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Ransom by David Malouf

Ransom (2009)

by David Malouf

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Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
(Original Review, 2010-01-15)

Someone else mentioned David Malouf's “Ransom” in a linked discussion. I highly recommend the book to others once they've been through “Homer.” What Mr. Malouf does with the relationship between Priam and Achilles manages - I think - to hold fast with the classic but simultaneously locate Homer's work in a contemporary context (2009 is barely yesterday in terms of the ages we're contemplating here). What Mr. Malouf does with Somax at the end is very clever, very satisfying to my modern inclination.

I've read E. V. Rieu’s and Robert Fagles’ translations of the Iliad. I prefer the latter. Mr. Fagles begins

“Rage -- Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,”

I may be reading too much into subtle differences here - and I have never read Greek so others will have a sounder grasp. But the difference between 'rage' and 'wrath' carries some significance, does it not? Wrath denotes extreme, violent anger as does rage. But the latter also carries a sense of disorienting inner turmoil (I'm attempting to resist using the word madness here lest it be interpreted by others in some sort of contemporary, quasi-clinical sense). Fagles first word tells us not simply that Achilles is violently angry but that he is in the grasp, perhaps as the child of his mother must be, of an uncontrollable, inner distraction / demon / disruption, perhaps at the knowledge / fear that maybe the fates have already determined the manner of his death if not its hour. The idea of rage (anger / turmoil) helps us to understand better the sacrilegious treatment of Hectors body, does it not?

Last point - in Homer and Virgil I've often been struck by just how infantile the Gods seem to be? Is that a revision created by modern texts or was there always a hint there? Or - always more than likely - am I reading a juvenile disposition into the Olympians that isn't truly there?

I guess another aspect is that "wrath" is a lofty quality that we might associate with divine power, whereas "rage" is all too human. Maybe Achilles's status as a demigod makes both alternatives suitable? 'Rage' has the advantage of being also a verb ('the storm raged'), reflexive in voice (in English). But 'wrath', to me, has more of the tone of revenge (where, though 'flying into a rage' connotes provocation, rage itself can be unprovoked); Webster's New Collegiate has 1 : strong vengeful anger or indignation, and 2 : retributory punishment […] : divine chastisement. Achilles' rage, while gushing from a reservoir of entitled petulance, flows directly from Agamemnon's piercing hauteur—particularly goading, because Achilles would kill Agamemnon in single combat (as he would any warrior, apparently).

For this etymological reason, and also because it's—or feels—less common in everyday speech and idiom, I prefer 'wrath'. Also with respect to Achilles' degradation—desecration, in the light of Antigone—of Hector's body, his rages burst as scale-balancing — inappropriately wildly violent, but in my view, 'wrathful'.

As for the emotional incontinence of the Homeric gods, they were indeed known for this in Greek antiquity, as was Homer (and Hesiod) mocked for depicting them so.

Xenophanes (born about 575 BC (?); there's quite some divergence in ancient testimonial as to this) is maybe the best example: "Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all deeds that among men are a reproach and disgrace: thieving, adultery, and mutual deception." (fr. 11, translated by Guthrie, whose first volume of "a history of Greek philosophy", The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans, I'm pillaging)

Guthrie quotes Euripides, whom he's convinced is influenced by Xenophanes here, in the Heracles: "That the gods enjoy illicit love I do not believe, nor have I ever thought it right nor have I counted it true that they should go in chains, nor that one god should lord it over another; for the god, if he be truly god, lacks for nothing. Those are the wretched tales of singers."

Now Xenophanes is no atheist; in Fr. 1, he writes:

“First it is meet for righteous men to hymn,
With pious stories and pure words, the god.”

But he's sarcastic about people taking seriously the bratty misbehavior of gods depicted in the poetry of Homer and Hesiod: if they're really gods, they're not obnoxious triflers. Xenophanes's religious criticism of Homer and Hesiod is a forerunner of Plato's momentous retailing of that sentiment in book 10 of The Republic: poetry is dangerous, and when one says wicked things, one does wicked things. Plato's Socrates's expulsion of the poets from the ideal community, though, is ironic; Xenophanes seems to have wished that only overtly and (I guess) officially pious poetry were on people's lips and in their ears. Boo.

