Malouf has taken the final book of The Iliad, and has transformed it. Homer’s account of the penultimate days of the Trojan War is, in the best Ancient Greek tradition, master-minded by the gods, bound by the structure and repetition of epic poetry. Without taking anything from its rightful reputation as a cornerstone of Western literature, Malouf’s achievement is to breathe fresh life into this ancient story. His light, pellucid prose takes the reader into the heart of the matter, effortlessly evoking a lost world, and granting humanity to Homer’s archetypes.
The reader will remember the story. Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, is sulking in his tent after losing his slave girl to his commander, Agamemnon. As he sulks, the Greeks are losing the siege they are conducting, still, against the embattled city of Troy. They have been there for nine years, and there is still no victory in sight. Eventually Patroclus, the lover of Achilles, persuades his friend to lend him his armour, that he might lift the Greeks’ morale by appearing to return to the fight. This plays out so convincingly that Hector, the great Trojan Prince, challenges Patroclus (whom he believes to be Achilles) to combat, from which Hector emerges triumphant, with Patroclus dead at his feet. In his guilt and his raging grief, Achilles storms out to fight Hector, slaying him in bloody battle. It is what happens next that is so interesting to Malouf.
Achilles’ guilty grief is not mollified by his victory. Making matters worse, he proceeds to desecrate the corpse of Hector, tying it to his chariot each morning for twelve days and riding around the city with the body bouncing in the dust behind him. Hector’s father, Priam, eventually decides to venture out of the city, to ransom his son’s body, and seek a truce in which to bury him. In the moment of this truce, Homer’s epic ends, and Malouf’s story rests.
It is unfair to dismiss the Homeric characters as stereotypes, but there is something ponderous about the original lines. Perhaps Malouf’s inspiration stems from Priam’s plea in Book 24, lines 490 and following:
[…] ‘Remember your own father,
Achilles, in your godlike youth: his years
like mine are many, and he stands upon
the fearful doorstep of old age. He, too,
is hard pressed, it may be, by those around him,
there being none to defend him
from bane of war and ruin. Ah, but he
may none the less hear news of you alive,
and so with glad heart hope through all his days
for sight of his dear son, come back from Troy,
while I have deathly fortune.’
Achilles is moved, but as much by the god’s intervention as by Priam’s appeal, and he releases Hector’s body to his father with all due ceremony and ritual. In contrast, Malouf’s story is pared right back. No god appears to warn Achilles of Priam’s arrival; instead, he is moved by “fellow feeling”, his loss mirrored by Priam’s, and in relinquishing his gruesome revenge on Hector’s dead body, Achilles’ grief, too, is assuaged.
The gods do play their part in Malouf’s narrative, but they are shadowy suggestions, not fully embodied (as they are in Homer). They appear only in dreams, visions and memories; to Priam in his sleep, and Achilles as he roams the beach, thinking of his mother. Centre stage for Malouf, are the humans, whose destiny we know but perhaps have not understood so well until now. Priam must, in fact, break out of his role as king to play the part of father. Malouf deftly explores this transformation, altering the story to more believable proportions. Instead of emerging from the city accompanied by his herald, mounted on his horse-drawn carriage, Priam spurns these accoutrements of royal pageantry. He insists on a simple wooden cart, pulled by two mules and led by the carter, Somax, who is renamed for convenience after the royal herald (which raises further interesting questions about the nature of myth, its interaction with legend and truth) but who retains throughout his own earthy nature.
Somax has a mule, Beauty, who captivates all who see her. Indeed, it is due to Beauty that he was chosen to take Priam, with his prince’s ransom, out of the city. Priam’s remaining sons visit the marketplace to facilitate their father’s wishes, and although at first they misjudge and offend their father, they redeem themselves eventually by finding Somax and his Beauty. These characters of man and mule are lovingly drawn. Typically of Malouf, his real interest lies in the ordinary life of men and women, especially those who live on and with the land. The reader fears for Somax’s little granddaughter, the only descendant remaining to him now that all his sons are dead, who was suffering from a fever when he left so unexpectedly. We are reminded of how fleeting and fragile life continues to be for those who barely scrape a living from what remains at the edge of battle; the innocents caught up in wars not of their making or desire. Yet Malouf’s touch here is subtle; as the King learns to appreciate the simple pleasure of bathing hot, tired feet in a rushing stream, so the reader understands how far removed from most realities his life has been to this point. By providing such detail, Malouf opens a window to Homer’s world, through which we can recognise our own.
Ransom has already been lauded by many as a masterpiece, and for some, that is reason enough to read it; others will be drawn to it because it is Malouf’s first novel for a decade, and they are hungry to read his writing again. I hope that new readers will be attracted by the engaging image of the donkey on the front cover, and perhaps are sufficiently intrigued to read on. I certainly found the story-telling gripping, with enough subversions and inversions to send me back to the original with new eyes and fresh insight. If this novel brings a new readership to Homer, then it will have served one purpose; meanwhile, it stands as further evidence, if that were needed, of Malouf’s stature within and contribution to Australian literature.