Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Never again to meddle in the affairs of cities and gods . . . "

From Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey (2010):
Agamemnon had the sleeping Odysseus locked belowdecks. After sleeping, he searched the hold and, finding nothing, broke into Agamemnon's cabin (its lock was contemptible). Among weapons, wine cups and trophies of war he found a book called the Iliad. It was the tale of his war and the gist was right but the details were often wrong. In the introduction he read:
It is not widely understood that the epics attributed to Homer were in fact written by the gods before the Trojan war--these divine books are the archetypes of that war rather than its history. In fact, there have been innumerable Trojan wars, each played out according to an evolving aesthetic, each representing a fresh attempt at bringing the terror of battle into line with the lucidity of the authorial intent. Inevitably, each particular war is a distortion of its antecedent, an image in a warped hall of mirrors.

The Iliad and the Odyssey have sometimes, through authorial and managerial oversights, become available to their protagonists. Surprisingly, this has had no impact on the action or the outcome. Agamemnon is too obstinate to change his mind and anyway never believes what he reads. Achilles flips through the Iliad and shrugs. Priam makes sacrifices to the nonplussed gods and anyway thinks that he is above prophecy (recall Cassandra). Perhaps there were once characters who read the book with dawning apprehension and fled that very hour, finding refuge in the hills, never again to meddle in the affairs of cities and gods, but if ever there were they are long gone now.
Though I read it months ago, I haven't written at length about Mason's wonderfully inventive and coy The Lost Books of the Odyssey, and, beset by travel, I don't really have time to do so now. Suffice it to say that it is one of my favorite books of the year, offering one of those all-too-rare experiences when a reader opens a book and quickly begins to feel that it was written just for him, that in some sense he's been waiting for this book for years. A lover of Odysseus and a regular re-reader of Homer, I didn't know that I wanted a volume of tales of Odysseus filtered through a Calvino-esque sensibility, but now that I have it I'm so, so pleased.

My first thought on closing the book was that Ed Park would love it. He does. My second thought was that I should try to convince Ed that he and I should write something along similar lines about Atlantis, taking into account all the legends and variations over the centuries. Alas, when I raised the possibility, Ed informed me that Eliot Weinberger had already done so in his essay "Dreams from the Holothurians," found in his Outside Stories--and anyone who enjoys this sort of playing around in myth and legend and the shadowier corners of historical inquiry should seek it out.

A few selections to draw you in:
Lost! Plutarch claimed that Solon began an epic poem on Atlantis, and gave it up. Lost! Plato's account of the continent, Critias, ends suddenly in mid-sentence: "And when he had called them together, he spoke as follows:"


Atlantis! Heinrich Schliemann's grandson Paul claims that he inherited a letter, an envelope, and an owl-headed vase of unknown provenance. The letter instructed that only a family member willing to devote his life to the material contained in the envelope and vase should open them. He pledged his life, and broke the vase. Inside were four square coins and a metal plaque inscribed in Phoenician, Issued in the Temple of Transparent Walls. He opened the envelope, and found his grandfather's secret notes from the excavation of Troy: the finding of a bronze urn full of coins marked From the King Cronos of Atlantis. Young Schliemann then set off for Tibet, where he discovered a Chaldean account of the destruction of the Land of the Seven Cities. Schliemann reports his findings to the New York American in 1912, promising to reveal much more in a forthcoming book.


Lost! After his newspaper article, Paul Schliemann was never heard from again, his book never published, and the Schliemann family claimed they had no one named Paul.
You could do worse at the beach this summer than to carry The Lost Books of the Odyssey and "Dreams from the Holothurians." When the long ships draw up onto the beach, you'll be the only sunbather who's expecting them; you should be able to tell by the quantity of deepwater muck and seaweed adorning the prow whether the oarsmen are Achaeans or Atlanteans.

1 comment:

  1. That Schliemann's grandson story reminds me the beginning of She, the novel by Rider Haggard.

    A spanish reader.