Sunday, April 15, 2012

RANSOM by David Malouf ✰✰✰✰

Books that take one scene or element from a well-known work of literature and expand upon it, giving further background or depth fascinate me, especially if they are well done; I tend to never view the primary work in quite the same light ever again, and I feel enriched, despite the fact that the two authors often lived centuries apart, and the primary one might heartily disapprove of everything the second one wrote.  Somehow, I think Homer would love David Malouf’s rendering of King Priam and Achilles.
Malouf chose as his moment in literature the section of Homer’s Iliad in which Achilles is refusing to fight, for reasons too complicated to get into here, and his best friend Patroclus convinces him to loan him his armor, saying that it will at least rally the Greeks if they see his armor on the field and believe that it is Achilles come to do battle.  Of course, Hector believes that the two heroes finally get the chance to face each other on the field of combat, and, not realizing that it is Patroclus, not Achilles, in the armor, he kills him.  Achilles, in a fury of grief, calls out Hector, slays him, and then proceeds to defy all convention by treating his corpse in a most appalling fashion.  All of this is well documented in Homer’s Iliad.
Where Malouf begins to build his novel is around the backstory of the childhood friendship of Achilles and Patroclus, how they came to be raised as brothers.  He also tells in riveting detail the tale of how King Laomedon’s son, Podarces, found refuge during the sacking of their city among the slaves and servants.  When Podarces’ sister, Hesione, was taken captive by the conquering Heracles he promised her any gift she desired; knowing her brother was hidden among the slaves, she led Heracles there and pointed to Podarces and said that he was her brother and she wanted him.  Disbelieving that the filthy urchin was really the prince, and thinking Hesione deluded in her grief, Heracles christened Podarces “Priam”, meaning “the ransomed one”, or “the price paid”-his worthless life in exchange for her brother’s.  And so was “reborn” the boy who became the king of Troy.
Ransom begins as a story of vengeance-that of Achilles grieving his friend and brother Patroclus-a familiar story to those who have read Homer’s Iliad.  No matter how he tries Achilles is unable to assuage his anger.  The story then shifts to Priam and Hecuba, the parents of Hector, as they grieve their son.  Priam’s visit to Achilles, unadorned, as a common man, bearing a cart of treasure for ransom, but coming as a broken father, not a king, does figure into Homer’s work.  However, David Malouf has chosen this element of the tale to really expand upon and carry the emotional weight of his novel.  In his work we see Priam’s entreaties to his wife and family; we learn, through flashbacks, about his childhood; we see his preparations; and his journey with the course carter who becomes, in an odd way, his friend.  Through Malouf’s lyrical, simple prose we see an old, dignified man grieve, accept change, and face his own imminent death.
You do not have to have read Homer’s Iliad to read Ransom.  Any background information is given, and parts of the novel are simply taken from the author’s own imagination.  This is a wonderful novel, even for those who are not inclined to read ancient epic poetry.  The story of Achilles and Priam is a fairly well known one, discussed even outside the context of The Iliad.  Indeed, Malouf’s intent was a study of grief, in its many forms.  Just about every form of grief is touched upon through one character or another in the course of this novel, but that said, it manages to not be a depressing read.  Malouf’s writing is graceful and emotive and I look forward to exploring more of his work.

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