Jottings of a Journeyman

It seems fundamental to the nature of The Odyssey that it should be forever reworked and retold. The world it describes scarcely admits a definitive account of events: whimsical gods appear in dreams or in daylight, as themselves or in disguise. They invade men’s minds, or spirit them away wrapped in clouds, leaving lifelike phantoms behind. And through this world travels Odysseus polytropos, the man “of many ways”. He comes sometimes bravely, sometimes cringingly. He fights honourably, and treacherously; he speaks humbly, or with hubristic pride. He is both blessed and cursed, both right and wrong. The only constant is his love of lies, tricks, pretence and of not revealing himself — and he, this most unreliable witness, narrates a large part of The Odyssey, his own story, himself. It’s a story that doesn’t just allow alternate versions, but implies them in almost infinite number.

The material of The Odyssey probably spent a century or more in constant flux, prior to the invention of writing in Greece. It began as folkloric oral tradition, which at some point might have been distilled by a single, supernaturally gifted poet. Even then, it still had to travel for generations in the memories of bards. Once written down, it became, along with The Iliad, the closest thing the Greeks had to a holy book, and the source material for Athenian tragedy. 

Aeschylus described his plays as “slices from the banquet of Homer” — anything that could be done in poetry was thought to be already contained in the two epics. Then came Virgil, Ovid and the other Augustan poets, and The Odyssey continued to exert wide influence and to be retold, directly in poetry, obliquely in the novel, until today. But there has never been a great direct treatment of The Odyssey in prose, and there must be a good reason for this. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine how Zachary Mason began his first novel thus:

Odysseus comes back to Ithaca in a little boat on a clear day.

and didn’t immediately see that very little boat smashed to splinters by the tidal wave of all that had been before. 

Mason’s conceit is that his book was yielded in papyrus-form by a real-life archaeological site in Egypt, and he is merely the translator of a text that in fact pre-dates The Odyssey — 44 lost fragments, alternate versions of Homeric episodes that didn’t make it into the poems as we know them. This “fragments” approach protects Mason somewhat from the tidal wave mentioned above: as long as his stories are posing as just an assortment of ancient miscellany, the pressure is off. But it also limits his scope: most of these stories are less than five pages long and there are many interesting ideas among them that could have amounted to more. On the other hand, ten or 15 of them could well have been cut.

The stories probe the ambiguities of the Homeric poem in a haphazard manner, with mixed results. The first is excellent: Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find Penelope married to another man, but suddenly realises — or convinces himself — that this is “a vengeful illusion, the deception of some malevolent god…Odysseus turns and flees the tormenting shadows”. Elsewhere, Homeric themes are penetratingly rearranged: Penelope, the one safe female in The Odyssey, becomes a cannibalistic demon with her suitors as her trapped prey. Troy, the city of doom, becomes, literally, a citadel of the dead. 

Michiko Kakutani, championing the book in the New York Times, called it “ingeniously Borgesian”, and indeed Mason seems to have used Ficciones almost as much as The Odyssey. Labyrinths, books that contain all possible knowledge and men being dreamt up by other men are all important themes here. Mason also has some good moments of originality in this vein: the siren’s song as a divine code to the universe; The Iliad as the ornamented manual for an archaic chess prototype. In one story, all of the perils Odysseus encounters are being composed for him in the vengeful dream of the blinded Cyclops. Mason also explores the provocative coincidence of Odysseus’s creation: a master-storyteller and a master of disguise, invented by an author we know nothing about. In one of the best stories, a cowardly Odysseus deserts from Troy, travels around as an anonymous bard, composes The Iliad and The Odyssey, and then returns to Ithaca to find his phoney reputation preceding him. 

But elsewhere the craft is nowhere near subtle enough to be compared to Borges. The reader has seen it coming when Odysseus, rummaging around somewhere, comes across a copy of The Iliad; and he can only let out a long sigh as another story begins: “The rigging creaks and the bow wave hisses as Homer lies in his hammock…” The tale of Theseus and the Minotaur appears because of the labyrinth theme, but Mason has created no labyrinth to join the separate myths — he just shoehorns one into the other. Over the page is a meritless story about “Mr O”, a patient being treated by Homeric scholars in an allegorical sanatorium. But there is no philosophical element in the book to make this kind of time-travel interesting, and the conceit about the papyrus starts to ring hollow — is it to be taken as an Odyssean ruse, a lie for the sake of a lie, or is it just another example of the school-play humour evident in lines like “we could barely fit another tripod aboard” and “many amphorae lolled on the ground”? In the end, The Lost Books of The Odyssey doesn’t amount to much more than a series of experiments conducted in the interstices of a great poem. Some are thought-provoking, some are clownish. Few are very well executed.

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