Ransom is David Malouf’s retelling of one small episode from Homer’s Iliad, that of Hector’s death at the hands of Achilles. If you don’t know, or can’t recall, this particular event, it begins when Achilles, having been offended by the leader of the Greek army, Agamemnon, takes what can only be described as ’the huff’ and refuses to fight, or to allow his own soldiers to fight. Cue a Trojan attack which sees the Greeks driven back to their ships and in danger of losing the war. Patroclus, Achilles’ childhood friend, begs Achilles to allow him to put on Achilles’ armour and go into battle in the hope that the very sight of him will inspire the Greeks and put fear into the hearts of the Trojans. His plan works, but Patroclus is killed by Hector. Achilles swears he will have revenge and challenges Hector, killing him and then refusing to give up the body, instead dragging it around the walls of Troy by chariot for all to see. If nothing else, it reveals that Homer’s heroes are far from two-dimensional.
It is this facet of Homer’s work that Malouf expands on. He brings both Achilles and Priam, the king of Troy, to life in all their contradictory complexity, and still has time to add an entirely new character, a carter called Somax who acts as the king’s herald for one day. Malouf, however, has not modernised the story: gods and ghosts are still present in its pages, sensed by the characters and intrinsic to their interpretation of the world. In fact, it is this sensibility, recognisable but alien, that he uses to great effect to explore his characters. Here is one example, a description of Achilles’ feelings immediately after he has killed Hector:
“Achilles too staggered a moment. He felt his soul change colour. Blood pooled at his feet, and though he continued to stand upright and triumphant in the sun, his spirit set off on its own downward path and approached the borders of an unknown region. For the length of a heartbeat it hesitated, then went on.”
This is clearly not how you or I would express the same feelings (should we ever plunge a sword into our arch-enemy), but it does contain a beautifully rendered psychological truth that we can connect with.
Malouf is equally successful when he communicates the newness of Priam’s decision to approach Achilles with a ransom for his son’s body, not as a king but as a man:
“The fact that it has never been done before, that it is novel, unthinkable – except that I have thought of it – is just what makes me believe it should be attempted. It is possible because it is not possible. And because it is simple. Why do we think always that the simple thing is beneath us? Because we are kings? What I do is what any man might do.”
Malouf devotes one of the novel’s five sections to Priam’s plan and the debate which surrounds it, simultaneously highlighting its importance and delineating his relationship with his wife and children. Each section seems to me perfectly shaped, each containing not only an important part of the story and insight into the two main characters, but also an appropriate memory (for example, in the first section Achilles remembers his first meeting with Patroclus; in the second Priam remembers being saved from death as a small child in the ruins of a burning city) and an intimation of the future.
Throughout Malouf is clearly concerned with fathers and sons. Within the first few pages, Achilles thinks of his own son (“In these nine years his own son, Neoptolemus, away there in his grandfather’s house, has been growing up without him.”) Priam reminds him of his son when appealing for Hector’s body (“You are, I know, the father of a son you have not seen for more than half his lifetime.”). When Priam first appears Achilles mistakes him for his own father. On their journey to the Greek camp, the carter also talks of his sons, and one in particular who “grew up strong as a bull” (perhaps reminding us of the Greek and Trojan heroes) and died trying to exercise that strength by lifting a cart which had become stuck in mud.
Despite having read and admired a little of Malouf’s previous work, I approached this with some cynicism: what, after all, is the point of rewriting an ancient story? However, Malouf has accomplished this in beautiful and involving prose without resorting to gimmickry. There are many resonances in the relationships, but perhaps also an attempt to redefine heroism by focusing not on martial valour but on our closest bonds and what they mean to us. Priam’s thoughts as he returns to Troy are revealing:
“Look, he wants to shout, I am still here but the I is different. I come as a man of sorrow bringing the body of my son for burial, but I come also as a hero of the deed that till now was never attempted.”
His changing of his sense of self seems the bravest act of all.