Saturday, 4 August 2012

4/5 - Moan of Achilles

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller - Review

I'm part of a book group on facebook, although honestly I'm rather behind; in part because I've been doing other things (not to mention reading other things) and in part because...well...we'll get to that in a minute.

The group decided to read Song of Achilles mainly, I think, because of its recent win of the Orange Prize for Fiction.  I was very pleased with the choice because of the subject matter - an interpretation of the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus: heroes of the Trojan War.  And when the book arrived, I was even more excited - in the extensive list of recommendations and panegyrics were ones from both Donna Tartt and Bettany Hughes *swoon*.

Now I must make it clear that I'm yet to finish the book.  We're about a hundred pages from the end.  But those hundred pages are beginning to look like the last twenty meters of a particularly long and hot walk over burning coals.

We are not enjoying the book.  Well, that's not entirely true - we've enjoyed laughing at a few bits.  But thus far there are some major problems.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the editing doesn't seem right.  There is a lot of repetition.  At first I thought this might be a stylistic thing - attempting to mirror the repetition you get in traditional oral storytelling (of which the Iliad is a major example).  However, in the first couple of chapters there were three separate references to Patroclus' thumbs.  I half wondered if I'd forgotten something important about this particular body part, but it just seems to be some little fetishistic detail that got left in.  Again, it makes sense that Achilles' feet are referred to on multiple occasions; he is, after all, swift footed Achilles.  But does there have to be so many?  And why do we have to read at least twice each chapter what he smells like?

And the smells, in general, are a bit funny.  It's like someone told the author that the key to writing is to describe what you see, hear and smell and if you do that you can't go wrong.  But, well, firstly that's not true.  And secondly, there's something odd about the smells.  It's like they live in a Greece that's at least two thirds Boots perfume counter.  Nothing ever smells bad, but it does often smell exactly the same over and over.

From my perspective, however, the most upsetting thing is the damage done to the story.  From the reviews I've read, people have been very impressed and moved by the story.  But the story is not hers.  And she really has hurt it in key ways.

Firstly, and most scarily, Patroclus is made as un-manly as possible.  Soldiering?  Not for our Patroclus - he can't fight.  Apart from in the last few pages where he's suddenly survived years and years of hand to hand combat without a scratch.  Being part of a homosexual couple, it would seem that Patroclus isn't allowed to be 'masculine'.  Achilles, meanwhile, becomes a serene photo of a character.  He's a poster on a teenager's bedroom wall, with much the same level of animation and spirit.  Diomedes is unrecognisable.  Odysseus is perhaps the most correct in translation, but the way that his story-telling dialogue is written is completely obtuse to anyone without knowledge of the myths and just not correct.

Not that any of the dialogue is correct.  Honestly, it is entirely flat.  And reading it out loud to each other (as we have been) really proves that point.

The result is a story that, thus far, has read like poor slash fan-fic.  The Iliad has been ravished and the characters rewritten to suit the fantasies of the author.  She inhabits Patroclus, allowing her to fondle Achilles who remains as 2D as the paper he's printed on.  And the worst part of the slash fan-fic style is that it ruins the *proper* relationship.  Ancient sexuality is not modern sexuality.  The early scenes in the palace are absolutely devoid of other homosexual relationships even though it's a veritable den of heterosexual iniquity.  It's as if Achilles and Patroclus are, not only 'the only gays in the village', but also the only gays in Greece.

This is pretty inexcusable.  It changes the relationships as much as the truly disturbing Troy solution - "Woah, we can't have two men kissing in an action film.  So how are we going to make sure that doesn't happen?  I know!  Let's make them cousins!"

It also makes the elements of heterosexual sex feel extremely weird.  And it would seem that there's more of that to come.

There are other modern moralities that really mess with the meaning of the story.  Patroclus and Achilles 'saving' women from a life of rape and slavery is a prime example.  I can understand why you'd do that...but it's an ancient story.  Your main character is a sulky brute who brings about the doom of his comrades because he's upset about a slave girl being taken because that reflects badly on his status not because of some kind of humanitarianism.  He's not compatible with the modern idea of hero.  But either you need to accept that and move on, or at least rewrite him properly.

The Iliad is a story about the universality of war and the experience of death.  It is also, in the wise words of Dr Nick Lowe, a book that tells you all you need to know about men.  All of this is gone.  The fighting is, thus far, the most competently written part of the book.  But it is neither interesting nor meaningful.  The motives of the characters are lost.  How can Achilles be sulky about a wound to his pride when, presumably, he'll be upset because a woman who is treated as free and meaningful is stolen?  How can his great decision (fame or life) be understood as the foundation of his entire existence when it's replaced with some third rate romantic obligation?

Why on earth did it win the Orange Prize?  Deb feels that it's down to the Classical themes combined with a study of a homosexual relationship.  I don't know.  I'm just horrified.  I just hope that people go on from The Song of Achilles to actually read the Iliad and realise what the true meaning of war and love is.

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