a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: fable

Ransom by David Malouf

Reminiscent of: Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

Summary: The Iliad begins with Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest strength, refusing to fight for them, for Agamemnon, who insulted him. But he is the only one who can defeat the Trojan prince Hector. One of the greatest stories of The Iliad is Achilles’ final vengeful slaughter of Hector, his darkest moments that follow, and King Priam’s daring un-kingly attempt to ransom his son’s body from the cruel Achilles. The unlikely meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, in the middle of a Greek camp, at the centre of an unending war, makes a beautiful story of loss.

“If the last thing that happens to me is to be hunted down in the heart of my citadel, and dragged out by the feet, and shamelessly stripped and humiliated, so be it. But I do not want that to be the one sad image of me that endures in the minds of men. The image I mean to leave is a living one. Of something so new and unheard of that when men speak my name it will stand forever as proof of what I was. An act, in these terrible days, that even an old man can perform, that only an old man dare perform, of whom nothing now can be expected of noise and youthful swagger. Who can go humbly, as a father and as a man, to his son’s killer, and ask in the gods’ name, and in their sight, to be given back the body of his dead son. Lest the honour of all men be trampled in the dust.’’
My thoughts: So: did I mention I’ve been on kind of a Troy-high lately? I’m halfway through the Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad and have been catching up on my Greek mythology; reading novels based on the Trojan war, because there’s no better way to learn stuff than through stories. Last week, I wrote about The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s a book full of glamour and passion, but this book is the complete opposite. I’d read and appreciated Ransom by David Malouf before, but this reread has me inspired. This book is amazing. Brilliantly composed. 
The author adds character to the myth, life stories and feelings. We see Achilles in the ruthlessness that even he can’t comprehend. Angry and impulsive Achilles who leaves the war, then rejoins it to avenge his friend’s murder, kills Hector and mercilessly drags around his bones for days to follow. But he’s burning inside; even as the Myrmidons begin to resent their leader’s bold cruelty, we find him not cruel, but pitiful.
And then we see Priam, ransomed from slavery by his sister through Heracles, we meet his sons and daughters and Hecuba, his Queen. Ransom is about a King – a symbol – and about the man behind that image, a man who finally breaks through to do right by his son. In a time when all was left to the will of the Gods, we see the one man who took fate in his hands, a ruler who exercised his free will and set out to plead to his enemy, Priam who put his life in the hands of chance. Guided by Hermes, in a cart drawn by mules, belonging to a poor stranger, Priam sees the real Troy for the first time. 
And the story is also about the cart driver, a stranger who is hired to play the part of Priam’s herald for one journey, an old man whose views about the world make all the difference to Priam’s actions, an old man who witnesses in one night a great chunk of history and, throughout his life, even after the fall of Troy, retells it to a thousand disbelieving ears. His presence in this novella makes you wonder about stories and the true truth. It reminded me of Odysseus’s speech in The Song of Achilles about how there is no telling who earns immortal fame and whose glory is lost in time.
Masterfully written, Ransom by David Malouf is packed with wit and emotion. It’s 5/5, incredibly highly recommended.

In his own world a man spoke only to give shape to a decision he had come to, or to lay out an argument for or against. To offer thanks to one who had done well, or a reproof, either in anger or gentle regret, to one who had not. To pay a compliment whose decorative phrases, and appeals to vanity or family pride, were fixed and of ancient and approved form. Silence, not speech, was what was expressive. Power lay in containment. In keeping hidden, and therefore mysterious, one’s true intent. A child might prattle, till it learned better. Or women in the seclusion of their own apartments.


But out here, if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn’t silence at all, it was a low, continuous rustling and buzzing and humming, as if each thing’s presence was as much the sound it made as its shape, or the way it had, which was all its own, of moving or being still.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

My first Salman Rushdie novel. The fabulous writing has left
me in awe. The Enchantress of Florence is a book about storytelling and adventure and magic of the crude, unrestrained, undiluted kind; unlike
the magic you encounter in modern fantasy, this is wholly inexplicable.
A yellow-haired traveller shows up in Emperor Akbar’s court
in Fatehpur Sikri claiming to be the child of Akbar’s grandfather, Babar’s
exiled sister, Princess Qara Köz, Lady Black Eyes; known in Italy as
the Enchantress of Florence. As the traveller, who calls himself The Mughal of
Love, relates his mother’s tale, the narrative switches back and forth between
Akbar’s court in Hindustan and Renaissance Florence.
Rushdie takes characters out of history and blends them almost perfectly with the fiction he has created; Tansen in Sikri and Niccolo Machiavelli in Italy, among others; giving even the greats only as much attention as the story allows.
Despite being a bit rushed at times and slightly dull at others; despite bordering, sometimes, on pretentious; many stories in this book have left a huge impression on me.
The tale of Jodha, the aloof Queen that Akbar brought into existence through sheer passion; that of the painter who, quite literally, lost himself in
his artwork; the story of the Memory Palace, a woman, a vessel, whose
mind was erased to make room  for someone else’s story. I have always been fascinated by the Mughal history of India and having grown up on tales of Birbal and his antics in Akbar’s court, the book has brought back the fondest memories of my childhood. Akbar is just as I would have imagined him. Rushdie brings Sikri to life, right from the first scene, from the splendid descriptions of the shimmering golden waters of the palace lake. Florence, though, I am not so sure about. It may be because I have never been there, but the city isn’t quite as vivid. The journeys of Argalia, the story of the three friends from Florence, and of the lives of Qara Köz and her servant, however, are intriguing. 
Here are some of my favourite quotes (no spoilers) from the book:
~ ‘Imagine a pair of woman’s lips,’ Mogor whispered, ‘puckering for a kiss. That is the city of Florence, narrow at the edges, swelling at the centre, with the Arno flowing through between, parting the two lips, the upper and the lower. The city is an enchantress. When it kisses you, you are lost, whether you be commoner or king.’
~ ‘We find that we enjoy him and do not care, for the present, to unravel his mysteries. Maybe he has been a criminal, maybe even a murderer, we cannot say. What we know is that he has crossed the world to leave one story behind and to tell another, that the story he has brought us is his only baggage, and that his deepest desire is the same as poor vanished Dashwanth’s – that is, he wants to step into the tale he’s telling and begin a new life inside it. In short, he is a creator of fables, and a good afsanah never did anybody any real damage.’
~ Is it not a kind of infantilization of the self to give up one’s power of agency and believe that such power resided outside oneself rather than within? This was also his objection to God, that his existence deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves. But magic was all around and would not be denied, and it would be a rash ruler who pooh-poohed it. Religion could be re-thought, re-examined, remade, perhaps even discarded; magic was impervious to such assaults.

Witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wand. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.