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Priam’s Petition

The old king’s sad journey to that old heel Achilles.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By EDITH ALSTON
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A lifelong poet and librettist as well as prize-winning novelist, the Australian-born Malouf is now in his seventies. In an afterword to Ransom he describes the seeds of the tale as sown during his schoolboy days in Brisbane when he first heard about the siege of Troy while the city stood sandbagged against Japanese attacks just past the school’s gates. In 1978 another of his novels, An Imaginary Life, used an ancient setting when he speculated on the last years of Ovid, who disappeared after being banished from imperial Rome to a village at the edge of the Black Sea at the end of the first century A.D. Several of its themes—the mourning of a childhood companion, the awakening of affection, and an aging but active mind—are picked up again in Ransom, along with a similar brevity of language that could be incised in a metal plate.

But for all the haunting beauty of its landscape at the edge of the steppes, and its starkly imagined view of a curious and sophisticated mind seeking new direction among people with whom the narrator shares nothing (including language), An Imaginary Life never quite pulls free of an aridness of highly articulated invention. More than three decades later, Ransom glows with its vision of a life lived, and of the old king alert to his own daring and vulnerability, with his classical gods perhaps only a contemporary stand-in for examining a late-age sense of impending mortality. At the end of his day’s journey, when he’s returned to Troy, his sense of the world, no matter what lies ahead, is greatly enlarged. And when Somax has totted up his sorrows and small joys in a lifetime of intimate affection, showing the king what he has known, by comparison, with 50 sons, the moment becomes Shakespearean.

Edith Alston is an editor and writer in New York. 

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