Monday, March 15, 2010

Review: Ransom by David Malouf

Ransom: A Novel"Ransom" by award-winning Australian author David Malouf is unlike any novel I have ever read.  In it, Malouf explores the inner dialog that people often have with themselves when they review their lives to gain meaning from current circumstances or ponder obstacles they now face.  In this case, the feelings we explore are those experienced by King Priam as he attempts to ransom the body of his son Hector from the fiercesome Achilles.

Priam has a dream that he must shed all trappings of kingship including bodyguards or fawning courtiers, and personally beseech Achilles for the body of his eldest son.  He thinks back over how he became king, despite the fact that, as a young boy he was almost sold off as a slave when his ancestral city was sacked by his father's enemies.  He ponders the brutality he experienced during the sack and as a reader you wince with the foreknowledge of what will befall him again. He then marvels at the life he has led since then, one of privilege but also one of staggering responsibility.

We discover that Priam's life as a monarch has been one in which he is insulated from normal human emotions usually shared within the nucleus of the family.  Instead, the pomp and ceremony of court life have required him to play the role of supreme ruler at all times, even with his offspring, numbering 50 sons and 19 daughters.

As dictated by his dream, Priam orders some of his remaining sons to secure a simple wagon to be driven by a common carter to carry the king and all the treasure that can be collected to purchase the body of a prince of Troy.  His queen, Hecuba, and his other family members and court advisers think the old man has become so enslaved by his grief that his mind has left him altogether but eventually comply with his instructions.

When the cart is hired and practically overloaded with gold and silver objects, the old king is hoisted onto the plain wooden seat next to a grizzled old man in a worn homespun garment. The two old men set off for the Myrmidon encampment.  They jostle along in the cart for some time without speaking, the poor driver wondering what a person is supposed to say to the grief-stricken king.  They then stop to rest beside a river and in the course of trying to get the old king to eat something, the elderly mule cart driver begins to describe the loss of his own sons and recalls some of their endearing antics, bringing tears to the old man's eyes in the telling.

 Considering the old driver's words, Priam realizes he can't even recall which of his wives and concubines bore some of his children let alone some of the little triumphs the children may have taken pride in over the years.  Then the veil of grief slips from his eyes and he looks about him and begins to savor each sight and smell he perceives, from the pleasant taste of the little buttermilk cakes the driver has brought along and shared with him to the tickle of the fishlings nibbling his bare toes as he wades in the water along the river bank.

Ultimately, he realizes that performing the rituals of burial will probably be the most intimate moments he will ever share with his eldest son and heir to his kingdom.

In the meantime, Achilles, too has been reflecting on the meaning of his life and speculating on what will happen to his own son, Neoptolemus, when Achilles embraces his own fate, to die young but wreathed in immortal glory.  So ultimately, it is with shared understanding that king and hero finally confront the requirements of duty and acceptance of fate when they meet at last in Achilles' mess tent.

This is not really a story-driven narrative but an anecdotal treatise on human relationships that encourages the reader to reflect on their own journey and their own losses.  

The Trojan War: A New History   In Search of the Trojan War   The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War
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