An Ancient Tale Of War, An Ode To Epic Mythology

I bought David Malouf's ninth novel, Ransom, when it was released last year, then had to buy a second copy this past winter because I had so hopelessly dog-eared and underlined the first — my notes in the margin responding to passages that broke off pieces of my heart.

In Ransom, Malouf re-dreams the climax of Homer's Iliad. He inserts such visceral immediacy into the retelling of the final days of the Trojan War, you are stunned by how relevant, how strangely and intimately resonant this ancient tale feels to your own life.

The storyline at first feels simple but remote: The great Greek warrior Achilles vengefully slaughters Hector, the beloved son of the Trojan King Priam. Achilles then goes further, dragging the corpse behind his chariot, while Priam looks on from the city walls and mourns. In turn, King Priam resolves to travel alone to Achilles, on a wagon loaded with Troy's remaining treasure as ransom for the desecrated body of his son.

Most novelists (and I include myself here) can sustain a level of heightened inspiration for a passage, a few pages at most. But Ransom is that voice all the way through. We sense that the drive to create a living piece, to inhabit that voice of God or muse — whatever word you want to pin to it — has become the impetus for writing, itself.

Malouf's prose is so restless, so lyric and precise you can almost taste the world he sees. He does not stall on the details as they are rendered in Homer's account, but instead enters that more elusive, parallel truth of what could have happened, drawing us again and again to the edge of revelation inherent in possibility, not only in narrative, but in our own lives.

Throughout the novel, gods briefly appear to Priam and Achilles, never fully recognized for what they are until they have vanished. In a similar way, Malouf moves seamlessly between what is mythic or sacred, and what is essentially fragile and human and slight.

He renders a half-mortal warrior's longing for his mother and an old king's grief for his fallen son in terms that are eloquent yet so commonplace that, on reading it, you feel lost moments of your own life rushing back on you from corners you did not know you'd tucked them into.

As Priam mourns his son, he chooses to own the inward self he has stepped away from, by going to Achilles not as a king, but as a man "stripped of all glittering distractions and disguises."

We know how this will fall out. King Priam will make it through the battle lines unscathed; the exchange will take place; he will bring his son's body back to the gleaming walled city of Troy that, in turn, will be destroyed, burned to the stuff of the legend that we know. Achilles foresees all of this in his encounter with Priam. In the old king's face, he sees as well "himself, the old man he will never be."

And so the trade is made, a swap of a body for gold in a simple revelatory moment where past and future collapse, memory and prescience fuse, and both men recognize that regardless of what will come and what has transpired, this moment of the present between them is where life is held.

In this slim, lovely blade of a novel, it is hard to escape the sense that Malouf is asking us to do the same: to recognize that we can see ourselves in one another, and to remember that what we have, all we truly have, is our life in its present moment, now.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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