by David Malouf
Pantheon, 240 pp., $24
Passing through the dark corridors of his palace at an early hour, old King Priam reaches the chamber of his beloved wife Hecuba to tell her his plan. Days after he’s stood watching his son Hector die at the hands of Achilles from the high walls of Troy, and while the warrior’s body is still being dragged by Achilles behind his chariot every day outside the city gates, Priam will leave with a lavish ransom of gold that morning, for the Greek camp, to reclaim Hector’s body for honorable burial. But he will go in a humble mule cart, as a father, not as king.
Accustomed to “presences,” which “when they settle out and take bodily form, have the names of gods,” he dares not acknowledge the risk in his act which defies all convention; Hecuba is horrified at the thought of him about to humble himself before the man still desecrating the body of their son. Priam, though, is possessed by now, with his conviction
that the thing that is needed to cut this knot we are all tied in is something that has never before been done or thought of. Something impossible. Something new.
And newness, he knows, is no small thing. To take fate into one’s own hands—to risk changing the course of events—is to bring down the wrath of the gods, possibly upon his own head. Objections arise from every corner of the court—from Hecuba, his advisers, his multitude of surviving sons—but the old man wins out. For all his frailty, he is king. Shortly, alongside a gray-headed mule driver named Somax, dispatched with his cart that morning from the market square, he is bumping over a rugged track toward the seaside camp, wearing a simple white robe and no symbol of rank.
For anyone whose appetite for well-wrought fiction doesn’t preclude the occasional viewing of an overwrought and underthought movie like Troy, it will be impossible to read this spare little book without imagining the elegant wreckage of Peter O’Toole’s face on the tall white-robed figure aboard the cart seat. In 2004, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in the New York Review of Books at the time of its release that the scene where O’Toole, playing Priam, reached the tent of Achilles was the one place in the movie where Brad Pitt seemed to find something in the role of Achilles he could understand: a view given some credence by Pitt on Charlie Rose when he described playing those few moments opposite O’Toole. In Ransom, though, David Malouf’s Achilles is nothing like Pitt’s burnished aerialist of a swordsman, and the visit of the devastated old man to his tent is not what the novelist is after.
Casting over the Iliad’s vast tumult, Malouf reaches backward in time to justify Achilles’ war weariness, and forward to foreshadow the tragedy that looms past Hector’s funeral. But most of the time his story rests in a quiet eddy not previously explored: the low-key events of the old king’s journey alongside Somax, behind mules named Beauty and Shock.
A long time ago, the boy called Podarces became Priam, meaning “the ransomed one,” or “the price paid,” during some settling of alliances. Now, years in the role of king, with all its trappings of authority, have left him out of touch with the hoi polloi. At the start of the trip, when he declares that his driver should be called Idaeus, the name given all of his heralds, Somax takes the royal whim in stride, much in the way he sees a chickenhawk overhead as a chickenhawk, not the celestially sent eagle that courtiers see as a propitious sign for the king’s journey.
A man rough but humble, with a deep fondness for his mules and a lifelong familiarity with hardship and loss, Somax has never seen his ruler up close until that day. Soon, though, he is unstrapping the old man’s sandals, helping him to step barefoot into a cold stream, describing his daughter-in-law’s making of griddle cakes, worrying about his feverish granddaughter, and baring a memory fraught with sorrow about his dead son. Gods come and go—especially an elusively seductive Hermes, as their guardian and guide, in a disguise never fully hiding his immortal radiance—and in the Greek camp, some Olympian force is restoring the body of Hector from daily mutilation to its pristine state. But it’s the carter’s kindly introduction of the king to the ways of ordinary life that illuminates the story.
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.