Today I read a beautiful book – Ransom by David Malouf. I was on a quest to find an Australian book to read as last week I signed up for a simple reading challenge that requires reading six books from six continents in the course of this year. Not a difficult feat in itself but the fact that the year is almost finished added the necessary spice. That and the realisation that I was too much focused on European literature! So I googled Australian literature for inspiration and I stumbled upon this one – and boy, did it deliver.
I could not entirely deny my nature: Ransom is the retelling of a well-known episode of the Iliad – no prizes for guessing which episode. 🙂 Of course this appealed to me: not so long ago I wrote about the importance of not seeing the Iliad (or the Odyssey, for that matter) as simply a subject of academic study but how we should embrace the story itself instead. Malouf did just that and he did it in style, with real insight into the minds of his characters and in a language which is both rich and enchanting.
The ransoming of Hector’s body is a relatively short part of the Iliad and occurs at the very end. Malouf took this episode – and made it entirely into his own, expanding, even changing it. He embellished it with details not found in the Iliad, such as Patroclus’ and Priam’s backgrounds (although found in other ancient sources), the relationship between Priam and Hecuba, Achilles and his mother. He added in the character of the carter, Somax, who drives Priam to the Greek camp; and if you think this is wholly out-of-place, well… it could have been, but it isn’t. This down-to-earth, ordinary man does, in fact, contributes to the very essence of this story. And finally, Malouf added in too, in a chilling flash forward, the moment when Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus slays Priam.
To me the relationship between Achilles and his mother was always difficult to grasp, seeing how Thetis was a Nereid and lived in the sea but Malouf paints a beautiful picture in a couple of places in his book where it really allows you to see how this could have worked. The interaction of Priam and the carter on the drive to the Greek camp is also detailed beautifully with a real understanding of the characters involved. Achilles’ resentment towards his squire Automedon too is captured to perfection. Really, there’s no detail of the book that one can find fault with; and in trying to describe it you end up repeating: beautiful… beautiful.
You don’t have to love the Iliad, or even the story of the Trojan War very much to enjoy this book. Malouf took this ancient story and brought it to us in the twenty-first century. And while he did so, he took nothing away from the original; quite the contrary, he enriched it. Homer would approve of it.