(The gods are both infantile and infinitely wise... A terrifying combination...)

And all this because of “Ransom”. It’s a masterpiece. Maybe one day I’ll write one or two words about it. Right now I can’t. I’m bereft of words. It’s that good. ( )
  antao | Nov 29, 2018 |
Gorgeous retelling of the poignant episode in the Iliad of Priam's seeking the body of his son, Hector, from Achilles. The plot device of a simple carter, Somax, who drives Priam to the Greek camp is added. This serves to make Priam a more human, accessible character. Novel explores simple joys, grief, sorrow and emotional pain in all classes of characters and shows these feelings are universal; on a rest stop, the carter reveals his family life and death of his own son while trying to help another. Priam, innocent of the joys of a commoner's life, responds to Somax's telling of his family and the carter's pain. Achilles suffers his own pain at the death of his dear friend and thinks of his son when he is speaking with Priam. Backstory of how Achilles and Patroclus meet and become friends; an incident in Priam's childhood in which he escapes slavery; and the death of Patroclus are also given. Written in beautiful prose. A modern classic. ( )
  janerawoof | Nov 27, 2018 |
This book has been on my to-read list for a very long time. Such anticipation can lead to disappointment if a novel fails to meet expectations; but this one turned out to be well worth the wait. Simple and yet deeply poetic, it tells the story of an old man – Priam, King of Troy – who sets out to ransom back his son Hector’s body from the man who has killed him – Achilles, the ruthless warrior par excellence. Malouf’s book goes beyond the story as related in the Iliad, probing questions of majesty, nobility and, most importantly of all, humanity. Elegant and poignant, it centres on a moment of unforeseen compassion in the heat of war and breathes new life into its two famous protagonists...

For the full review, please see my blog:
https://theidlewoman.net/2018/06/03/ransom-david-malouf/ ( )
  TheIdleWoman | Jun 9, 2018 |
I had a little trouble getting into it but once I got over whatever the problem was, I was off and running. This is a short lovely book about the death of Hector and how Priam negotiates to get his body back. Some of it is straight from the Illiad, some from the author's imagination. Beautifully written and imagined. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
A captivating tale where the author takes a series of events prior to the fall of Troy and re-imagines possible personal interactions. The relationship between Priam, King of Troy and the simple carter, Somax is especially memorable. ( )
  HelenBaker | Jul 4, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
"While 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, as when Priam reflects on what the immortal gods can never experience -- the sweetness inherent in our transient human lives, but also the sorrow..."
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 endless power of myth.
added by bongiovi | editNew York Times, STEVE COATES (Jan 22, 2010)
"As it is, Ransom falls between the two stools: neither true enough to Homer, nor sufficiently untrue to him either."
added by bookfitz | editThe Guardian, Tom Holland (Dec 18, 2009)

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Book description
This story begins with Achilles mourning the death of Patroclus during the Trojan War. Achilles, enraged at his friend's death, slays Hector, Patroclus' killer, and drags Hector's corpse behind a chariot around the walls of Troy. Achilles drags Hector's corpse behind his chariot around Patroclus' funeral pyre each morning for the following ten days, much to the dismay of the Trojans and his own men. The narrative shifts between Achilles and Priam, Hector's father, and the King of Troy. Priam cannot stand the abuse of his beloved son's body. Priam and Achilles loss are juxtaposed throughout the novel. Priam decides that he will approach Achilles without his royal decorations, mortal to mortal, and attempt to ransom Hector's body back with treasure. Priam then explains his plan to his family and advisers, who meet it with resistance. After acquiring a common cart driver from the market square Priam and his driver set out for the Greek camp.
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A tale of suffering, sorrow, and redemption, "Ransom" is a retelling of one of the most famous stories in all of literature--Achilles's slaughter and desecration of Hector, and Priam's attempt to ransom his son's body in Homer's "The Iliad."

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