A bold re-imagining of our civilization's greatest tale of war, from the acclaimed and bestselling author of Silk.
In An Iliad, Alessandro Baricco re-creates the siege of Troy through the voices of twenty-one Homeric characters, in the narrative idiom of our modern imagination. From the return of Chryseis to the burial of Hector, we see through human eyes and feel with human hearts the unforgettable events first recounted almost three thousand years ago. Imbuing the stuff of legend with a startling new relevancy and humanity, Baricco gives us The Iliad as we have never known it. His transformative achievement is certain to delight and fascinate all readers of Homer's indispensable classic.
Starred Review. Baricco made his name internationally with his debut, Silk (1997), and has since released three more well-received novels, most recently the war-themed Without Blood (2004). This prose retelling of the Iliad is sure to top them all. Baricco eliminates the appearances of the gods, adds an ending chapter (borrowed from the Odyssey) that recounts the famous incident of the wooden horse and the sack of Troy and--an ingenious touch--tells the story from the first-person viewpoint of various participants: Odysseus, Thersites, Nestor, Achilles. The famed physicality and violence of the poem are here ("the bronze tip... cut the tongue cleanly at the base, came out through the neck"), and Baricco doesn't sentimentalize the story--easy to do, especially with Helen. The larger plot remains: Agamemnon insults Achilles, the best warrior on the Achaean (Greek) side, who then refuses to further serve, which allows the Trojans to rally under their greatest warrior, King Priam's son, Hector. Achilles' best friend, Patroclus, receives Achilles' permission to help the Greeks, but is killed in battle. Achilles returns to the battlefield, succeeds in isolating Hector underneath the walls of Troy and strikes him down. Finally, Priam goes to Achilles' tent and begs for the body of his son, and Achilles grants his return. Medieval versions of the Iliad story conceived it in chivalrous terms, but Baricco conveys the real story, an epic of harsh dealings, small treacheries and large vanities. He adds only a few modern reflections to the character's thoughts: old Nestor, for instance, plays with the paradox that the young have an "old idea of war," which entails honor, beauty and glory, while the old take up new ways to fight simply in order to win. In an afterword, Baricco states that "this is not an ordinary time to read the Iliad," and his book is more than a pasteurized version of a great poem. It is a variation, and a very moving one, on timeless Homeric themes. (Aug.)
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August 13, 2007
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Excerpt from An Iliad by Alessandro Baricco
Chryseis It all began on a day of violence. For nine years the Achaeans had besieged Troy: often they needed provisions or animals or women, and then they abandoned the siege and went to get what they wanted by plundering the nearby cities. That day it was the turn of Thebes, my city. They seized what they wanted and brought it to their ships. I was among the women they carried off. I was a beauty: when, in their camp, the Achaean chieftains divided up the spoils, Agamemnon saw me and wanted me for himself. He was the king of kings, and the commander of all the Achaeans: he brought me to his tent, and to his bed. He had a wife, at home, called Clytemnestra. He loved her. But that day he saw me and wanted me for himself. Some days afterward my father came to the camp. His name was Chryses, and he was a priest of Apollo. He was an old man. He brought splendid gifts and asked the Achaeans, in exchange, to set me free. As I said: he was an old man and a priest of Apollo. All the Achaean chiefs, after seeing and listening to him, were in favor of accepting the ransom and honoring the noble figure who had come to them as a suppliant. Only one among them was not won over: Agamemnon. He rose and railed brutally against my father, saying to him, "Go away, old man, and don't show yourself again. I will not give up your daughter: she will grow old in Argos, in my house, far from her homeland, working at the loom and sharing my bed. Go now, if you want to go with your life." My father, frightened, obeyed. He went away in silence and disappeared along the shore of the sea—you might have saidintothe sound of the sea. Then, suddenly, death and suffering fell upon the Achaeans. For nine days, arrows flew, killing men and beasts, and the pyres of the dead blazed without respite. On the tenth day, Achilles summoned the army to a meeting. In front of all the men he said, "If things continue like this, we'll have to launch our ships and go home in order to escape death. But let's consult a prophet, or a seer, or a priest who can tell us what is happening and free us from this scourge." Then Calchas rose, the most famous among the seers. He knew all the things that have been, are, and will be. He was a wise man. He said, "You want to know the reason for this, Achilles, and I will tell you. But swear that you will protect me, because what I'm going to say will offend a man who has power over all the Achaeans and whom all the Achaeans obey. I'm risking my life: swear that you will protect me." Achilles told him not to be afraid, but to say what he knew. He said, "As long as I live, no one among the Achaeans will dare raise a hand against you. No one. Not even Agamemnon." Then the seer took courage and said, "When we offended that old man, suffering came upon us. Agamemnon refused the ransom and would not give up the daughter of Chryses: and suffering came upon us. There is only one way to rid ourselves of it: restore to Chryses that girl with the sparkling eyes, before it's too late." Thus he spoke, and he sat down. Agamemnon rose, his heart brimming with black fury and his eyes flashing fire. He looked at Calchas with hatred and said, "Prophet of doom, you have never given me a favorable prophecy. You like to reveal only evil, never good. And now you want to deprive me of Chryseis, whom I desire more than my own wife, Clytemnestra, and who rivals her in beauty, intelligence, and nobility of spirit. Must I give her up? I will do so, because I want the army to be saved. I will do it, if so it must be. But find me a prize to replace her immediately, because it is not right that I alone, among the Achaeans, should remain without honor. I want another prize for myself." Then Achilles said, "How can