Acclaimed British author Norfolk follows his earlier critical successes Lemprière’s Dictionary (1992) and The Pope’s Rhinoceros (1996) with a complex symbolic novel whose several plots are set in classical Greece, Romania under Nazi occupation, and Paris in (it seems) the late 1960s.
The brilliant 100-page opening section is a vividly detailed account of a hunt in which a party of 60 renowned heroes (including one woman warrior: Atalanta) pursues the otherworldly wild boar inflicted on the kingdom of Kalydon by the aggrieved and vengeful goddess Artemis. It’s a fine piece of action writing, accompanied by numerous mock-scholarly footnotes throughout its first third—and also an absorbing analysis of the interrelations of Atalanta, her soulmate (and perhaps lover) Meleager (son of Kalydon’s King Oeneus), and their companion and antagonist Meilanion, a solitary “nighthunter” implicitly likened to the “dark” supernatural force they have together pledged to destroy. These three characters are recapitulated in those (whom we meet in Paris) of Solomon Memel, a Romanian refugee who was rescued by Greek resistance fighters and who later authored a famous allegorical poem entitled “The Boar Hunt”; the woman (Ruth) who directs a film inspired by “Sol’s” work; and Sol’s old friend Jacob, whose own annotations to a new edition of “The Boar Hunt” suggest that Sol has fabricated his own sufferings and exaggerated both the heroism of a woman guerrilla, “Thyella” (another avatar of Atalanta), and the epical malevolence of a German intelligence officer named Eberhardt, who may have been nothing more than an entry-level bureaucrat. The novel isn’t easy going, but Norfolk blends its disparate elements together with consummate skill, subtly dramatizing the intricacy and impenetrability of both legend and history (as Solomon puts it, “Our heroes never live the lives we require . . . . Their true acts take place in darkness and silence and their untellable stories rest with them in the cave”).
One of the year’s most imaginative and challenging novels.