The few dedicated regular readers of this blog will know that I am fascinated by myths and legends and of their reworking and re-imagining. So it is not a big surprise that I was intrigued by the novel Ransom by David Malouf.
Edmund White’s NYT review has a concise plot summary:
David Malouf’s “Ransom” reimagines the tragic story at the heart of “The Iliad.” Achilles mourns his childhood friend Patroclus after he is killed by Hector. Achilles takes his revenge by killing Hector in battle and desecrating his body.
The central action in Mr. Malouf’s novel occurs when Priam, Hector’s father and king of Troy, travels in a mule-drawn cart with half of the city’s treasure (the “ransom”) to plead for the return of Hector’s body so that it can be buried properly. Two instances of towering grief meet in the encounter.
As is so often the case, your knowledge of the backstory and your expectations will play a big role in your take on this story.
Those with a stronger knowledge of the Iliad and the story at the center of the novel might have stronger feelings and/or higher expectations that those who read it “straight” as it were.
But one thing I think everyone can agree on is that it is beautifully written and, at times, quite moving. More below.
First, the writing. I have not read any of Malouf’s previous work but the prose in Ransom is sparse but descriptive. There is both a poetic (and you could argue historical) and a philosophical/psychological side to the story. The two don’t always blend together well but the both are easy on the eyes and ears. On this critics agree.
The aforementioned White’s NYT review:
The writing is vivid and often wonderfully detailed, especially in the nature descriptions … On page after page the prose is specific and noble, an unusual mix since nobility usually depends on generalities, and the specific usually deflates grandeur.
Both the lyricism of his prose and the delicacy of his characterisation enable Malouf to avoid the risk of bathos that so often stalks novelists when they try to update epic.
Michael Dirda at the WaPo:
Malouf can write brilliantly in the “low” register of a Somax or describe nature with a Wordsworthian attentiveness, he is equally convincing in suggesting the grave diction of epic.
But these reviews also don’t think Malouf quite pulls of what he was aiming for. White:
“Ransom” is a similarly serious, often beautiful examination of the contrast between the simple sincerity of the carter and the strangely abstract existence of the king. It is dignified and thought-provoking — but it doesn’t seem to me to be exactly a work of art, to be fully realized and embodied in the lives of its characters. It is more a metaphysical inquest than episodes from messy, contingent experience.
Yet none of these virtues can quite outweigh the nagging feeling that anyone who wants to read about Priam’s ransoming of his dead son would be much better off picking up Homer’s own account.[…]
As it is, Ransom falls between the two stools: neither true enough to Homer, nor sufficiently untrue to him either.
(or read Steve Donoghue’s passionate evisceration of the novel’s “lack of drama”)
To my mind these critics allow their expectations to set the bar. White wants art without the psychology and philosophy that Malouf includes while Holland wants Homer retold.
To me Malouf was using this small hook from this classic ancient text, and a few other myths as well, to explore a variety of topics; from war and fatherhood to being forced to play a role and its impact on humanity to how stories and the need for them drives our lives.
Yes, in certain ways, Malouf’s approach is obviously modern or even post-modern. He seeks to get inside Priam’s head and understand what it might have been like to make that epic journey to beg for the body of your son from his killer.
But at the same time he wants to explore what it mean to be king or how positions of power may trap people into roles that undermine their humanity or block them off from reality.
Malouf both puts you in the ancient world with the eyes of Achilles, Priam and the cart driver but he also stands back and looks at them through a “modern” lens. He both tells a story and wonders about how archetypes and stories work.
Ransom is not a traditional novel by any means and it isn’t a historical novel either. It reminds me more of the Myths series by Canongate – taking an aspect of a myth and re-working it to see if from a different angle.
I found this short read to be an interesting and thought-provoking approach to a classical story. Musings on war, family, stories and more wrapped in an iconic wagon ride. Even if Malouf doesn’t quite pull of the master piece some seem to have been expecting it was worth the ride.