One of the greatest stories of all time is briskly retold in the award-winning Italian author’s fifth novel (Without Blood, 2004, etc.).
In two author’s notes, Baricco identifies his version of Homer’s eponymous epic poem as the fruit of a recently staged public reading, and his realization that the poem “as it has come down to us was unreadable.” Well, yes and no. Still, there’s much to be said for Baricco’s skillful distillation of Homer into a trim narrative shorn of the gods’ machinations and focused on the motivations of various Achaean invaders (headstrong King Agamemnon, Machiavellian strategist Odysseus, vainglorious hero Achilles) and their Trojan counterparts (aged King Priam, his noble and intrepid son Hector and the duplicitous Paris—whose “theft” of the Achaean Menelaus’s beautiful wife Helen ignited the long-enduring conflict). The story is told piecemeal, as a kind of oral history spoken (from beyond the grave) by the combatants, their sorrowing women and such peripheral characters as the Nurse who describes Hector’s dismissal of his wife Andromache’s prophetic fears, “The River,” which relates the single combat between Achilles and the Trojan warrior Aeneas that bloodied its waters and the bard Demodocus, who tells as aftermath the story of the Trojan horse and the ultimate destruction of Troy. Obviously, something is lost in omitting the gods’ intercessions, which vary the content and pace of Homer’s immortal original, making it far more than a catalogue of battlefield exploits. But Baricco describes such actions superbly, and creates a persuasive atmosphere of character-driven impending doom. And Goldstein’s vivid translation conjures some spectacular visual effects (e.g., “horses . . . ran wild, pulling empty chariots and mourning their drivers, who now lay on the ground, more loved by the vultures than by their wives”).
Both celebration and condemnation of war, this Iliad manages to speak to yet another generation that needs desperately to hear its message.