Ransom by David Malouf
North Sydney: Knopf, 2009 ISBN 9781741668377
What a wonderful book! David Malouf is more well-known for his novels than his poetry, but it is as a poet he started his literary life, and a poet he remains, as this gem of a novel shows. The story is based on the section of the Iliad in which Patroclus is killed, Achilles kills Hector and drags his body before the walls of Troy, and ends when Priam reclaims Hector's body from Achilles.
This book though, is about human feeling - rage, grief, and love. There is a strong undercurrent in the book that tradition, or the traditional way of doing things, does not suffice in making us truly human. Achilles, in his grief and guilt, denies Hector the burial due to him and drags his body for eleven days up and down the field of battle - it does nothing to assuage his feelings, and each morning Hector's body is miraculously restored. Priam discovers during the book that the formalities of life as a King means he has missed so many of the small things that make life such a wonderful tapestry.
This is also a book about courage - Priam's courage to defy ageless tradition by journeying to Achilles as a mere father asking for the return of a dead son. Achilles' courage in knowing what is to come and facing it anyway. And then there is Somax. If you're thinking back to your reading of the Iliad with confusion don't worry - Somax does not appear in the original. In Malouf's retelling he is the person driving the cart in which Priam takes the ransom to, and Hector's body from, the Greek camp. Somax is a simple man, a villager, chosen by Priam to accompany him owing to the plainness of his cart, and the eye-catching personality of one of his mules. He too is courageous, in the way of a simple man accepting what life throws and him and enduring, which is perhaps the most courageous thing of all.
In fact Somax is in many ways the hero of this book full of "Heroes". It is his practical nature that seems most sensible, his easy-going nature the most noble, and his grief the most genuine. His soliloquy on the death of his son is so brief, so simple and so moving that it literally brought a tear to my eye when I read it. Re-reading the passage, one can only marvel that Malouf has created such an effect so quickly and with such simple language. "The worst happens, and there, it's done. The fleas go on biting. The sun comes up again." It does indeed, but Malouf's skill enables us to understand that the sun never looks the same again.
It is a brave writer who chooses such a subject - Malouf describes in an Afterword how he became enthralled with the story of Troy as a young child in Brisbane during the War - and a clever writer to wait until they were ready with a leavening of experience and skill to enable them to give the subject its due. Malouf is both a brave and clever artist, and this book is a masterpiece. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell