November 8, 2010

Review: "Ransom" By David Malouf

This is without a doubt one of the best books I've read in a while.  It was so damned good that I turned around and read it again as soon as I had finished reading it the first time.  It doesn't take long to read, at just over 200 pages, but it packs a big wallop.  Ransom, published in 2009, is Australian poet and author David Malouf's most recent offering after nearly ten years; and I have to say that it was well worth the wait.

Malouf's novel takes as its inspiration a series of events that occur near the end of Homer's The Iliad (my review of the Fagles translation of The Iliad can be found here), including the following:  the death of Achilles' friend Patroclus (Book 16), Achilles' killing of Hector (Book 22), the funeral of Patroclus (Book 23), and Priam's late-night visit to Achilles to beg for the return of his son's body (Book 24).  With little more than passing references in his novel, Malouf wisely leaves it to Homer to tell the story of the first three events, and instead focuses most of his book on the last--that of the Trojan King, Priam, and his efforts to claim his son's body from Achilles.  Homer's description of Priam's meeting with Achilles is, in my opinion, the most emotionally charged and powerful scene in the whole poem.  In his novel, Malouf, the poet/author, lyrically and tenderly delves into the psychology of the grieving warrior over the loss of his friend, and the grieving father and his efforts to retrieve the body of his slain son.  While this is surely one of the saddest stories I have read of late, at the same time the reader cannot help but be buoyed up by Malouf's beautiful portrayal of the innate sense of decency, goodness, and the inherent need for redemption that resides in each of us--even in the face of great adversity and tragedy.

My impression of the Trojan War comes from reading The Iliad, and largely seems to be nothing more than a game board set up on a table and surrounded by the pantheon of gods and goddesses who reached down and pushed playing pieces about; with one side gaining a brief advantage, and then the other.  The upshot was that for ten long years the war between the Achaeans and Trojans reeled back and forth across the Scamander Plain outside of the walls of Troy, and resulted in the bloody slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands, of Greeks and Trojans alike.  Reading The Iliad left me with the overwhelming feeling that it all seemed preordained, and that the story just had to play out as foretold.  What Malouf does so brilliantly in Ransom is to 'liberate' a portion of this epic tragic tale from the control of the gods and Fate, and gives the power of 'free choice' and decision-making to two of the primary protagonists--Priam and Achilles.

For ten days in a row, following the death of Hector in single-combat with Achilles, Priam and the Trojans have watched Achilles drag Hector's body behind his chariot around the funeral mound of his slain friend, Patroclus.  Finally, Priam can take it no longer, he must do something.  Late one night he has a vision of something "new" occurring.  He sees that he must go to Achilles, not as King of Troy, but as the father of a dead son, and appeal to him man-to-man for the body of his son.  He will ride to the Achaean camp without all of the trappings of his authority on an old and unadorned cart pulled by two mules with an old grey-haired Trojan country rustic as the cart-driver.

A goodly portion of this little novel is the story of the carter, Somax, and Priam and their journey out of the city and through the countryside to the Achaean camp.  The two old men begin to get to know one another, and slowly but surely develop a tremendous amount of empathy for one another.  After a few hours of slow plodding in the wagon, Somax stops at the bank of the river they have to ford and has the King wade out into the river just to feel the coolness of the water.  He feeds the King some of his daughter-in-law's simply-made buttermilk griddle cakes.  He tells the King about the loss of each of his children, and that all he has left is his daughter-in-law, his little four-year-old granddaughter, and his two mules ('Beauty' and 'Shock').  What Malouf has masterfully done in this part of the novel is to help the King reestablish his connection with his own humanity and the land around him.  It is precisely the preparation that he needs in order to be successful in his upcoming supplication to Achilles.

I don't want to say too much more about the meeting between Priam and Achilles, as it really is the climax of the novel, but suffice it to say that it is an emotionally riveting experience.  With tears in my eyes, I found myself almost holding my breath as the two men quietly talk in a dark corner of Achilles' tent in the middle of the night.  It is heart-wrenching stuff.  I do want to share just a bit of Malouf's beautiful writing of this intimate meeting too, especially these few words from Priam--
"'Achilles,' he says, his voice steady now, 'you know, as I do, what we men are.  We are mortals, not gods.  We die.  Death is in our nature.  Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us.  That is the hard bargain life makes with us--with all of us, every one--and the condition we share.  And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another's losses.  For the sorrows that must come sooner or later to each one of us, in a world we enter only on mortal terms."
Upon reading this I suddenly realized that Malouf wants us to realize, just as Priam and Achilles have, that being Human, and therefore mortal, is better than being one of the Immortals.  Humans, with all of our warts and short-comings, have reasons to live and love, reasons to do the right things, and reasons to make our brief lives mean something that might be remembered through the ages, or even just for a few moments.  Homer, through The Iliad, makes us remember Achilles and King Priam, and Malouf's novel helps us better understand why we should.

I suppose that there is always the danger of trying to retell even a portion of a story that is so well-known as The Iliad.  I submit that Malouf has not run that risk here at all, and has not over-reached one-jot in telling this powerful story.  This compact novel, with its Homericly noble prose, is rich with pathos, emotion, empathy, compassion and humanity.  It is not the story of the gods and goddesses; no, it is the story of humans and human failings and feelings.  Most of all I think it is the story of the triumph of the human spirit even in the depths of despair and tragedy.  Priam takes a chance to retrieve his son and finds his humanity.  Achilles takes a chance by giving up his rage and finds his inner peace and redemption.  Nearly three-thousand years later we still weep for and admire both of these men for what they suffered and went through.  Malouf's superbly well-written Ransom poignantly and touchingly reinforces those feelings we harbor in our hearts, but may not have fully understood why.

I highly recommend this novel, and unhesitatingly award it five of five stars.  If you do read this novel at some point, and I sincerely hope you will, please consider going back and reviewing the books of The Iliad that I referenced in the opening paragraph.  When you finish reading David Malouf's Ransom, please drop me a note and let me know what you thought.



  1. I'm glad you enjoyed Jonathan Strange as most other people I know who have read it found it boring. Like you I thought it was innovative and creative and one of the best books of recent years.

    Ransom sounds interesting. Would you say you need to have read The Iliad to fully enjoy this book? The Iliad is one of those books I always intend to read, but never get around to actually doing it!

  2. Sam, yeah, I would say that you pretty much need to have read Homer's "The Iliad" to really appreciate and experience Malouf's "Ransom." I would say the same thing about reading Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad" too, it requires reading Homer's "The Odyssey". No worries though, "The Iliad" is awesome from start to finish! Thanks for the visit and your comment, Sam! Cheers! Chris

  3. "It was so damned good that I turned around and read it again as soon as I had finished reading it the first time." Now THERE'S a review.

  4. This sounds like a great book. I just came across your blog today and think it looks great. I see a similarity and some of what we enjoy reading. I'll be visiting again.