Ransom starts at the moment when Hector, noblest of the princes of Troy, has been slain at the hands of Achilles, deadliest and most god-like of the Greeks. Savage with grief for his beloved cousin, Patroclus, whom Hector had killed, Achilles vents his rage and misery on the Trojan prince’s corpse. Dragging the body behind his chariot, so that it is left a mere “thing – bloody and unrecognisable”, he refuses either to have it burned or to ransom it.
The scene is set for one of the most wrenching episodes in world literature: when Priam, Hector’s father, travels to Achilles’ camp, falls to his knees, and begs for the return of the corpse. “I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before,” he says. “I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Priam dressed up as a peasant and instructed to have a mule-drawn wagon containing gold and treasures as “ransom” in exchange for Hector’s body. Yet the very act put Priam’s dignity and honour, his life, that is yet again a ransom. While Achilles is dragging Hector’s body behind a burnished chariot drawn by fine horses, Priam, stripped of the symbols and comforts of kingship, sets out towards him on a wagon drawn by two mules: one aptly called Beauty and one, with “no special charm”, called Shock.
Like the king, the carter has his name Somax changed by circumstance and becomes, unwillingly – for who knows how the gods might react to the imposition of greatness? – Idaeus, the traditional royal herald. Somax’s austere life is essentially a Malouf’s creation in contrast to the opulent life of King Priam.
My favourite part of the story is Priam’s journey to Achilles’ camp and they are joined briefly by the garrulous god Hermes, a timelessly irritating fellow-passenger, but through his driver Priam learns to be ordinary and even find momentary happiness: to walk barefoot in a river, to eat griddle cakes, to share the grief of losing sons, and to exchange tales of ordinary lives. Somax sense of bewilderment in mixing with the great names of the war is palpable. In return, he introduces Priam to the world of idle chit chat which equally mystifies his royal self. Not forgetting the moment when Priam finally meets Achilles and states his mission, Priam’s plea for his son’s body brings a lump to the throat.
To those who knew this part of the Homer’s tale will know that this story met with a tragic end.
The book concludes with an Afterword – a note on sources and the inspiration for the book. In it, Malouf relates that he first heard the story of the siege Troy in primary school and was mesmerised by Homer’s tale. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of today’s primary school children think that Homer is just the name for a yellow, pot-bellied Homer Simpson!
No one, and certainly not a writer as talented as Malouf, can go far wrong with material like this.
Why, then, despite its many qualities, does Ransom disappoint? The problem is I don’t know.
It is suppose to be an easy read, since it is a slim book, but it didn’t engage me and I had to plod along just for the sake of finishing it. So, yes, in some ways it’s a book about anger, grief, revenge and the effects of war, but it’s not as good as Homer’s Penelopiad, retold by Atwood.
I am not reading this for any challenge and the book is not part of the Canongate myth series.
Hardback. Publisher: Chatto & Windus, 2009; Length: 244 pages; Setting: Land of Greek Gods. Source: Library. Finished reading at: 25 June 2010