for Cleander and Cratus, his only talent is being able to run very fast, which can only be turned into an accomplishment if the prince is able to display his abilities in a foot race. However, foot races only happen in funeral games, and no one shows any signs of dying.

Then Cleander has an idea. What if they were to hold games without anyone having died? Trying to shrug off the inner knowledge that this is, to be honest, a bit daft (whoever heard of games-where-nobody’s-died?), Cleander and his brother bravely set off on a mission across the Peloponnese, to seek out games-players and rally them to come together at Elis for a competition that will never be forgotten. Against their better judgement they travel with their berserk, battle-scarred uncle Sarpedon, Tachys (the most miserable man in Elis) and their sister, the single-minded sixteen-year-old Dusa, whom both brothers distrust wildly because, deep down, they know she’s far more intelligent than they are.

The main narrative is a story within a story, a tale told by Cratus and Cleander many years later to a Phoenician merchant who has visited their city. By showing us ancient Greeks through the eyes of the more sophisticated and more civilised Phoenician, Holt creates a sense of culture clash and enables conversations and explanations which give a better sense of the key differences between that Greece and our modernity. And this is where the second meaning of the title comes into play. ‘Olympiad’, of course, can refer to the games themselves; but, just as significantly, it refers to the way that the games provided a historical framework for the Greeks; a framework which continues to dictate the way that you or I decide what the date is today.

Holt has an absolute ball with the concept of history and memory. An entire subplot focuses on the Phoenician’s well-meaning attempts to acquaint his (literally) pre-historic Greek friends with the advantages of writing. His hosts are baffled. The argument bats back and forth like a ball over a net: why is writing necessary when they can remember conversations that they had fifty years before? How is writing any more reliable than memory, when memory can fail but writers can deliberately lie? If writing can record the name of any man, no matter how great or small his deeds, where is the motivation for a man to strive to do heroic things, so that he might be remembered? And, fundamentally, what is most valuable to a people: the dry record of written facts, or a richly-imagined history which gives them a sense of destiny and purpose?

Palamedes smiled at him. ‘There’s interesting,’ he said, ‘and there’s telling us we aren’t who we think we are and the people we think we’re descended from never existed. If that’s what your squiggles teach you, I think we’ll make do with our memories, what’s in our heads and hearts. Much more of this knowledge of yours and we won’t know anything at all.’

Fittingly for a story which is meant to be told orally, Holt’s style is light and conversational. People interrupt, squabble, wander in and out, and argue about the veracity of the events described. It would make a fantastic radio adaptation or audiobook. This is a story about little men from a little town who have a great idea and decide, in their rather fumbling way, to make it happen.  It’s breezy, fun and ferociously readable: a perfect summer book, in fact. I can recommend another of Holt’s Greek novels, The Walled Orchard – which I remember enjoying immensely, though I haven’t read it for years. I haven’t read the third, Alexander At The World’s End, partly because Alexander is sacred to Mary Renault as far as I’m concerned, but I’d be very happy to hear from anyone who wants to urge me to change my mind.

For anyone interested in other novels about athletes in the Classical world, you might like Of Merchants & Heroes by Paul Waters. It owes a lot to Renault, I think, and it might also appeal to those who enjoyed The Song of Achilles.

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