2009, 224 p.
In this book Malouf takes a couple of lines from the Iliad, where King Priam travels to recover the body of his son Hector, who died on the battlefield as a revenge killing. His body has been dragged behind a chariot, day after day, in a fury of grief and revenge by the crazed Achilles. From the interstice of Homer’s brief telling of this paternal act of love, Malouf fashions a small jewel of a story about love, masculinity, fatherhood and fame. I use the word “fashions” deliberately because as you’re reading it, you’re very much aware of the careful weighting of each word and the crafting of the images. It is deeply poetic in places, and makes you as a reader slow down, re-read, and roll the words around in your mouth, savouring them.
His plan is to travel incognito to meet with Achilles: to speak with him man-t0-man and father-to-father to ask that Hector’s body be released to his family. Instead of travelling in state, he decides to travel with an unlettered carter named Somax and his mule-drawn cart, selected almost at random from the market where Somax awaits work as he does every day. This small book is the story of the short journey they take together, and Priam’s encounter with his son’s enemy.
Priam is powerful, and yet powerless to stop the desecration of his son’s body at the hands of his enemy. His is an act of paternal love, and yet in terms of fatherhood, his relationship with his many sons (borne of many wives) is sterile and formalistic with none of the intimacy that Somax has had with his sons before their deaths. Priam is feted as the wise king, and yet he knows little of the world outside his own palace walls.
Both Achilles and Priam are aware, through the prescience granted to them by the gods, of the past and the future and their own place in stories to be told in the future. Achilles is fired by grief , rage and bursting masculinity; Priam, as an older man, is aware of the contingency of a life’s journey and the life not lived. My favourite part of the book was where he considered the other life he could have had, if his sister had not ransomed him from captivity as a boy. Despite his wealth and position, he is haunted by this other-life and feels somehow inauthentic.
Time in the book seems suspended, like a drop of water shimmering from a branch before it falls. The war has dragged on for years and it has that nightmarish quality of an never-ending, intractable stalemate. Achilles drags Hector’s body behind his chariot, hour after hour, day after day and yet the gods renew it each night so that the nightmare goes on. The trip in the cart itself takes only a day, and yet it feels much longer. The meeting with Achilles occurs abruptly.
In the afterword, and in interviews at the launching of this book, Malouf alludes to the wartime experience of his childhood, and indirectly today in Iraq and Afghanistan, where war seems intractible and never-ending. I don’t really think that this book needs contextualizing in this way. It stands in its own right as a book that, perhaps, only an older man could have written. There’s a timelessness about the themes and the literature from which it springs, that does not need to be historicized.
There is a dreamlike quality throughout the book, as with many Greek myths. Gods materialize in a thickening of the air and shift shapes between the prosaic and the ethereal. The world of the gods works to its own whims: the world of men has a rhythm and meaning of its own. And as with much of Malouf’s work, the imagery is crystalline and quite, quite beautiful.