Words are powerful. They too can be the agents of what is new, of what is conceivable and can be thought and let loose on the world. (p. 61)
Is risk-taking only the province of the young? Do desperate times call for desperate measures? Or, more to the point, can the impossible be made possible? These are some of the questions that form the core of David Malouf’s most recent novel, Ransom.
WARNING: Spoiler if you don’t know the Iliad!
Ransom, as I wrote in my post last year, is Malouf’s re-visioning of the section of the Iliad (from Books 16-24) which chronicles Patroclus’ death at the hands of the Trojans, Achilles’ revenge killing of the Trojan prince Hector and his subsequent abuse of Hector’s body, and Priam’s visiting Achilles to ask for his son’s body back. Malouf says that he wanted to suggest a new kind of human, non-heroic consciousness, by re-visioning how Priam does this through deciding “do something extraordinary” (Malouf’s words). As Priam discusses with his wife Hecuba
I believe … that the thing that is needed to cut this knot we are all tied up in is something that has never before been done or thought of. Something impossible. Something new. (p. 58)
there might be another way of naming what we call fortune and attribute to the will, or the whim of the gods. Which offers a kind of opening. The opportunity to act for ourselves. To try something that might force events into a different course. (p. 61)
Ah, I thought, here is going to be Malouf’s vision (or recipe even) for our conflict ridden times. He wants to show, through Priam’s desire to do “something impossible. Something new” that there is another way of managing conflict. But sadly, that is not what he is about. Sure, Priam does do something audacious – he enters Achilles’ compound as an ordinary man on a plain mule-driven cart driven by an even more ordinary man, the humble carter, Somax. But, I was disappointed, because after a lovely interval of humanity the story plays out as it always does with Achilles dying, and Priam being brutally killed by Achilles’ son. What I hoped Malouf was setting me up for wasn’t his goal at all. It was something both bigger and smaller. Smaller because he is not (really) making a political statement for our times, and bigger because he re-visions the story as one of humans rather than of heroes, and as one in which humans can be self-directed rather than at the whim of the gods. There is some irony here though because, as well as being accompanied by the humble Somax, he is for a while escorted by the god Hermes who facilitates their entry into Achilles’ compound. I did wonder about the meaning of this unlikely trio – common man, king, god – but it is in the original and so is not really part of a new message. That said, this is, as I am sure you are starting to realise, quite a complex book despite its small size – and I am only going to touch the surface here.
Some of the loveliest parts of the book are in fact the most human ones, such as the conversation Priam has with Hecuba when he reveals his idea, and Priam’s journey with Somax in which he learns to enjoy ordinary human (as against royal) pleasures. (“It had done him good, all that, body and spirit both”).
In the end after a beautifully rendered meeting with the conflicted Achilles, Priam achieves his goal and brings Hector’s body back for burial. It is a triumph of his vision, but
It is only a provisional triumph, of course; the gods are not to be trusted when they tilt the balance momentarily in your behaviour. And what sort of triumph is it to be bringing home the body of a son? But he has done something for which he will be remembered for as long as such stories are told …
Yes, he is “a man remade” because he has done a “deed that till now was never attempted”. Achilles too has been transformed (at least for a while): he is “visited by a lightness that is both new and a return”. But, and unfortunately there is a but, the story plays out as it always has…
So, what is it all about – besides, that is, the underlying themes relating to fathers and sons, grief, will versus fate, and humanity versus the gods? Perhaps it is simply this, that you can dare to try the impossible, and you can triumph. How big that triumph is, how long it lasts, is perhaps not the right question. The right question is the original one, “Dare I dream, and dare I do it?” It is also about the power of stories. Priam’s action will now be remembered “for as long as such stories are told”, while his killer, Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, is not so lucky. The murder is a messy one and so “for him … however the story is told and elaborated, the raw shame of it will be with him now till his last breath”.
In its rather ironic and paradoxical way, then, Ransom is redemptive … and is beautiful for all that. And yet, I do have this little nagging feeling that I’d have liked it to have been a little more. I did in fact want a recipe for our times, a suggestion that we can move our humanity forwards!
North Sydney: Knopf, 2009