Mika Waltari was recommended to me some months ago, particularly for his novel The Egyptian. As he is both out of print and formidably hard to track down second-hand, I had to let Fate lead my steps instead. Last week I found another of Waltari’s novels, The Etruscan, in a first edition paperback from 1959 at the South Bank book market. I just couldn’t resist the cover and so decided that it was time to give him a go.
I’d expected this to be a serious historical novel, but the theatrically shocked Roman dinner guests on the cover promised something enjoyably pulpy instead (Carry On Etruria, as I suggested to Heloise). I particularly enjoyed the fact that the female guests all seemed to be wearing 1950s ballgowns. The tagline and back cover only increased my anticipation. I had never imagined that I would read a book whose back-cover blurb began: ‘Warrior and lover, I defied both gods and men. I was a man of mystery, and I had dared to abduct Arsinoe, the wanton priestess of Eryx‘. (It sounds better if you try reading it aloud in the kind of deep American accent you hear on the voiceovers of film trailers.) Wow, I thought. This is going to be fun.
Few novels have so great a gulf between the promise of the cover and the actual book. For a start, I regret to say the cover bears no resemblance to any scene in the book, which is a shame: I’d been looking forward to finding out what they were all so horrified about. More crucially, the novel takes what could have been a rollickingly good story and turns it into something stilted and dull. I don’t know if I’ve just caught Waltari on a bad day, but whereas some books grab me and pull me down into their depths, I found myself gliding over the surface here without any motivation to care about either the characters or the plot. Alas. The story begins at Delphi, where the exile Turms has come to seek judgement from the oracle, for his crime of burning the temple of Cybele in Sardis. On seeing him, the priestess falls into a divine ecstasy and sends him off to meet his destiny.
Turms embarks on a period of wandering in what is now Turkey, fighting the Persians alongside the belligerent Spartan Dorieus, whom he’d met at Delphi, and then a spell of naval warfare which rapidly develops into opportunistic piracy. Once the risks of piracy begin to outweigh its benefits, the captain Dionysius, on whose ship Turms and Dorieus have been serving, turns west and the characters end up landing in Sicily. They are welcomed to the town of Himera, where they find peace, romance and the prospect of a future. Virtually a third of the book was taken up with this apparently aimless tour of the ancient Mediterranean. Now, you might think – considering the emphasis the cover places on the ‘abduction of the wanton priestess of Eryx‘ – that this is a fairly substantial moment in the plot. Not so. There is no plotting, no breathless rendition of the abduction itself, not even any real reason given why Turms would wish to abduct a priestess. All we are told is that, in the Temple at Eryx:
There appeared to me there a woman whom I immediately recognised – but as several different women whom I had known. I called her Arsinoe and desired her above all women – so irresistibly that by a stratagem I kidnapped her from the Temple… We smuggled her out of the city in dead Aura’s clothes, and brought her with us to Himera.
That’s it. After 94 pages of watching Turms listlessly wander through Greece, Asia Minor and portions of ancient Sicily, that’s the dramatic abduction I was waiting for. Maybe you can already see from the above that the writing of the book is strangely detached and dispassionate. Arsinoe, of course, turns out to be nothing but trouble and, after seducing virtually every man in sight, accompanies Turms on his odyssey to Segesta, to sanctuary among the Sicans and then north across the sea to the burgeoning town of Rome. When she deserts him for a more advantageous match with an elderly Roman senator, Turms himself travels north into Etruscan territory and (spoilers!) begins to find signs of his divine destiny as the Lucumon, a human body containing a reincarnated immortal soul (eyebrows were raised at this point). I should warn you that the blurb on the back of the book not only gives away three-quarters of the plot, but also seems to be inaccurate (at what point does Turms ‘challenge mighty Persia‘ after going to Etruria? Was it not the Greeks he was fighting, alongside the Etruscans, in Sicily?).
The book should have been gripping, but it moseys along in a curiously indeterminate fashion, without any clear indication of the date at the outset; and, no trace of a map. Not being a classicist, I had never heard of the Ionian Revolt (499-493 BC, for those similarly floundering) and it wasn’t until there was a chance mention of Salamis and Thermopylae later in the book that I was able to orient myself. This is a fabulous period: we have the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Etruscans, not to mention fascinating subcultures like the forest-dwelling Sicans of Sicily. But we don’t feel them enough here! Furthermore, although Turms lives in interesting times, he and his fellow characters don’t have the individuality or the depth to be interesting themselves: Arsinoe, who is set up as a femme fatale, is merely a cardboard cut-out cipher of Female Fickleness, and although Dorieus and Micon have their amusing moments, Turms himself never comes to life, which is a problem for someone who is both the protagonist and the narrator. One moment he can see right through Arsinoe, who is deceiving him with his best friends; the next moment he is compulsively swept into a frenzy of desire for her.
There is a lot of telling and not much showing, and very little convincing psychological depth (people impulsively become friends, swear loyalty and switch from passionate distrust to melting adoration in the space of a page, which is explained by the intervention of the gods). Moreover the declamatory dialogue reads no differently from the descriptive prose. I really don’t know how much of all this is due to the original text and how much to the translation, but it makes me a little wary of embarking on The Egyptian just yet.
Perhaps the book is more enjoyable in a different translation; or perhaps it has some overarching point to it, stylistically or philosophically, that has completely passed me by because I know nothing about Waltari’s work and his ideals as a writer. Unfortunately it just never sparked to life in my mind and – perhaps partly because of the Sicilian setting – it reminded me of Manfredi’s Tyrant. However, it’s not even much use as an introduction to the period or places, because the historical context is so vaguely defined. I’d been very much looking forward to it, because I always like discovering new historical authors (and Waltari’s other works include books set in the Roman Empire and in the Renaissance), but I found it obscurely frustrating – and probably even more so because I’d been expecting something much more entertaining on the basis of the cover. Reading this just makes me realise, anew, how astoundingly good Mary Renault is…
Details from the back cover in all its 1950s glory