This book has been on my to-read list for a very long time. Such anticipation can lead to disappointment if a novel fails to meet expectations; but this one turned out to be well worth the wait. Simple and yet deeply poetic, it tells the story of an old man – Priam, King of Troy – who sets out to ransom back his son Hector’s body from the man who has killed him – Achilles, the ruthless warrior par excellence. Malouf’s book goes beyond the story as related in the Iliad, probing questions of majesty, nobility and, most importantly of all, humanity. Elegant and poignant, it centres on a moment of unforeseen compassion in the heat of war and breathes new life into its two famous protagonists.
Death has been repaid with death. At a moment of deep crisis in the ninth year of the Trojan war, Achilles has taken umbrage at the Greek leader, Agamemnon, and withdrawn with his peerless Myrmidons to their tents. As the conflict intensifies, his beloved friend Patroclus begs to be allowed to wear Achilles’ armour onto the field, to give heart to the beleaguered Greeks. Achilles agrees, and Patroclus is cut down in the midst of battle by Hector, prince of Troy. From that moment on, Achilles will not rest until Hector is also dead and Patroclus’ senseless death is avenged.
When the story begins, we find ourselves in the moment of stalemate that follows these two deaths. Patroclus is burned and buried; Hector’s body lies in the dust in the Greek camp, ready to be lashed each day to Achilles’ chariot and dragged around Patroclus’ burial mound in a demonstration of orgiastic violence. Meanwhile, up in the city, above the plain where men fight and die, the old king Priam watches as his sons fall and his power dwindles. Achilles has defied every custom of war in his sustained, contemptuous despoiling of the dead. And yet Priam has thought of a way that the young Greek warrior might be persuaded to give Hector up.
In Malouf’s book, it isn’t really what happens that’s important. What matters is the psychological state of the two men involved: the way they have come to be as they are, and the way in which, against all expectations, they find common ground in the midst of chaos. Malouf manages to enter their minds and show us the essence of their complex humanity, without ever infringing their heroic dignity. Take his Achilles, for example:
The man is a fighter, but when he is not fighting he is a farmer, earth is his element. One day, he knows, he will go back to it. All the grains that were miraculously called together at his birth to make just these hands, these feet, this corded forearm, will separate and go their own ways again. He is a child of earth. But for the whole of his life he has been drawn, in his other nature, to his mother’s element. To what, in all its many forms, as ocean, pool, stream, is shifting and insubstantial. To what accepts, in a moment of stillness, the reflection of a face, a tree in leaf, but holds nothing, and itself cannot be held.
That iridescence, that shimmering transition between this world and the other, between man and gods, reality and dream, actuality and portent, is a central theme in the book. In Malouf’s story, the gods do appear, but in a way that feels natural and unforced. It’s rare to read a modern novel based on Greek myth in which the supernatural is so gracefully and plausibly woven into the narrative.
But the gods are not the dominant power in this book. That is human nature. And it is primarily Priam’s humanity that drives the story: his desire to break the stiff, hieratic traditions of Trojan kinship, and to ride out as a mere mortal, a man, a father, to beg the murderer of his son for mercy. It’s because Priam is ready to challenge convention, and offer up his own majesty as a sacrifice, that he and Achilles can meet one another frankly – man-to-man, not as king-to-king, obfuscated by heralds and etiquette. There are times, Malouf points out, when raw and open humanity is our best weapon. Priam himself learns – or relearns – the value of this humanity on his journey to the Greek camp, as he travels with the humble carter Somax, whose stories give Priam a glimpse of a world that he has never had to understand before.
The book is immensely poignant if you know how the Trojan War ends, and what will become of Priam. With that in mind, the theme of fathers, sons and revenge becomes even more important to the story: a complex interrelationship that will continue to drive events to their tragic conclusion. But that is in the future, only hinted at in these pages. For now, Malouf creates a suspended moment of grace, in which anything is possible: a moment like that of the football match between the trenches on Christmas Day, when enemies can put aside their tribal allegiances and relate to each other as human beings – flawed, bereaved, grieving, and capable of goodness.
Beautiful, compact, and highly recommended. A book to keep and read again, and one of the most successful retellings of the Troy legend that I’ve read to date.