RANSOM by David Malouf
“But you will never get there,” she whispers. “Some swaggering lout among the Greeks would strike you down before you got even halfway to the camp. Think of it. Two old men in a cart laden with gold? Do you suppose your grey hairs would save you?”
“No,” he admits. “But the gods might. If it was their intention that I get there.”
Review by Kirstin Merrihew (JAN 23, 2010)
The background of Ransom‘s slipcover is velvety black, the Japanese kuro, “perfect black,” that, by definition, engulfs not just all frequencies of light, but also the senses. It almost mesmerizes and gives a feeling of sinking into endless depth. Silhouetted against this backdrop is an image that from afar isn’t easily identified, but up close resolves as a donkey or a mule. Why aren’t there two men depicted instead? Why this animal? Only by reading does it become clear why its shaded presence is considered so indispensable that it graces the cover.
“Beauty” is the name of one of the draught animals that pulls a cart bearing a ransom of gold from Troy to the Greek siege camp. Beauty’s mate in harness is called Shock and these two represent qualities and states of being that the King of Troy, Priam, and the great Myrmidon warrior, Achilles, experience. First one side of the equation: shock. There is the shock of the nine years of battle. There is the shock of the losses they and all their peoples have suffered.
Achilles’ greatest loss is still extremely fresh as Ransom opens. His beloved friend Patroclus — the exact nature of their relationship remains just as open to interpretation in this novel as it has through the millennia — was killed in hand-to-hand combat against Priam’s son, Hector. Having donned Achilles’ helmet and shield, Patroclus returned to the battlefield hoping to win, by his own combat, respite for the rest of the army and lost his life by that sacrifice: Patroclus, “open-mouthed with astonishment, stepped back a pace, then staggered and went crashing.” Achilles “had wept for Patroclus. Wept without restraint.” In a moving passage, the depth of Achilles’ grief bears down as he thinks, “His bones now, the twelve long bones, the burnt-out brainpan, the handful of splintered fragments they had gathered from the ashes of his pyre, are in the wide-mouthed urn in the barrow Achilles has raised to his dear friend’s memory. Where in time, his own will join them.”
Hector, a Trojan prince whom Homer considered the noblest of The Iliad’s warriors, does not want to fight Achilles but destiny has other plans. When Achilles mortally wounds him, Hector warns that Achilles will not outlive him very long. Achilles is not satisfied with the death of Patroclus’ killer. He drags the prince’s body behind his chariot outside the walls of Troy for days.
Seeing his dead son being desecrated repeatedly is more than Priam can bear: “Half-mad with grief he had broken from the scene and rushed down to the Scaean Gates — meaning to do what? he hardly knew.” He had said the final words and spilled the ceremonial wine for other warrior sons and he knew he must do so for Hector. The old king decides he will dress himself in plain clothing and together with a cart driver go personally to Achilles and beg for his son’s body. This, naturally, is great folly since the cart will be laden with treasure that robbers or solders alike would consider great temptation. Not to mention the notoriety an Achaean would gain if he were to kill the king of the Trojans. Hecuba, Priam’s first wife, tries to dissuade him. But Priam, who himself was ransomed at a tender age, is a man who sees the gods sometimes and one of them, the messenger goddess Iris, as she did in The Iliad, plants the idea that he should make this dangerous journey across the battle lines.
How then will Priam, the cart driver, and the two mules make it to Achilles’ camp? Can they have any chance without the direct help of the gods? Will the gods help, and if so, how?
Quite a portion of Ransom is devoted to the perilous movement of the cart from the protective city of Troy to the camp of their enemies. Author David Malouf’s version of this Achilles/Priam story has a simple hay-wain driver impersonate a king’s herald at the command of Priam, and this odd-couple team, together with Beauty and Shock, ford a treacherous river and pick their way as darkness begins to settle. Malouf dimensionalizes the story in a way The Iliad, in the relevant twenty-third and twenty-fourth chapters, did not. He shows the king learning to view life from a different perspective, as “out here, he discovered, everything was just itself. That was what seemed new.” Priam’s life has been about ceremony, being still and seen. The driver’s life is about doing. Pomp and circumstance versus practicality and simplicity. Priam sees a newly infused, sturdy beauty in his surroundings, just as he appreciates the steadiness of Beauty when the river currents prove stronger than expected and threaten them all.
Also, king and driver are fathers and in this they have a bond which is poignantly explored. Fatherhood, its pitfalls and pride, its necessity and heartache is a major theme in Ransom: “Of course he was in each case the source of their life, the forceful agent by which, in an onrush of manly desire, or out of habit or kingly duty, as he lay with Hecuba or with one of his many other wives and concubines, this or that prince had sprung into being.” Priam and Achilles also share the bond of fatherhood. Achilles has not seen his son, Neoptolemus, since before the war began. And that son will end up being the “bronze-haired avenger of his father’s death” when Troy is finally overrun and its citizens, including Priam and Hecuba, are put to death or carried off to slavery in exile. Will this bond be the key to persuading Achilles to return Hector’s body to his father?
