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Ransom by David Malouf

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Edited by Keith Currie, Wednesday, 26 May 2021, 17:17

The Price Paid

There are those who love this short novel, and there are those who say ‘Might as well read the Iliad’. Does Malouf add anything to Homer in his ‘re-imagining’ of Iliad Book 24?

For anyone who knows the Iliad the opening and theme of Ransom present no problems: Achilles has killed Hector in revenge for his killing Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion; Achilles causes daily abuse to the corpse of Hector, but each night the gods restore the body. Achilles has had his revenge but he has gained no satisfaction.

Meanwhile in Troy King Priam, the father of Hector, decides to go into the Greek camp to Achilles’ hut and ask his son’s killer to return the body for decent burial. In return he will give him a huge ransom.

After a doubtful beginning this novel, for me, just got better and better. Malouf does not slavishly follow Homer except in the story’s outline, but always respecting the original he subtly and brilliantly subverts the reader’s expectation of what is to come. The replacement of Priam’s herald Idaeus with a common carter Somax, allows Priam to experience life and loss from a different point of view. Suffering is not the monopoly of the rich elite. The portrayal of the louche and arrogant Hermes emphasises the otherness and caprice of the powerful gods. Best of all is the scene in Achilles’ hut where the author changes the course of the conversation of Priam with Achilles without changing the outcome. In Ransom it is Achilles through a misunderstanding who kneels to Priam rather than vice versa; in Ransom Priam makes his appeal to Achilles as a father not as a son. In the Iliad Achilles pushes Priam away ‘gently’, while in Ransom he does it ‘roughly’, but for different reasons and with the same positive conclusion in both works. This appeals to me greatly. In addition the focus on Achilles’ son Neoptolemus in the final pages subverts the similar scene in Virgil’s Aeneid when he murders Priam, but experiences a very different emotional reaction to the killing.

A short novel, then, very clever, very entertaining, very good.Ransom by David Malouf

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