Powerful stuff: I can’t wait for the sequel

The novel in verse is nothing new, but Homer’s Iliad is fast-paced and full of surprises

Books

The poet Homer, who is thought to be working on a sequel to his hit epic “The Iliad”

The novel in verse is nothing new, of course; it’s a phenomenon of the literary world that pops up every few years with varying success: Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate or, more recently Robin Robertson’s  award-frequenting The Long Take.

Homer’s Iliad impresses from the off. There’s no author mugshot, not a sliver of bio, which is how it should be.  Nor are there any copious acknowledgements, the blunderbuss of name-checking that’s attached to many works striving to curry favour or gain recognition.

I find the single name thing a little pretentious (cf  Socrates, Liberace, Madonna), but you’re allowed to do that and this is a novel in verse. Homer should be congratulated, whoever he or she or they may be (a collective like Luther Blissett?), for simply handing over the goods.

The title is in some ways misleading. The Iliad, the “Trojan Poem”, doesn’t have that much to do with Troy. The opening lines give a clearer indication of the book’s content, spelling out the anger of Achilles, but a more fitting title for the work might be The Greeks Bicker For Ten Years, On A Beach.

The Iliad is divided into 24 “books” (or chapters as the rest of us would call them) and the first book is certainly one of the most powerful things you’ll ever read. It launches you in medias res, or rather towards the end of the Trojan war. It demonstrates that in any war, the first adversary you have to deal with, and probably the most intractable, is your own side (as is amply illustrated by a score of war novels such as James Salter’s The Hunters, Derek Robinson’s Goshawk Squadron or Vaino Linna’s The Unknown Soldier). The first line of The Iliad may be an invocation to a poetic muse but the following lines immediately offer the reader the spectacle of dogs and birds devouring the corpses of warriors. The horrors of war are patently not going to be glossed over in this account.

The furious exchange in the Greek camp between Agamemnon and Achilles over strategy, which in fact boils down to who gets the booty, is utterly convincing. And it’s interesting to see how accusations of drunkenness, cowardice and ugliness are always standard in a row between men. Agamemnon is saved from being filleted by the unbeatable Achilles by Athene appearing to restrain Achilles. Athene appears, but can be only seen by Achilles, in that old trick that allows all sorts of witches, imps and deities to dish out favours and advice or meddle while remaining invisible to the crowd.

Athene’s intervention also manifests another universal truth about war. They’re like parties: once you throw one, everyone wants to join in. All of Olympus takes an interest in the outcome of the Trojan War, just as much of the world has beaten a path to Syria  in the last decade.

Book One of  The Iliad can’t be bettered. It’s fast-paced and full of surprises. Who’d expect ultra-hardman Achilles to run to his mother in tears? In Book Two, however, Homer makes a classic mistake: he has fallen in love with his research. Research is important in order for the author to be on top of his subject, but most of it should stay on his bookshelves. Homer’s meticulous catalogue of ships that sailed to Troy is a dead weight that blocks the action that started so well in Book One. Did Homer ignore his editor? Or did the editor have to fight hard to get this laundry list shifted to Book Two?

However, this awkward change of gears is the last time Homer loses control. The rest of the book is gripping. Certain reviewers, nevertheless, have carped about some of the detail. Where are the fish?

We all know the Greeks love their seafood and here you have a Greek army, on a beach, and there’s not so much as an anchovy or whelk in sight, just gargantuan barbecues, with beef, not shrimps. Plato argues this is quite deliberate, that Homer is making the case for roast meat as the food of champions, the right diet for heroes. I’d argue against this. No writer can put everything into one book. The fish are a red herring. Homer doesn’t mention fish because he doesn’t need to. None of his heroes has a bowel movement. No one has constipation. No one gets the runs, something that must have happened on a daily basis with an army camped out on a beach. Not everything is relevant.

The Iliad
closes with the death and burial of Hector, the great warrior of Troy and Achilles’s great rival. Homer, though writing from a Greek perspective, does a skilful job of presenting war as a plague on both houses. The end feels a little sudden, a trifle abrupt. Readers will doubtless feel they have been left with a cliffhanger. What will happen next in the Trojan War?

I suspect that Homer is working on a sequel, and a prequel. I look forward to them.