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Thursday, May 15, 2003

Book Reviews

Singing the Past

The Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth. Doubleday, New York, 2003, 352 pages, $26.

It is right that the Greeks should rule barbarians, mother, and not barbarians Greeks. For they are slaves and we are free.
— Iphigeneia, in Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis

I cannot imagine a more appropriate time for the publication of Barry Unsworth’s new historical novel, The Songs of the Kings. It is indeed impossible for the reader not to see the parallels and relevance among the novel’s events, modern-day politics, and contemporary justifications for war.

Unsworth’s previous work includes the Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger and the highly acclaimed After Hannibal and Morality Play. His latest novel is a loose but critical re-visiting of Euripides’ late masterpiece, Iphigeneia in Aulis, in which the Greek army is gathered at Aulis awaiting favorable winds so it can set sail for Troy. Unlike Homer, who tells us that the reason for the Greek expedition is to rescue Helen, and therefore Greek honor, Unsworth sees the real reasons as being Troy’s strategic location and its great wealth. As Calchas, Apollo’s priest, informs us at the beginning of the story:

What did these people care about the pretext given out for the war, the honor of the house of Atreus, Helen’s flight with the Trojan Paris, a boaster who put it about that he had seen Aphrodite naked, looked at her from every side, and that the sight had enhanced his libido to such a phenomenal degree that he now secreted semen as fast as he spent it? Who could take a man like that seriously? Even if it were true — a man might be favored, though undeserving — who but Menelaus would care about Helen’s multiple pleasures and repeated cries of joy? Troy meant one thing only to the men gathered here, as it did to their commanders. Troy was a dream of wealth; and if the wind continued the dream would crumble, Agamemnon’s authority would slip away and with it his command, that too like a dream gone wrong. (p. 19)

Conditions in the Greek camp are quite chaotic. The expedition’s delay due to weather has caused the animosities among the different Greek tribes and individual heroes to resurface. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army, appears weak, and his leadership has been challenged. Thus, for many warlords, conquering Troy appears a distant objective, as do the possibilities and opportunities offered by war. Specific action needs to be taken before everything collapses.

Unsworth rewrites this seminal Greek tale of heroes and their desire for war by substituting economic and political motivations for ideal and romantic ones (I am reminded here of Christa Wolf’s masterful novel, Cassandra). As in Euripides’ play, we are confronted with warlords justifying and committing unspeakable atrocities under the pretext of war. The description of the heroes in the story is colorful and vivid, if not extreme; in some cases they become caricatures of themselves. The representation of the characters is straightforward; they are incapable of any moral reflection or ambiguity. There is nothing dramatic or emotional in their condition, which is to say that there is no dramatic irony in the description of them or their motives. There is no questioning of their integrity and certainly not any moral conflict concerning their function. This is a wild bunch. The “fat and short-legged” Menelaus, for example, is portrayed as a rapist and racist whose profound hatred of Asians, and whose own sense of cultural superiority, reaches the limits of the absurd.

I think I may have been too hard on the Trojans because of Paris carrying off my Helen….Now it is true that the Trojans are Asians, but they can’t help that, can they? Most of them have never had a chance to be anything else. I mean, there they are, they are stuck with it. They are kept in ignorance and superstition, they live in the midst of squalor and bad smells, they are unhygienic, they have the wrong gods. Now we could save them from that, we could bring light into their darkness. I mean, we are streets ahead of them, especially in metalwork and catapults. We have a duty towards these people. Once the territory has been occupied and the troublemakers rounded up…we could set about civilizing the population and changing their ways. (p. 282)

Nestor, the elder statesman whose name has become synonymous with mental vigor and “long-winded” advice, is portrayed as a moronic old man. Achilles, the prototypical Greek hero, is presented as a narcissistic brute, a natural-born killer. And above all, there is the sinister Odysseus, the ruler of Ithaca — which Calchas describes as a “rock standing up in the sea,” a place with no culture, history, or past — whose last shot at fame, name recognition, and wealth depends on a successful Greek expedition and Troy’s conquest. It is no surprise, then, that he is the chief villain, who manipulates everything behind the scenes and orchestrates the sacrifice of Iphigeneia. Unsworth’s description of the Greek “heroes” and everything that takes place in the Greek camp is masterful. Although he sometimes seems to exaggerate, he does so humorously, and he succeeds in bringing classical and modern elements together in his language, which is both precise and poetic (especially when the narrative moves to Mycenae), while the novel’s characters seem to transcend temporal limitations and appear quite modern.

The only two figures of integrity in the novel just happen (not accidentally) to be foreigners: Calchas, Agamemnon’s diviner, and Sisipyla, Iphigeneia’s slave companion. They are the only ones not devoid of moral integrity and psychological depth, and they are also quite aware of their position and function within their respective context despite the obstacles that surround them. They are also by far the most complex characters in the book.

