Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Iliad: Two Modern Retellings

An Iliad
An Iliad 

Allesandro Baricco, better known for his novel Silk, turns to ancient Greece in this retelling of The Iliad, but unlike Homer the gods do not interfere in the affairs of the men who are battling each other in this version of the story. Modern motivations consume these humans as they make ancient history. The story is told by multiple narrators, including Odysseus, Achilles, and Nestor--familiar to those who have read the original. The New Yorker magazine wrote Baricco's retelling of the epic is "defiantly modern," but I would encourage you to see for yourself. It is certainly good read even if you have not read the original.


David Malouf begins his retelling of the story with Achilles mourning the death of Patroclus during the Trojan War. Achilles, enraged at his friend's death, slays Hector, Patroclus' killer, and drags Hector's corpse behind a chariot around the walls of Troy. Rage as he does in Homer's original, Achilles terrifying aspect is amplified in comparison. Malouf tries to explain the psychology of Achilles, asking how a man capable of anything takes out his frustration. The narrative then shifts towards Priam, Hector's father and the King of Troy. Priam cannot stand the abuse of his beloved son's body. Malouf explores this parallel of loss between Priam and Achilles that Homer, in the original Iliad, left unsaid. Unlike the version told by Baricco a goddess intervenes and Priam then explains to Troy that he will make his way to the Greek camp with ransom treasure for Achilles. He hopes to stop his mistreatment of Hector’s body which Queen Hecuba points out is a suicide mission. Priam goes on the journey, despite warnings from his wife. He eventually meets Achilles at his tent, where the exchange is made. Priam appeals to Achilles' conscience, reminding him of his own father, in trying to persuade him to return Hector to Troy for a proper burial.
With the addition of Somax, the most successfully developed character in the entire narrative, Malouf makes certain changes to the original. Malouf takes liberties with the personalities of Priam and Achilles that are not entirely in consonant with their depictions in the Iliad. However, with Somax, Malouf manages to create a perfect character foil for Priam. Like many a royal figure before and after Priam has lived in a cocoon of safety for his entire life and is now forced to exit it to bury his son. Somax, who has by no means lived any life of luxury, unintentionally teaches Priam about the world outside of the palace: he is both ordinary and he is not the type of person that normally would have anything to do with the royal family, yet he is enthused with the opportunity. A delight to read as always, despite differences to the original, Malouf is successful in creating his own characters.

An Iliad by Alessandro Baricco. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Ransom by David Malouf. Pantheon Books, 2010.


Parrish Lantern said...

The David Malouf, I didn't know about but having read a couple of books by Alessandro Baricco which I thoroughly enjoyed, so at some point will definitely get his book.

James said...

Thanks for your note. I have Silk on my pile to read, but you should consider checking on Malouf. He is one of Australia's best writers.