The Songs of the Kings: a Novel

by Barry Unsworth
ISBN: 0385501145

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Rethinking the Ancient Greeks
by Andy Lamey

Is there any other civilization quite so dull-quite so tiresome and overrated-as the Greeks? Consider the tragedies for which they are famous: all those paranoid speeches about vengeful gods, who are invariably out to get us. Does any other dramatic conceit ring nearly as false? (And just who are these gods, anyway? Apollo can run fast. Poseidon lives under the sea. Didn't we meet them as Flash and Aquaman, back in the Justice League?) Then there are the philosophers. Aristotle, notoriously, was an apologist for slavery. Plato was a sworn enemy of democracy. Let's not even bother with Homer, that crotchety old bastard. We all know he was a propagandist for imperialism and war. Bah, the Greeks, something in us says as we close their ancient, foolish books, shaking our head. Let us hear no more. Of their fatalism; their hero worship; their prancing love of games.
This view is most easily and thoroughly destroyed by Euripides. His plays are striking not in how archaic their themes are, but how fresh. He denounces the Athenian social codes that excluded women, foreigners and illegitimate offspring. He mocks the notion that gods can be blamed for human behaviour. He critically deflates the reputation of Odysseus and other heroes, depicting them as flawed as the hustlers and connivers found in the marketplace. His characters take a frank interest in sex. Normally when we defend the Greeks, we urge that they be judged by the standards of their time, not ours. But Euripides repels the prior notion that our standards represent a development over his.
Nowhere is this truer than in his last play, Iphigenia at Aulis, in which his debunking eye turns to the Trojan War, which Homer had already mythologized in The Iliad. The play takes place long before the Greek army has landed at Troy, and is still on the Greek side of the Aegean Sea, its ships trapped in the straights of Aulis by lack of wind. The plot is set in motion by a prophecy which says Agamemnon, commander of the army, must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, if he wants his ships to move again.
Euripides' depiction of the war's heroes is scathing. Agamemnon is a pompous, vacillating leader. Most writers before Euripides thought Achilles beyond criticism. Here he is an arrogant, incompetent coward. The play is perhaps most heretical on the war itself, which Euripides considered a corrupt undertaking. The story has been retold many times (most famously by Racine in the 17th century), but given its skeptical themes, it is no surprise it has proven especially popular with 20th-century artists, including the Greek filmmaker Michael Cacoyannis (of Zorba the Greek fame) and German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann.
And now Barry Unsworth. Songs of the Kings is Unsworth's 14th novel. Perhaps fittingly for a story that has been retold so many times, it is deeply concerned with the politics of storytelling and retelling. Who controls the storyteller?-is one of its central questions.
Unsworth, originally from England and now living in Italy, has frequently written historical fiction, but I am unaware of any historical novel quite like this. "Nestor lost his marbles long ago," one character says of a Greek general. Later the same character remarks, "That's the sort of thing that is bound to look impressive on a person's CV." An agitated smith is dismissed as a "Bolshie", short for Bolshevik. The modern language is in keeping with the characters' contemporary attitudes on everything from patriotism to the equitable distribution of wealth.
The anachronisms are intentional. Unsworth wants to highlight his story's contemporary relevance. This is particularly evident in the character of the Singer, a blind storyteller, reminiscent of Homer, who accompanies the army. The other characters constantly try to bribe or cajole him, in order that he might valorize them in his popular story-songs. Many of the warriors who seek to influence the Singer first appeared in The Iliad, and there is a sharp difference between the way Homer depicted them and the way Unsworth does. Here, Ajax the Larger is a bellowing buffoon. Odysseus, we are told, "loved falsehood for its own sake, saw beauty in it." Achilles is described as "a natural killer . . . he enjoyed homicide as a leisure activity."
Unsworth suggests that Homer's stories, and by extension all stories, particularly narratives of history or war, are something the powerful seek to manipulate. "There is always another story," the Singer says, in a passage that makes explicit the book's title and theme. "But it is the stories told by the strong, the songs of the kings, that are believed in the end."
How one feels about the book will be influenced by how one reacts to this central idea. I find it too obvious. The slipperiness of language and narrative is a major theme of the twentieth century. The notion has been put abroad so many times, that if we are going to revisit it, surely something new needs to be said, or the old insight needs to be made in a fresh way. Unsworth does neither, and reiterates a conventional notion in a conventional telling-sometimes too conventional. "Agamemnon felt unutterably weary," he writes, "weary to the marrow of his bones." Sentences like this do not give the impression of an author who ruthlessly excises clich, or burnishes his prose to a luminous sheen.
What makes up for the occasional lapses in craft is Unsworth's sheer storytelling ability. He has real gifts for plotting and (with the exception below) characterization. Unsworth is a particularly strong visual writer, and renders many vivid scenes, such as when Iphigeneia (as Unsworth spells her name) finally reaches Aulis. She lands on the beach at night, accompanied by a half-dozen soldiers, the captain of whom secretly loves her. When they are met by a war party there is a stand-off that threatens to explode into violence. We are made to really see, and care about, this: the hissing of the waves as they splash upon the pebbles; the barking of dogs from the military camp that breaks the tense silence; the hot-headed young officer, stepping forward in the torchlight, to defend his princess. Somewhat ironically for a book that is skeptical about the tradition of storytelling, its best aspect is Unsworth's gift for . . . traditional storytelling.
Some reviewers have commented on how modern Songs of the Kings is. But this is true only if one compares it to Homer and ignores Euripides. Most of the story's "modern" aspects, in fact, including its deflation of legendary heroes and its anti-militarism-not to mention the very notion of a critical re-telling that suggests official history is wrong-were already present 2,500 years ago. Indeed, in some areas Euripides seems more contemporary-more convincingly real-than Unsworth. Crucial to any version of the story is Agamemnon. We have to believe he really will kill his child to bring back the wind. Unsworth gives us a villain whose motivation is so unlikely (all those riches waiting to be plundered at Troy), he might as well cackle and twirl his mustache. Euripides draws a psychologically convincing portrait of a leader cracking under the burdens of prophecy and command. His Agamemnon is capable of anything.
Unsworth adds characters and subplots, many of which are engaging, but on a thematic level, Songs of the Kings is still Euripides' story. Unsworth is now in his seventies and won the Booker Prize a decade ago (Sacred Hunger split the award in 1992 with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient). One senses he no longer feels the need to strain for originality. He has already been to his Troy, made off with his bounty. On this outing, rather than seek to escape Euripides' shadow, he is happy to loiter in it.

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