Wednesday, February 23, 2011

2,573: The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

Before getting started on this, I should warn you that it is almost impossible to talk sensibly about this book without revealing some of the detail.  As it’s not a novel in the conventional sense of the word, I don’t see these as “spoilers” but if you prefer to know as little as possible about a novel before you read it, then you may want to stop here.  Obviously, please do come back again once you have read it, even if only to disagree with my thoughts.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey is a collection of 44 short chapters, each containing a reimagining of an episode or theme from The Odyssey.  Copying many a novel, the underlying premise is that an archaeological dig has discovered 44 lost variations to The Odyssey in the ruins of the city of Oxyrhynchus, an ancient city in Upper Egypt.  In real life, this is an important site where many important papyri have been discovered including pieces by Menander.  The premise is flimsy and does not stand up to consideration (for one thing, the book extends to cover the Trojan War as a whole and not just the events of The Odyssey).  Fortunately, it is covered in just a single page at the beginning of the novel and is then never mentioned again, giving all the focus to the variations themselves.

If you like a good, strong plot, this is not going to work for you.  There is no plot.  What Zachary Mason has done is to come up with 44 different images or tales, linked only by the underlying themes of The Odyssey.  To give you a flavour, among the chapters, we see the tale of Polyphemus as told by the Cyclops himself, Odysseus in the Imperial Chinese court, a dead Penelope, an explanation of how both The Iliad and The Odyssey were actually written by the Gods and were read by Odysseus before the event.  There is even an Odysseus who makes it back to Ithaca only to find he has been preceded and supplanted by his doppelgänger.

It would be easy to describe the various tales as independent short stories which can be dipped in and out of but this would be unfair to the book.  The themes of The Odyssey are strongly represented in the stories and link the individual chapters together in a way that, I believe, would cause the impact of the book to be lessened unless read as a whole.

I believe that the main themes of The Odyssey are those of identity, exile and yearning for home and the danger of temptation.  So here we have an Odysseus who marries Nausicaa, an Odysseus who gets home to find that Penelope has married one of the suitors and a Telemachus who goes in search of his father only to be swallowed in the ocean.  The strongest thread through this book is that of identity, its impermanence and its malleability.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey is like a hall of mirrors in which our perceptions of Odysseus, Achilles, Penelope and others are constantly distorted and shifted, dancing around the reader and impossible to get a solid grasp on.  Achilles as a golem?  Odysseus as the cowardly author of The Iliad and The Odyssey?  Penelope as cruel descendant of wolves?  Helen as the bride of Odysseus?  Odysseus as his own assassin? All are here.

Mason is, I think, particularly good at melancholy.  He conjures up perfectly the sadness that his characters must feel when their struggles and journeys end in grief or, even worse, anti-climax.  In particular, the last chapter, which has an aged Odysseus retracing his steps to Troy, only to find it a tourist trap in which actors dress as Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon and, yes, Odysseus, is especially poignant.

Other reviews of The Lost Books of the Odyssey often use the imagery of riffs to describe the variations and, in truth, the best parts of this book do conjure up the picture of a jazz musician free-styling within the structure of the original piece.  There is real verve in Mason’s writing and a real feeling of a creative flight of joy.  It has to be said, however, that the writing is uneven.  There are wonderful high points but there are also some chapters without a point and a couple that are so oblique and smoke filled that they become essentially meaningless.

This is a minor criticism, however, and this is a thought-provoking and, for the most part, delightful read.  At times I chuckled, at times I felt sorrow for the characters and it also affected my thinking on The Odyssey itself.  One word of warning: if you have not already read both The Iliad and The Odyssey, you will not get a great deal from this.  You really do need to have read them first.

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