No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, January 10, 2010

2010/01: The Fall of Troy -- Peter Ackroyd

"The eagle with the snake in its mouth is a sacred sign to the people. If the bird had approached us from the left, it would mark calamity. But from the right it signals triumph."
"I did not know such things were still believed."
"We are in Troy now. The age of omens has not passed." (p. 48


The Fall of Troy is based on, but doesn't exactly mirror, the career of Heinrich Schliemann and especially his excavations at Troy. Ackroyd's Obermann is overbearing yet curiously childlike, driven and inspired by his vision of the Homeric past and not above deception to further his aims. Sophia, much younger than her husband, is innocent but not naive: she resolutely refuses to think about the inconsistencies in Obermann's anecdotes, the questions that those around her are too polite -- or too embroiled -- to ask. Instead, Sophia settles into the life of an archaeologist; excavating the windy hill that was Troy, cataloguing finds, listening and learning.

"We are all beasts in Troy. We are all wooden horses." (p.133)

The first visitor to disturb her equilibrium is Professor Brand, an American professor who dares to question Obermann. A mythic fate befalls him. Then comes Alexander Thornton, a young archaeologist employed by the British Museum, to see the marvels that Obermann has publicised so inventively. He's soon at odds with Herr Obermann, complicated by his growing admiration for Frau Obermann. Thornton's discoveries -- a skeleton that bears the marks of sacrifice and something worse, tablets that indicate the roots of Trojan language -- are unacceptable to Obermann. "He is what we call in Greece one-eyed," explains Sophia. "He sees only what he wishes." (p. 144) Retribution is, again, mythic; rooted in story, enacted by humans but with a sense that something other is at work.

The novel is short but powerful, and seems at once a reflection of ancient legend and a metamorphosis, of it. I'm finding more significance in secondary characters such as the blind Frenchman Lineau, who can tell the truth by touch; the young man, son of Obermann's business associate, who's nicknamed Telemachus; the Turkish overseer Kadri Bey, whom Obermann sees as an enemy ... There's a strong sense of myth woven through the story, not only through Obermann's frequent references to Homer and Virgil but also in the folk memories and beliefs prevalent throughout the villages, and in Sophia's perceptions of the land around her: the light across the Hellespont, the sense of something circling in the forest, the rush of the oncoming storm.

"... you believed his stories?"
"Of course. They had the truth of vision. What is the world without vision?" (p. 215)

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