A kaleidoscope of episodes

2010-08-04 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Lost Books of the ­Odyssey

Zachary Mason

Jonathan Cape

WITH tongue firmly in cheek, the preface to this darkly glittering book claims that it is a translation of a pre-Ptolemaic papyrus excavated from the desiccated rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus — a papyrus containing 44 concise variations on Odysseus’ story.

The author has smartly seized on the fact that there were often several variant versions of any part of any ancient Greek myth, and has devised 44 short (some a page long) sketches purporting to tell other versions of events taken from the material surrounding the Trojan War and its aftermath. Also, characters (Odysseus and others, such as King Agamemnon, Helen of Troy, Penelope, the great Achilles) appear in a new light or several new lights, and often in hitherto unheard of situations­.

The result of this piece of literary and imaginative gymnastics is a hugely entertaining and kaleidoscopic array of startling episodes, shot through with wry humour, bitter­ poignancy and vivid descriptions (some real lyrical mini-diamonds). The book is also very post-modern, full of metafiction and constant probing into the nature of story-making and storytelling as a human activity. Mason’s Odysseus in particular has become so good at inventing and embellishing stories about himself that he cannot remember what really happened and what didn’t. Occasionally, to his surprise, he hears other characters telling stories about himself which further add to his confusion. Thus, the whole book becomes a bewildering and enchanting weave of apparent realism and paranormal events (the goddess Athena appears in odd corners), in which all the threads are firmly and dexterously manipulated by the master storyteller: the actual author of the book.

A final feature of the book, as suggested­ in the previous sentence, is that the time-scale becomes enticingly­ blurred, and Bronze Age Greece, the author’s modern American­ background, and some other indeterminate phases of human­ history all slide together or alongside one another to provide a shifting and almost timeless landscape.

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