In the night, these men make a pact. Here, Malouf changes aspects of the plot known from Homer’s epic poem. The starry but otherwise black night becomes a place of contemplation for Priam: “What he feels in himself as a perfect order of body, heart, occasion, is the enactment, under the stars, in the very breath of the gods, of the true Achilles, the one he has come all this way to find.” Beauty is around, in more ways than one. It won’t change the violent fates of either great opponent, but, in Malouf’s version, it is there nonetheless.
Julian Jaynes wrote in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, “The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we say we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like….It was one god who makes Achilles promise not to go into battle, another who urges him to go….In fact, the gods take the place of consciousness.” Some pages later he returns to this warrior: “Somehow we still wish to identify with Achilles. We still feel that there must, there absolutely must be something he feels inside….And this invention, I say, is not valid for the Greeks of this period.” This fascinating but very debatable theory looks at the machinations of the gods in The Iliad and concludes that human brains back then interpreted every motivation, every action as a exterior god’s extraction from our human selves. We, on the other hand, being distanced from the ancients by so many generations of DNA and also being influenced by psychology and other advances of how individuals think, generally claim that thoughts and actions surface from our own mental processes.
Malouf is a writer of his time, not Homer’s, and whether he has read Jaynes or not, he chooses a middle way: gods do appear more than once and do prod human beings. However, the characters are not the puppets of the immortals; they possess inner lives, rich ones, ones that feel and reason. For the purposes of a fulfilling read in Ransom, this “modernization” of their consciousness can be thought of as a bridge between ancient storytelling and our own. Many fictional works today include elements of fantasy, but twenty-first century people don’t typically think a pantheon of gods plays with us as if we were toy soldiers, and so Malouf’s Priam and Achilles consider their options, their feelings much as we would.
The novel’s language is often hauntingly picturesque and resonates emotionally and mystically. This, for instance: “The sea surface bellies and glistens, a lustrous silver-blue — a membrane stretched to a fine transparency where once, for nine changes of the moon, he had hung curled in a dream of pre-existence and was rocked and comforted.” Malouf is a master of lyrical prose.
Not everything in this short novel clicks completely, however. For the ambition here is to lead the reader to more fully know Achilles and Priam and to eavesdrop on their mythic meeting, but Malouf, for all the ravishing pictures his words transmit still skitters over these men. He gives us glimpses into them, but, then, enveloped in the beauty of his words, doesn’t penetrate as far as one would wish. Achilles, with whom the novel begins so promisingly, turns into more of a supporting character than a lead, although he also experiences moments of timeless beauty and a degree of solace and acceptance in the course of events: “This morning, on the beach beyond the line of Achaean ships, he had stood staring out across the gulf and felt that it was not space his mind was being drawn into, but the vast expanse of time, at once immediate in the instant and boundless, without end.”
And as mentioned, much narrative is lavished on Priam’s journey. Although it does allow the old king to broaden his view of life, some of those pages would arguably have been better spent at the camp. The meeting — and some earlier areas of the book also — seems cramped and incomplete, as though Malouf felt self-conscious — in the modern sense — about expanding on those points that are pegged but also not dwelled upon in The Iliad. And that’s too bad because several times, the text almost cries out for additional insights.The cart journey is the part of Ransom where Malouf has permitted himself the most leeway to think about how it might have happened, and where he gives quite a bit of attention to the cart driver, the only character who really is his creation. The author notes in the afterword, “How a simple carter, Somax, for one day became the Trojan herald Idaeus, and Priam’s companion on his journey to the Greek camp, appears for the first time in the pages of this book.” Somax certainly isn’t an overall detriment to the novel, but Malouf could have written another book that had nothing to do with the Trojan War with him and a man similar to the Priam character if he so desired to concentrate on them. Since Malouf elected to write about Achilles and Priam, more about them and less about Somax could have benefited Ransom.
Ransom, in conclusion, is a fast-reading book that captivates with its language and provokes thought with its message and symbols, but falls a little short on shedding light on these two giants of Greek literature. Despite some opportunities for character building and story fleshing that were not taken, Malouf’s supplement to Homer’s great work is very worthwhile. It illustrates that looking into the blackness of the despair and shock of mourning and destiny can allow for a glimpse of the invisible, the eternal, and the beautiful.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 26 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Pantheon; 1 edition (January 5, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page David Malouf|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Another take on this classic poem:Ilium by Dan Simmons|
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