Tuesday, February 02, 2010

What We're Reading: Ransom

There was a time in the history of education when “the classics,” referred not to Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice, or Wuthering Heights, but rather to the legacy of works written in ancient Greek and Latin that are the foundation of the western literary tradition. They were a part of the curriculum of even elementary school education until early in the 20th century, so it is not surprising that stories and themes of that literature are often revisited and reworked in contemporary literature. In fact, sometimes it seems that there are a half dozen or so basic stories from Greek and Latin literature that are yet the same ones we tell today, dressed up with some cosmetic differences, a few reinterpretations, an interpolation here and there, and some imaginative embellishments.

Ransom is the first novel that the Australian writer David Malouf has written in over ten years. Like his earlier work, and also the fine novels Remembering Babylon (which won the Booker Prize) and The Conversations at Curlow Creek, Malouf continues to be concerned about the demands that societal order and routine seem to make on our individual sense of justice and humanity, about how it is that we become convinced that a certain inveterateness and hardness are what keeps the world in order, what keeps it from falling into a fearsome chaos. The question he poses seems to be, “but what if….”. And so it is here, in Ransom, which elaborates on passages from Homer’s Iliad, and tells us the story of the impasse between Achilles and Priam, the king of the doomed city of Troy as the king seeks to recover from the Greeks the body of his slain son Hector. A vision comes to Priam that he should appeal to Achilles not as a king or head of state but humbly and simply as a father and fellow human being.

The book begins by introducing us to Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, and at first we think he will be the major protagonist of this narrative, or that the most important dynamic will be how things play out between Achilles and Priam. Our expectations however are, perhaps provocatively, not met. The major relationship in this book is that between Priam and a simple carter named Somax, who accompanies the king alone across the plains of Troy as he delivers to Achilles the ransom for his son. From his conversation with the carter on their journey Priam learns that there is a different kind of life possible than the one he has lead, a life of kingly responsibility, order, public scrutiny , ceremony, and a certain distance and detachment. As Somax relates the story of his life Priam comes to understand that his exalted life has had a price, that it has been perhaps a lesser life. Somax recounts the story of his own life and Priam realizes that although it has been a life of deeper sorrow it also has been one of greater joy, one that is more fully human and more capable of action that is humane.

Achilles, unlike his portrayal in the Iliad, is not a very sympathetic hero in Ransom, a reversal that is instructive and important to the author’s point of view here. The depiction of the god Hermes as a dandified and impertinent youth, as he suddenly appears on the scene to guide Priam and Somax to the Greek camp is a delight, a piquant exhibition of Deus ex machina in its etymological sense. And it’s probably not often that someone finds an “Afterword” to be a favorite part of a book, but Malouf’s defense of his refashioning of the Homeric myth and his inventiveness is a refreshing reminder of the way literature works and why it is important. At a time when Greek gods and heroes are re-emerging in popular literature as the original superheroes, Ransom remains true to the heart of Greek tragedy and its extraordinary ability to explore the human condition, something that seems to be possible only when we are less sure of the motives of the gods or the certainty of our election.

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