Edition cover

  • ISBN10: 1847671039
  • ISBN13: 9781847671035
  • Paperback
  • 176 pages
  • Canongate Books

An Iliad: A Story of War
by Alessandro Baricco

Reviewed by Duddy

Rating: 3 out of 5

  • Posted 13 years ago
  • Viewed 1359 times, 0 comments
  • Average user rating: (2.7/5)

An Ancient Tradition

The Iliad is the earliest work of European literature, dated to around the 9th century BC. It is an epic poem, supposedly written by Homer, but most people think it has several authors because the poems show evidence of an aural tradition. It tells the tale of a few months during the siege of Troy, by the Greeks.

It starts with Agamemnon, the Greek's 'king of kings', being forced to give up Chryseis, one of his spoils of war. In compensation he seizes Briseis from Achilles. This causes Achilles to withdraw from the war.

Now the reason the Greeks are there in the first place is well-known: the Trojans have captured Helen. The actual man responsible for this is Paris, but he turns out to be a bit of a drip, and it is mainly Hector, his brother who is the most heroic in the end. There are various bloody battles and strategic withdrawals, and it ends pretty much at stale-mate.

That at least is the original version. Baricco adds in a final chapter years later telling of how the famous wooden horse allows a small contingent of men into Troy, the Greek ships are signalled back to shore and Troy is sacked.

In the preface Baricco explains what he has done. He has taken a prose version of the Iliad written by Maria Grazia Ciani, and condensed it to a much shorter piece. He made some cuts, looked for rhythm, 'made the narrative subjective' ie told the many different voices in the first person supplanting the original Homeric narrator, and added a little to the text - these are italicised. These italicised passages were my favourite parts. The writing was quite beautiful and it made me want to read more of Baricco's work.

This version was performed twice each performance lasting two nights with a cast of eight taking different voices.

As Baricco points out this is a Greek text translated into an Italian text, adapted into another Italian text and then translated into English. So, it is somewhat derivative.

I found reading it very interesting, and having never read the Iliad before think I have learnt a lot very quickly. The number of different characters meant that it was sometimes difficult to follow but this is inevitable given the source. I think, as an exercise, it has worked well, and would be ideal for a class of school children to perform, as each of them would get a chance to perform, and they would inevitably become familiar with an interesting and oft-referred to piece of ancient history.

Reading the text reminded me of Jane Smiley's THE GREENLANDERS and also, to some extent, THE BIBLE. The prose tends towards a list and there is never a sense of involvement with the characters as there is say in Shakespeare or Defoe. It reminded me of how much I appreciate the modern novel (post-seventeenth century rather than post-twentieth) with its concentration, at least some of the time, on the inner world of the characters. Although Baricco says he has made it more subjective by attributing parts of the text to certain people, I am not sure that he has added anything to the text by doing this. The characters often describe scenes they couldn't have known, and in one chapter (Priam's) the first person becomes confused with the third. The chapter starts with Priam in the third person then suddenly changes to first person. It is odd, and made me re-read it a few times to see if I had it right, and I think I have. I suppose though, by converting to the first person he allowed the text to be performed - thus taking it back once more to its aural traditions.

I am glad I read this book, and recommend it - not particularly as a riveting read, but as an interesting way of absorbing a piece of essential western European culture.


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