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January 24, 2010

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Tenderly to the power of myth

NEITHER the early life of Priam, the elderly king of Troy, nor his miserable and bloody fate are direct concerns of the "Iliad." The Homeric epic opens in the 10th year of the Trojan War, and it draws toward its suspenseful close with one of the most brilliant and counterintuitive episodes in all of ancient literature, Priam's stupendously dangerous journey to the heart of the Greek camp to ransom the corpse of his son Hector from the Trojans' implacable enemy, Achilles.

"Ransom," the Australian David Malouf's transformative novelization of this moving encounter between the two men, exploits two lesser-known myths °?- neither of them part of the "Iliad" - to supplement Homer's narrative, searching for the lost child that Priam once was, marking his spiritual evolution and following him to his pitiable doom.

One of these myths lends double point to the novel's title: the king, we are startled to learn, was himself ransomed as a small boy, bought out of captivity at an earlier sacking of Troy, a grim rehearsal for the human catastrophe to come. ("We cling together," Priam recalls many years later with unresolved, premonitory horror, "all grimed with ashes and streaked with the dried blood of whoever it was, a parent or some kindly neighbor, whose arms we were snatched from.")

In Malouf's hands, the gory end of the king's life, this time without the salvation miracle, closes the circle with its beginning. Priam's death agony was part of a horrific slaughter of the innocents, described in a lost epic, the "Iliou Persis," or "Sack of Troy," and often represented in ancient art.

One of Malouf's intentional ironies is that the merciless butcher of Priam is none other than Neoptolemus, the manchild son of Achilles whose lust for vengeance burns hot, while his wrathful father, in coming to terms with Priam and with his own humanity, found a place for pity in his heart.

His physical description of the city of Troy, soon to be a smoking wreck, is itself enough to stir the tears of things: "Tucked in between rocky outcrops there are kitchen gardens, with a fig tree, a pomegranate, a row or two of lettuce or broad beans, a clump of herbs where snails the size of a baby's fingernail are reborn in their dozens after a storm and hang like raindrops from every stalk."

It will inevitably be said that Malouf's novel "subverts" or "undermines" the "Iliad," but his impressive knowledge of the epic's more abstruse themes and features and their subtle redeployment belie such a rote notion.

"Ransom" disavows the flip free association often seen in the modern reshaping of Greek myth. On the level of plot, even his most eccentric (and unpersuasive) diversion - the invention of a lower-class Trojan who teaches the regally sequestered Priam the joys of dangling his feet in a stream and an appreciation for the beauty of mules - is touchingly redeemed by the man's deep need, after the fall, to tell his tale.

That this tender novel lingers so long and hauntingly in the mind is a testament both to Malouf's poetry and to his reverence for the power of myth.


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