Ransom by David Malouf. Pantheon. 240 pp., $24.00.
When I was in my early twenties, a friend and I read aloud to each other a favorite passage from literature that the other hadn’t read. His choice was the end of Book 24 of the Iliad, Richmond Lattimore’s translation. I still recall fondly my first encounter with the very moving scene in which King Priam of Troy ransoms the body of his beloved son Hector from the fierce Achaean warrior Achilles, described with a mixture of detachment and deep familiarity that I forever associate with the voice of Homer. It’s a voice that knows it’s telling things many in the audience already know, but they want to hear it told again.
Homer’s narrator renders each moment indelibly, and at the same time can sketch the vast conflation of facts—who is son of whom, which gods favor which heroes—that maintains the sense of epic meaning. In delivering that meaning, Homer epitomizes the term: “epic” becomes something freighted with portent, with the power to both define and alter an epoch. But what the frequent use of the term has blunted is that “epic” is also definitional about figures who are legendary, larger than life, rendering truly meaningful what is already familiar to a wide audience.
It’s that sense of epic—its meaning and its familiarity—that helps a book like David Malouf’s Ransom achieve its effect. The book is small and reads more like a prose translation of a poem than like a novel per se. Certainly novels can be swift and concentrated, but without Homer it’s unlikely that Ransom could be as economical as it is. Malouf is able to assume he’s retelling a story we already know and so can dispense with—as Homer himself does—all the exposition and backstory that can overwhelm lesser storytellers.
If you’ve read, or taught, the Iliad with training in narrative defined by the novel, you might have found yourself, like me, confronting the Homeric use of the gods. In Book 24, they decide that Achilles must stop abusing the dead body of his enemy Hector (who killed Achilles’ dearest companion Patroclus) and give it back to the Trojans. Zeus sends Thetis, Achilles’ mother, an immortal, to tell him he must do so; and Hermes is dispatched to Troy to tell Priam he must journey to the Achaean camp and ransom his son. And what the gods decree comes to pass. Doesn’t this rather blunt the extraordinary moment between the two opposed leaders when they finally meet, the one as supplicant, the other as supplicated? Readers of novels don’t generally appreciate narrators or choruses giving us the word on what’s about to happen before it is depicted for us. Our ideal is the unpredictable individual, the hero who makes his life what it is by a decision on the spot, a person ruled by both passions and reason who has to decide which way he’ll go and why.
Malouf satisfyingly gives us a meeting between Priam and Achilles that builds from the interiority of Priam. Certainly, he can believe a goddess gave him the idea to plead with Achilles in person, but his decision is expressed thus:
. . . [Priam] is astonished at the enormity of the thought he is expressing, he whose whole life has been guided by what is established and conventional—surely, he thinks, it is a goddess who is speaking through me. “I believe,” he says, “that the thing that is needed to cut the knot we are all tied in is something that has never before been done or thought of. Something impossible. Something new.”
And it is this idea of “something new” in what is “established and conventional” that seems to drive Malouf in taking up this story, much as it might be what drove Homer to concentrate his attention on the tenth year of the siege of Troy and to dispense with the rest. Homer did so, we say in teacherly fashion, because the ransoming of Hector was truly extraordinary, involving questions of enmity and amity, of duties to the dead, and of the humanity of heroes—and of the heroism of humaneness—that never cease to be meaningful from Homer’s time to ours. And Malouf’s novel seems to want to teach the importance of doing something human to those who might never get around to picking up Homer or who, if they do, might wish they could get into the character’s heads.
The power in Malouf’s presentation comes from an understanding of what Priam goes through in making this decision, and, even better, what the actual journey to Achilles’ camp is like. In novelistic fashion, he creates a minor character, Somax, a cartdriver who is given the onerous task of transporting the king, without any of his pomp and majesty, in a simple cart drawn by Somax’s own horses. We get much of this humble and somewhat perplexed character’s view on what occurs, and what’s more we are treated to a moment of insight in which Priam, who thinks of Somax as his herald Idaeus, realizes that the cartdriver’s way of speaking is personal to his own experience, not dressed in conventions or impersonal epithets. “. . . out here [in the real world the novel shows the epic hero], he discovered, everything was just itself. That was what seemed new.”
Somax’s description of his daughter-in-law’s manner of cooking pancakes captivates the king as it does the reader. Malouf delivers a lesson on how the novel, against epic conventions (or, perhaps, as social equality vs. hierarchy), aspires to a glimpse of individuality that is meaningful because we have to imagine it as our own, as something we too have seen and contain. We are both Priam marveling at Somax’s way with an anecdote and Somax marveling at his daughter-in-law’s skill. The fact that Somax also mourns a dead son is the kind of novelistic coincidence that lets us suspend disbelief for a purpose. We want to see that the grief Priam faces in outliving a son can be borne, must be borne, by all parents so afflicted, whether a ruler or a cartdriver. This lesson we might suppose we already know. But Priam doesn’t, and seeing him grasp it is one of the payoffs of Malouf’s account.
Giving Priam an “oh, I have taken too little note of this” moment à la King Lear can qualify as “something new,” but what of Achilles? Malouf gives us familiar topoi: the sense of purpose of the man fated to be the greatest warrior and to die young; the lack of an interiority, thus registering the Greek sense of “rage” as a spirit that overcomes a man, not as something provided by his own emotions, succinctly evoked in this passage, in which Achilles attempts to “reflect” on what he is doing by dragging the body of Hector around the city:
He was waiting for the rage to fill him that would be equal at last to the outrage he was committing. That would assuage his grief, and be so convincing to the witnesses of his barbaric spectacle that he too might believe there was a living man at the centre of it, and that man himself.
The moment in Ransom when Achilles first sees Priam and thinks he is seeing his own father Peleus, and the fact that Priam beseeches Achilles to imagine what Peleus would do for Achilles were he fallen, or what Achilles might do for his own son, Neoptolemus, resonate with what Homer gives us in less discursive fashion. We know that Achilles honors Priam in part because he wants to do honor to his own father. The overlay of generations maintains Malouf’s theme of human parity in the midst of enmity or hierachical difference. The novel makes the comparison less schematic than the poem does, but the force of the idea drives the depiction.
What Malouf gives us that’s a bit more surprising, in Achilles’ reaction to Priam, is not some imagined empathy in which he, as a father, might have to ransom his own son, but rather a vision of Neoptolemus avenging his father’s death on Priam’s head. It’s a moment that seems to chill even Achilles who “sits soul-struck.” “What he has witnessed, in the illumination of the moment as Priam has called it up, is a time to come, the end of things in the days after his death.”
Malouf also gives us the actual scene of Priam’s death in a mighty prolepsis, or flashforward, after Priam’s safe return to Troy. Neoptolemus’ revenge is referred to as “botched” and Malouf seems to want to dispell the majesty of Priam and Achilles with a moment of messy death, not heroic for anyone involved. But I have to admit I felt the narrative groping for a note to end on.
Homer gives us the funeral of Hector, at which the primary women mourn—his mother Hecuba, his wife Andromache, and the glorious Helen, cause of the war—completing the tale of the rage of Achilles, but Malouf is a novelist not concerned with ceremony. He takes us back to Somax, a simple man who outlives the fall of Troy and tells others of how he drove Priam on a fateful journey upon which the king ate pancakes and bathed his feet in a stream beside his own, and upon which Somax ate meat prepared by the mighty Achilles himself. Of course, these stories are viewed as mere fictions and not believed.
Donald Brown reviews poetry, fiction, and theater for The New Haven Review and The New Haven Advocate.
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