By Michael Dirda
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 28, 2010; C03
By David Malouf
Pantheon. 224 pp. $24
The Trojan War and its heroes have inspired writers for more than 2,500 years and inspired various unknown "singers of tales" for even longer. From Homer (the "Iliad" and "Odyssey") and Aeschylus ("Agamemnon") to James Joyce ("Ulysses") and Derek Walcott ("Omeros"), the "matter of Troy" has provided the world with timeless examples of heroism, nobility, cleverness and tragic destiny. In "Ransom," the Australian novelist, short-story writer and poet David Malouf adds to this great tradition by re-imagining the circumstances leading up to the climactic scene of "The Iliad": King Priam's visit to Achilles to beg for the body of his son Hector.
Malouf packs an enormous amount into his 200 or so pages: Achilles' grief over the death of his foster brother Patroclus, vignettes of life inside Troy, flash-forwards to the destruction of the walled city, appearances of the gods themselves. Besides all these, "Ransom" returns again and again to the fundamental human need for story and storytelling. To be remembered after death and to achieve sufficient glory ("kleos") to inspire songs and poems were especially important to the Greek conception of an ideal life. Early in the novel Achilles describes this heroic ethos:
"He had entered the rough world of men, where a man's acts follow him wherever he goes in the form of story. A world of pain, loss, dependency, bursts of violence and elation; of fatality and fatal contradictions, breathless leaps into the unknown; at last of death -- a hero's death out there in full sunlight under the gaze of gods and men."
While we still honor the "hardened" martial virtues of an Achilles, Malouf's own attention soon focuses on the gentler Priam, who -- grief-stricken -- decides to break free of the traditional constraints of approved behavior. To reclaim Hector's body for burial, he will humbly abase himself to his son's killer. While his advisers, many of them brothers of the dead Trojan warrior, speak strongly against such lèse-majesté, Priam is determined to ignore the old ways for what he calls "something new." He hopes that Achilles, by perceiving their common humanity and suffering, will set aside the strict code of the superhero and accept "the lighter bond of being simply a man." That, he adds, "is the real gift I have to bring him. Perhaps that is the ransom." To his wife, Hecuba, the king also secretly confesses that in childhood he was once nearly sold as a slave -- and ever since has viewed his exalted royal life as little more than a dream.
So Priam plans to kneel in the dust and clasp the knees of his enemy. Yet this distinctly unheroic act, he recognizes, will paradoxically grant him immortality: "When men speak my name it will stand forever as proof of what I am. An act, in these terrible days, that even an old man can perform, that only an old man dare perform, of whom nothing now can be expected of noise and youthful swagger." At this point, Malouf shifts from the high-minded world of Greek epic to the realistic one where people still love and quarrel, harvest honey from beehives and hire out their mules and carts for day labor. The 50ish Somax, who has lost all his own sons and daughters, is chosen to drive Priam to the Greek camp. When the two men pause en route, the rough-hewn but voluble Somax offers to share his simple lunch:
" 'These little cakes, now, since they've caught your eye, sir -- pikelets they are, or griddlecakes as some people call them -- were made by my daughter-in law. Best buckwheat flour, good thick buttermilk, just a drop of oil. The buttermilk has to be of a cream colour, and thick, so that when you pour it out of the crock it comes in a slow stream. Then the batter is ladled onto a skillet over hot stones. . . . It's a real pleasure to watch the batter bubbling and setting and turning a golden brown, as you can see, around the edges. The lightness comes from the way the cook flips them over. Very neat and quick you have to be. The daughter-in-law, she's a good girl, uses her fingers -- it's a trick you have to learn -- and if she happens to burn them she pops her fingers into her mouth quick smart like this -- ' and by way of illustration, he popped one of the little cakes into his mouth, almost unnoticed it might have been under the influence of his talk."
Through his increasing admiration for the naturalness of the mule-driver, a new Priam begins to sense that "out here . . . everything was just itself." Whereas court life was ruled by formal discourse, in nature "everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn't silence at all, it was a low, continuous rustling and buzzing and humming."
While Malouf can write brilliantly in the "low" register of a Somax or describe nature with a Wordsworthian attentiveness, he is equally convincing in suggesting the grave diction of epic, as when Priam reflects on what the immortal gods can never experience -- the sweetness inherent in our transient human lives, but also the sorrow:
"Only we humans can know, endowed as we are with mortality, but also with consciousness, what it is to be aware each day of the fading in us of freshness and youth; the falling away, as the muscles grow slack in our arms, the thigh grows hollow and the sight dims, of whatever manly vigor we were once endowed with. Well, all that happens. It is what it means to be a man and mortal."
In tone "Ransom" is quiet and meditative, such that its most bravura flourish lies in never mentioning the cause of the Trojan War -- at least not by name. Only near the end of the book does Priam look up at the walls of his city and point "to a figure standing small and emphatic against the light. 'There,' he tells the driver. 'Do you see her?' "
So much for Helen, whose beauty launched a thousand ships. In "Ransom," by contrast, old Somax's favorite mule bears the name Beauty, and she, it turns out, launches a thousand stories. This has been one of them.
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