On one hand, as the religious and intellectual figure in the story, Calchas provides the reader with the only counterpoint to the militaristic ideology of the Greek warlords. On the other hand, he is too weak and trapped in his own name and identity as a diviner to realize the absence of the gods. He is witness to an endless manipulation of the gods by the warlords, but lacks the courage to speak out until the very end, when it is too late to change the course of history. He ends up as a discredited religious and intellectual figure that has been abandoned by his gods and even by his faithful acolyte, Poimenos.

Sisipyla, Iphigeneia’s slave, is quite conscious of her own function and the fact that her existence is closely associated with Iphigeneia’s life and identity. Her presence and identity are suspended between the memories of her native Lydia and her position as Iphigeneia’s mistress, “a new person with a new language and a new home.” In the end, her action is quite unpredictable when she is called to choose between her slave identity and freedom.

As for the Singer of the songs of the kings, he is probably the most powerful figure in the story. He is the blind poet (reflection of Homer) and unofficial historian whose job it is to publicize and memorialize the deeds of the Greek warlords. Everyone depends on him for posthumous fame, and everybody wants to make sure that he sings and tells the right story, threatening or bribing the Singer in order to make sure that the “correct” and proper version of the story is sung and communicated. He represents memory, and his presence in the story raises the question of the relationship between politics and memory, ideology and art. The characters in the novel are quite conscious of the Singer’s power. For Odysseus, the Singer’s songs are a great opportunity to spread his message and manipulate the masses regarding responsibility for the delay at Aulis.

He was an entertainer, he had power. The audience had been gripped by the Song, spellbound, for a while they had forgotten the wind. One who could distract the people in this way, turn them from discontent and the breeding of revolt, was a very valuable instrument, especially at a time like this. But instruments had to be controlled. “I don’t want to tell you your job of course,” he said, speaking close to the whorl of the Singer’s left ear, “but it might have been a good idea to insert a reference to the wind that detains us here in that Song you have just been reciting….You know, the god [Zeus] takes his pleasure in a shower of gold, shows his displeasure in this wind that is so bitter to us, sent to punish our offense, an offense, you might have hinted, that involves someone high up in the chain of command.” (pp. 92-93)

Everybody in the camp seems to understand the power of the Singer. We see, for example, Calchas trying to demythologize the power of the songs to Poimenos:

“Poimenos, you will never get the truth of things from Singers. They have interests to serve, their voice is a collective voice. Do you understand what I mean?”

“I think so, yes. The stories they tell belong to everybody.”

“No, I mean their Songs are about what people already believe or what it is wished they should believe. Here at Aulis we have an army that must be kept together or the expedition will fail. Odysseus the versatile, the resourceful. Yes, these words describe him. But then come the words that don’t, though they seem to follow naturally enough. Loyal Odysseus, faithful Odysseus, Odysseus who is using his great talents in the service of Greece….”

“Do you think this war is about Helen?” he said. “That’s just a story. People intent on war always need a story and the singers always provide one. What it is really about is gold and copper and cinnabar and jade and slaves and timber.” (pp. 224-226)

To me, this is probably the most compelling aspect of Unsworth’s story. Certainly the plot itself is quite subversive, but so is Euripides’ version. As for Unsworth’s mixing of ancient and modern, and modernizing classical figures, these elements, too, are impressive. For me, however, the Singer’s story, and the art and politics of representation, address the question of what it means to depict life ideologically. In other words, how does the culture represent itself to itself through the songs of the Singer? What does the novel say about the power and political implications of representation? What does it mean to the Singer’s Greek audience, and what does it say to Unsworth’s contemporary readers? Unsworth’s narrative addresses the question of what and who defines history and, furthermore, of what history is, and by what criteria something becomes part or remains outside of it.

The Singer’s songs of the kings are not only about the representation of history but, most importantly, about the history of representation itself. As Calchas reminds us, facts and events do not present or speak for themselves. The Singer speaks for them, just as he, Calchas, claims to do for the gods, since the gods are absent or, at least, not immediately present to mortals. Calchas speaks for them and claims to be their interpreter, as does Croton, that other, native diviner who has sided with Odysseus and supports the sacrifice of Iphigeneia. Both the Singer and the diviner construct the narrative, and choose and manipulate facts, in order to give a particular meaning to events and legitimize particular actions. And that is where I think the novel succeeds. If there is a connection between past and present, it is not in the particular and universal themes, but rather in the idea of representation and communication.

We may think that some of Unsworth’s descriptions of the Greek characters are one-dimensional compared to those of Homer and Euripides. But what is the role that the Singer (any singer) has played in constructing these characters? It is quite clear that for the writer, history enters the story as ideology. There is a conflict between life and its representation. The narrative world of the Singer (and, I would add, Unsworth’s narrative) is quite distinct from experience and the historical process. As the narrator comments at the end of the novel about the possibility of Iphigeneia being saved by Artemis at the last moment:

[A]ll this was much later, when sensibilities and habits of thought had changed, and it was no longer considered desirable that such an ugly thing as the sacrifice of the innocent for the sake of prosecuting a war should feature in the songs of the kings (p. 336).

Apostolos Vasilakis teaches literature and philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
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