An Iliad A Story of War by Alessandro Barrico published this week by Canongate.
Canongate, if you are watching I can't tell you how relieved I am that along the way from inception to publication the cover seems to have changed from this as seen on Amazon to this as the copy I have just read
I can think of nothing that may have clouded my judgement at the point of sale more than a Kalashnikov (or whatever it may be, new weaponry not my speciality) on the cover. I would most certainly not have picked the book up to buy it even given it was by a writer whose books I love.
That aside, Alessandro Baricco a discovery for me several years ago when Silk came highly recommended.
I've had to go back to September 2004 to see what I made of it
"France 1861 Herve Joncour travels overland from France to Japan to smuggle out healthy silk worms when an epidemic threatens to wipe out the French variety. There he falls in love with a concubine to whom he never speaks but sees on each consecutive visit until disaster strikes.After each visit he returns to his beloved wife Helene and it is she who has the final dramtic word...only 100 pages, a mere haiku of a novel and yet again I wonder what I miss in the translation from the Italian, but a truly wistful and peaceful book"
I was clearly besotted with Baricco because in October 2004 I read Without Blood and was still entranced by his writing so when an offer of An Iliad came from Canongate I swooped.
This translation by Ann Goldstein and I haven't been disappointed, not one iota.
Alessandro Baricco conceived "the idea of reading the entire Iliad in public to evoke the story as it was originally disseminated in the Homeric world" and then realised that in its original form it was in fact unreadable in this way, it would take about forty hours.
Adaptations and interventions followed which are clearly explained in the introduction.
Classicists adopt brace position NOW.
For a start the gods are sidelined.
That's OK because, thanks to Marie Phillips, we know they are alive and well and Gods Behaving Badly in North London, so sidelining thus allowing the human elements of the story to emerge unhindered. Marie's spot on, it's true, they were a pushy intrusive lot but I'm not a classicist so can't pontificate on whether their omission constitutes heinous crime but hold onto your hair because Baricco also does something else
"to receive properly a text that comes from so far away in time it is necessary above all to sing it to our own music".
I can see this may now have the already edgy classicists among you wailing and rending your garments asunder because this must be akin in the literary world to rewriting Shakespeare.
Things get worse I suppose because then Baricco owns up to some additions of his own "like forthright restorations, in steel and glass, on a Gothic facade".
The classicists frankly now looking a bit silly writhing on the ground, I'm going to have to give them some time out on the naughty stair any second, one minute for each year of their age.
But whatever Baricco has done, for this non-classicist it has worked like a dream.
I read the book cover to cover and couldn't tear myself away and neither it would seem could the Italian public. Ten thousand people paid to hear it being read and as it was simultaneously broadcast live on Italian radio Baricco reports that
"Numerous cases were confirmed of people who sat in their parked cars for hours, unwilling to turn off their radios. All right perhaps they were sick of their families, but, anyway, this is just to say that it went very well"
The story is told chapter by chapter through the eyes of several different characters thus negating the need for the Homeric narrator
...now classicists, take your thumbs out of your mouths this minute...
and I was transfixed by each individual take on the same scenes and then clever progression onto the next before the baton was handed over.Perhaps finally at last I have a strange grip on what went on even if I may have emerged with a slightly different take on it all.
It does still all end in a horse which should pacify the classicists a little, no giraffe substitutes or anything.
The over-weaning pride and the effort that went into the wars plus the slaying defies belief.
I should mention the slaying, there is an inordinate amount of slicing, spearing, chopping, garnishing and drizzling plus a good deal of raw liver and entrails exposure.
Rest easy though, nothing like as bad as Toby Litt's Hospital more like Ready Steady Cook gone very nasty.
Menelaus Ainsley turns his Sabatier au Carbone on Paris Anthony in a fight to the death over Helen Nigella.
So tell us what's in your shopping bag today...well I've got a nice leg of Hector...
Sorry, where was I? I've lost count of the number of heads that came off but all a salutory and timeless tale of the futility of war cleverly articulated in 21st century style and a fine and moving epilogue from Alessandro on war in all its guises.
So there we have it classicists it's all over, I'll come round and pick up all the toys you've thrown out of your prams, just this once mind.