To say that it is based on part of Homer’s Illiad could be a recipe for the excesses of see-what-I-can-do literary fiction. Instead the pleasure of the book is in the simplicity of its telling.
The story itself could be rendered on the back of an envelope: Achilles kills Hector and denies him a burial. Hector’s father, Priam, decides to strip himself of all royal trappings and face Achilles as man-to-man, father-to-father, and ask for his son’s body for burial.
The great set-piece scene is of course the meeting between Priam and Achilles, but there is so much more in the book long before we get to that point.
Malouf’s writing is so fine he never has to strain for effect.
From the opening lines he sets the sure tone and economy of style that typifies what follows:
“The sea has many voices. The voice this man is listening for is the voice of his mother. He lifts his head, turns his face to the chill air that moves in across the gulf, and tastes the sharp salt on his lip.”
This is Achilles before he slays Priam’s son Hector. But no matter who or what Malouf is writing about he brings a clear-eyed lyrical quality to it. As a writer he keeps his gaze fixed on a moment and his gaze manages to combine intensity with gentleness.
Many of the moments are ones where some fundamental or subliminal change is taking place in a character.
When Priam decides to become an ordinary man instead of being a king for the purpose of approaching Achilles there is a sense in which he is playing for the highest stakes.
He does bring various offerings to Achilles as ransom for Hector’s body but Priam’s own life is the real ransom. And Priam divests himself of the rich trappings of his life in order to set off on the journey.
The book is far too wise to run the story as the cruelty of Achilles versus the bravery of Priam.
In a central passage in the story we witness Priam not just discovering himself but discovering life.
The journey is made in a cart rather than a royal carriage and his companion, Somax, is an ordinary villager rather than a courtier.
Because Somax lacks the affectations of those accustomed to serving the king, Priam is in a man-to -man meeting before he even meets Achilles. Priam’s discovery is that life is real and not just representational as it had been when he wore the clothes of the king. Priam has an existential awakening without the nausea:
“In being just itself, neither more nor less, each thing appeared to him in a form he barely recognised; self-absorbed, separate, too busy with its own life of running from here to there like the water, or seeking out food like the fishlings and noisy circle of swifts, to take much account of one old man who had wandered in among them to settle for a time and then pass on.”
Priam is not just emblematic of humility and heroism. For us reading this new imagining of the story in 2010, it does something that is always worthwhile and no small achievement for a novel — stretches the wonderful possibilities of what it is to be human.