Phew! it’s just as well that David Malouf has set his brilliant new novel back in Ancient Troy or I would have created a real quandary for myself! Last year I read Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath, loved it, and declared it my pick for the 2010 Miles Franklin award. That’s a gripping book, firmly grounded in Australian contemporary life yet appealing also to our fascination with the ancient wilderness of Tasmania. Well, Ransom would have to be an equally worthy contender for the MF – if not for the rules which preclude it as an entry:
The Miles Franklin Literary Award celebrates Australian character and creativity and nurtures the continuing life of literature about Australia. It is awarded for the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases. (MF Trust website).
Homer’s epic poem, on which Ransom is based, is well-known to anyone who reads the classics. (Though I was surprised to discover that The Iliad is not included in 1001 Books You Must Read - whyever not??) I read it many years ago (at university) but I re-read it in the Robert Fagles transation while I was away on holidays (click here to read my impressions about it) because I wanted to be able recognise how Malouf has reworked it. That’s not necessary of course: you can read Ransom without knowing anything about The Iliad at all – but it makes a very special book even more entrancing to be familiar with its source.
What is most striking about the difference is the way Malouf humanises the characters. Homer delivers heroic ‘types’, and the reader is not really privy to their innermost thoughts and fears. But Malouf takes us into their hearts and minds – he shows, for instance, how the burdens of kingship weigh heavily on Priam, and how his subjects – especially his surviving children – can’t reconcile the poignancy of his needs as a grieving father with his role as a dignified king. For them, it matters intensely that he maintains a regal position; his subjects look to him as King as part of their identity.
‘Sir, you have for the whole of your life been a king. Ordinary desires and needs and feelings are not unknown to you – I know that, you are my father; but you have, you can have, in your kingly role, no part in them – they are not in your kingly sphere. And are you now to wring Achilles’ heart by appealing to those very feelings of the ordinary man it has been the whole business of your life to remain aloof from? (p84)
Well, as we all know, Priam sets off out into enemy territory to do just that, and in Malouf’s book he does it in company with Somax, the peasant carter, and his mule Beauty – and the great king of Troy learns much about real life. He learns the simple joy of dabbling his feet in a stream; and he tastes an everyday pancake and ponders, for the first time in his life, the process by which it is made. More importantly, beyond these externalities, he learns to empathise and identify with a simple man, and he learns that those ‘ordinary desires and needs and feelings’ are what make a king also a man.
And Achilles? Ah, you have to read Ransom yourself to see the magic that Malouf has wrought in bringing this brutal savage back into humanity’s fold. It gives one hope for the future that today’s savage brutes might in some way learn to do the same – that no one is beyond redemption.
It is astonishing to see how brilliantly in the 21st century this ancient story has been immortalised anew. For those who read Ransom, Malouf’s imaginative rendering of this episode of The Iliad will forever be an unforgettable part of the original. Don’t miss it.