Monday, April 04, 2011

Ransom by David Malouf

I am Priam, King of Troy. I have come to you, Achilles, just as you see me, just as I am, to ask you, man to man, as a father, for the body of my son. To ransom and bring him home.

In his own stunningly lyrical language, David Malouf revisits Homer's Iliad, adding a new and uplifting dimension to the classic story of rage, pride and grief. Written with lightness and humanity, and profoundly affecting, Ransom reflects upon the bonds that exist between men - between fathers and sons, dear friends and bitter enemies.

One of the good things about going to book club is that you are forced encouraged to read books that you wouldn't normally have read. That was true of last month's book (Sold by Brendan Gullifer), and also this month. Another good thing is that the first two books of this year (at least) are Australian authors. It's funny though, I always forget that David Malouf is Australian.

In Ransom Malouf takes us back to ancient Troy, and revisits just a small part of the epic Iliad. One word of warning though - if you are hoping for Paris and Helen, this is not that book.

The story opens with Achilles whose companion Petroclas has been killed by Hector after being led to believe that he was actually Achilles. In his grief and guilt, Achilles fights Hector and kills him, but instead of acting in the time honoured fashion (ie honourably), he is now acting dishonourably in his treatment of the body of his vanquished enemy by tying the body to his chariot and dragging it through the dirt each day.

For Hector's father Priam, whose life is lived within the formal strictures of royal protocol, a break with tradition such as this is mind boggling and he finds himself having to come up with a new solution (with the aid of the gods), and so he decides to offer a ransom to Achilles in order to retrieve the body of his son.

Here the author steps away from the original story and introduces a new character. He is an old man who each day waits in the town square to hire out his cart and two donkeys, one is the non descript Shock, and the other donkey is called Beauty, who is admired by all who meet her. Somax is hired to drive the King to the Greek camp to offer the ransom, but really his role is much more than that. He becomes the companion of the king, not only physically, but also in terms of life experience. He offers the man Priam experiences that seem everyday to many, but that fall outside the King's normal life such as  the experience of dangling your feet in the cool water of a stream and eating griddle cakes prepared by Somax's daughter in law and realising that all the food that he eats must come from ingredients - something he has never had to think of previously.

For all that this is a retelling of this particular part of the Iliad, it is also merely the framework for a discussion around the relationships between fathers and sons, strangers and friends, and between bitter enemies, who find common ground despite their differences.

This is a very short book, and surprisingly easy to read after the initial section. There is no doubt that Malouf has a way with words, and I can see myself reading more from him one day. It did however take me a little while to get into, and I needed to read without big distractions. I was trying to read one section at the computer with Twitter going, and the TV on, and I swear I read the same passage at least ten times. Away from every day distractions, I was able to find myself back on the battlefields, surrounded by Achilles soldiers.

This book counts towards the Aussie Author Challenge and also is being post as part of Aussie Author Month!

Next month our book is Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie which is a book that I have wanted to read for a long time.


  1. I enjoyed this one - some of the rhythms of his language were so beautiful - and am keen to read his An Imaginary Life now, which is another ancient-themed work, on Ovid's exile. I found that Malouf required a lot of single-minded concentration, as you say!

  2. I have heard almost everyone say that this book is really hard to get into so I haven't ever made a great deal of effort to read it. In fact, I have never any of Malouf. I do own Remembering Babylon though, so I think I will try that one first.

  3. The Iliad and the Odyssey are books that I one day hope to read, and I would bet that this book makes a really good companion piece to the former. I am adding it to my list, though I don't know when I will get to read it. Thanks for the great review!

  4. I thought this was so incredibly well written, and I had so many moments of awe at the turn of phrase he used. But in some ways I also found it to be almost too perfect - like a textbook example of 'how to write the perfect tale', and it ultimately left me a bit cold.



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