Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle -- August 14, 2006

An Iliad

Alessandro Baricco; translated by Ann Goldstein
Knopf, 158pp

by Ian Garrick Mason

The Iliad, Homer's epic poem about the siege of Troy, has long fueled the Western world's literary imagination, as its characters, plot and themes have been adapted again and again over the centuries. But for all its influence, its image is that of a bulky and even daunting work, and artists who have wished to "repackage" the story for modern audiences -- as director Wolfgang Petersen did with his 2004 film "Troy" -- have found themselves leaving a great deal out in order to make it digestible and attractive.

Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco, author of the international best-seller Silk, approached the Iliad with high hopes. Wishing to return the poem to its purported roots in oral performance, Baricco decided to stage a public reading. Realizing that this would require an audience to sit still for 40 hours, he edited the Iliad down to its essential narrative structure and added a final chapter to describe the fall of Troy, wooden horse and all.

An Iliad is a work of prose, but is none the worse for it. Baricco's writing, as translated by Ann Goldstein, is poetic and elevates the text above the prosaic. The book also displays many of the Iliad's stylistic attributes: its vivid similes ("We fell on the Trojans suddenly, like a furious swarm of wasps"); its abrupt transitions at moments of high suspense ("Hector's shield broke apart and he fell, but right away he got up again, and they grabbed their swords and went for one another, yelling... And the sun set."); its graphic depictions of violence ("[The rock] struck him in the forehead, the bone split, his eyes fell out on the ground, in the dust, and he, too, fell.")

Baricco reports that the public readings were a national success in Italy. For his English-speaking fans, and for all those curious about the Iliad but intimidated by its heft, his book offers a swift, stylish, summer-reading version of the great epic.

It is not without flaws, however. In Homer's poem, the Greek gods play an interventionist role in the fighting, and Baricco has sought to accommodate modern sensibilities by removing them. But banning the gods leaves holes in the plot that the author patches rather clumsily. In the original, when Paris begins to lose his duel with Menelaus, he is carried off suddenly and without his consent by his protector, Aphrodite; Baricco's version has him slink cravenly away from the fight when Menelaus is not looking -- quite a different thing. And when the Achaean hero Diomedes attacks Aeneas, the poem tells us that he is beaten back three times by Apollo; Baricco's version replaces Apollo with Aeneas' almost meaningless testimony: "Three times I heard [Diomedes] arrive, and yet I was still alive." Archaic though they may seem to us, the gods are essential to the plot of the Iliad and it requires a more delicate surgeon than Baricco to remove them without leaving ugly scars.

In an attempt to involve readers more intimately with the story, Baricco has also restructured the epic into chapters narrated from the points of view of various major and minor characters. Had he followed this decision with a thoroughgoing rewriting of the text, the final effect might well have been striking. Instead, though "he's" have changed to "I's," the third-person view of the poem has hardly altered, and Baricco's "subjective" narratives remain almost wholly objective in tone -- often implausibly so, as when a narrator moved offstage by the Iliad's fast-moving plot continues to describe scenes that he could not possibly have witnessed.

Baricco occasionally uses the conceit of subjectivity to depict a character's thoughts (which he italicizes to distinguish them from the base text), but while these are sometimes interesting, they are neither developed nor offered consistently enough to add value to the story. As with the subjective structure, it is an experiment that Baricco has conducted too hesitantly and that therefore fails to achieve its potential.

Baricco concludes with a thought-provoking essay on the Iliad, in which he argues that the poem is notable both for its balanced portrayal of the two combatant armies and for the space it gives to the depiction of female characters and their views. Baricco wonders at the fact that "a male and warlike civilization like that of the Greeks chose to hand down, into eternity, the voice of women and their desire for peace," but he probably makes too much of this. Epics throughout history often have used debates between male and female characters to contrast the heroic call of duty with the natural temptations of peace, home and family. A third of the way into the Iliad, Andromache makes a persuasive and impassioned argument to convince her husband, Hector, not to return to battle. He listens to her, explains his own beliefs, and leaves -- ultimately to die at the hands of Achilles. In an epic, it's the call of duty that wins this argument.

The heroes aren't always right, however. Agamemnon's furious demand that "None must escape -- let them all perish together with Troy, without a grave and without a name" is in vain, for Troy today has both a grave and an immortal name. And it is Baricco's own An Iliad, along with the Iliads of artists before and surely after him, that is proof of Helen's bittersweet prediction: "You know, sorrow is our fate: but for that reason our lives will be sung forever, by all the men who come after."

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