Adrift on the Wine Dark Sea
A writer recreates the voyage of Homer's wily hero.
One Man's Odyssey Through "The Odyssey"
By Scott Huler
Crown. 286 pp. $24.95
Scott Huler swore on NPR that he would never read James Joyce's bewildering novel Ulysses, a book inspired by Homer's Odyssey. Despite his pledge, he joined a reading group to study the book. And, having claimed since high school to have read Homer's tour de force, he admitted that he'd never actually gotten through that book either. But Ulysses, which he still finds impenetrable, had piqued his interest in the great epic. So in an act half inspired by guilt and half by "existential fear," Huler decided to leave his pregnant wife and follow Odysseus' voyage himself, from Troy to the island of Ithaca.
The resulting narrative of his journey is interwoven with the ins and outs of the Odyssey itself. (That book charts Odysseus' decade-long return home from the Trojan War, and is a sequel to the Iliad). Huler is an extremely engaging guide. You can't help but be drawn into his quirky view of both the world through which he travels and the one depicted by Homer almost 30 centuries ago. Coaxed along by what can only be described as Huler's intoxicating friendliness, you find yourself rolling forward against a backdrop of enchantresses, one-eyed giants and delirious Lotus-eaters.
Three thousand years are, of course, a long time, and there are few tangible links between Greek society then and Greek society now. Odysseus, one of the most celebrated warriors of his time, traveled through a world conjured from fantasy as much as it was from fact. Huler's experience was far more prosaic, as an almost invisible tourist traveling by airplane, bus and island-hopping ferry. His self-deprecating honesty lets the Greek hero take center stage, while allowing us to slip into the fantasy world that is Greek literature. Meanwhile, he gets away with sentences that other writers would be ridiculed for. For instance:
"I ended up in Latina, staying in the big ugly Excelsior across from the train station. On the main street there I stumbled upon a pizzeria where I had the best pizza of my life. I would get a piece of the Napolitano -- anchovies, olives, tomatoes, cheese, capers -- and another of anything else. They had pizza with ham, with pineapple, with hard-boiled eggs, with salad. Then I would have another slice of Napolitano, then another, until the couple behind the counter grew friendly and we had the usual chat about Ulisse and my quest. They gave me a free Orange Fanta." The prose works because there's an extraordinary evenness about it, a pace that lulls you along in a melodious way.
The real value of No-Man's Lands, though, is in the way it aids the accessibility of Homer's work, championing it in the most delicate way imaginable. "Peer through the veneer of fantasy and The Odyssey is a book about stuff we know: girls and bad guys; jobs and responsibilities; friends, coworkers, and family; places and traveling between them; home and how to get there." It may be going a little far to say that Huler found himself on the journey, but it seems as if he did discover a truth of great importance: that a time-tested tale is the greatest tale of all. ·
Tahir Shah is the author of "In Arabian Nights" and "The Caliph's House."