Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Iliad discussion: An Iliad — a partial review (and examining some of the work’s themes)

This is a partial review of Alessandro Baricco’s An Iliad (translated by Ann Goldstein)—partial because I could not finish it. The book does raise interesting questions (more about his choices, but some about the original work). I’ll outline Baricco’s introduction and end note (in slightly different order than he presented them) and then go into further details on each one.

Baricco set out to read the entire Iliad in public but realized he needed to make some changes if he wanted to accomplish this in one performance. The first change he made was to avoid repetitions. The next was to use some of the language directly from the work while making other parts more succinct. Baricco then lists four “interventions” he made:

  • Stylistic (eliminate archaic language, set a certain tempo, etc.)
  • Make the narrative subjective
  • Remove “all the appearances of the gods”
  • Additions (“bring to the surface intimations that The Iliad could not express”.

The endnote, “Another Kind of Beauty: Note on War”, expounds on Baricco’s overall view of the work and philosophy on what he was hoping to achieve, explaining much of his additional text.

The stylistic changes are generally fine. The repetitions in the original work add meaning plus sound good to me, although reading them sometimes feels a little tedious. One place where the repetitions are essential is when there are slight changes. For the “embassy scene”, Odysseus repeats what Agamemnon has told him and then adds additional points of his own. His additions are crucial to understanding the diverging opinions among the different Achaean officers. In addition, when I saw a “As I said” and then a restatement of what was said just a few lines earlier (on the second page of the book), I questioned the criteria for reducing repetition. (For all I know this is the only instance in the book where there was such an instance, but it was very off-putting given the claim and when things worth repeating are excised.) At times the tempo feels too fast and the segues seem rushed, but in general the pacing is OK. I realize he is trying to cut this down to a manageable time so that the audience’s rears don’t fall asleep. I’m ambivalent on the language changes. Sometimes using archaic language in a translation sets the work in the original setting without losing any universality. And if you are going for a subjective point of view (the next point), a conversational tone can add a folksy, believable feel.

Changing the narrative from an omniscient narrator to a subjective point of view definitely intrigued me. It gives the opportunity for some of the “lesser” characters to become more fully rounded, but for an adaptation that is limited in time that means the major characters are scaled back. The very first narrative raised questions for me, however, when Chryseis continues for a couple of pages on what happened in the Achaean camp after she sailed home to her father. A little picky, maybe, but if you’re going for subjective I would imagine having a credible witness to the scene is essential. And Baricco must have felt that too at times since he has the nurse (who assists Andromache) specifically cite what she saw versus what she heard when she didn’t witness something. Again, I like the idea but I’m not sure it will work successfully all of the time for this work. To make matters worse, many of the participants’ stories seemed lifeless as well. The characters seem flat since Baricco is relying on the original but stripping it of the repetitions and ornamental language. Scenes or experiences that should be highly charged stir nothing.

I was also intrigued by the attempt to remove “all the appearances of the gods”. Note that doesn’t mean there aren’t gods (how else could you have Achilles, Aeneas, Sarpedon, etc.) or that the characters don’t believe in the gods (there are priests, interpretations of omens, etc.). It does mean that Baricco intends not to show any god, nor attribute any action in The Iliad to the gods. His explanation that most of the time there is a dual explanation for actions, both human and divine, works some of the time but not every time. It is believable that Achilles managed his fury and did not draw his sword on Agamemnon instead of Athena warning him not to fight. However, Paris being spirited away by Aphrodite from his fight with Menelaus is a lot more believable than having him crawl away from the fight when Menelaus wasn’t looking. Paris was a lot of things in The Iliad but cowardly wasn’t one of them (although you could say the same thing about Hector, who fled twice). In another case, it is easy to show Achilles with his new armor when he returns to battle, but isn’t just a tad interesting to show how he came to obtain it? Also, if you say you aren’t going to show the gods, then don’t show the gods. Yet there is Thetis on page 8, calming Achilles and giving him instructions on what to do. Plus Achilles says he knows his two fates since his mother told him—there is no possible way to work around Thetis or her divine status by saying divine action is an extension or metaphor for human action. Gods that show up as mortals (Dream as Nestor in Agamemnon’s sleep, Aphrodite as an old lady to Helen) are a little easier to work around using this premise, although in the original work the mortals recognize the gods many times.

This raises the question of why the gods are in The Iliad. What is their purpose in the story? The easy answer is that is how the ancient Greeks saw the world, so the story reflects their view. But there is more going on than just that. Baricco says he is trying to bring “into relief the essentially human story.” But the story itself is about humanity and mortality! The gods serve as the “not human” element, helping highlight what it means to be human. Zeus (as well as other gods) muses on how miserable it is to be a human, but maybe the humans in the story have a different viewpoint. The essential lesson in The Iliad (as I see it) is to explore what it is to be human, what it means to be mortal, and how to deal with death—ours and others. Setting up a contrast of human and “not human” behavior helps illustrate the human condition. Put a different way, why do the gods many times act like petulant, spoiled beings? They have glory. They have immortality. They do not have to achieve anything—they already are and have everything. Humans, on the other hand, have to achieve their glory. They will never be immortal except through a memory living on as part of an epic tale like this. Mortals have everything to risk, the gods have little to lose. Although humans can act like spoiled children as well. Witness Achilles sitting out the battle, but he is trying to obtain glory (be god-like). So removing the gods, while an interesting approach, defeats a major reason they are in the story and damages the essential lessons the story has to impart.

Baricco’s additions are quite a different matter and the final reason I stopped reading the book. But I’ll start with the good. Adding the chapter by Demodocus telling about the fall of Troy (lifted from The Odyssey) is a nice touch, one that modern audiences probably enjoy for closure. But much of the other additions come from Barrico’s ultimate goal with his version of the tale. He spells this out in the end-note, “Another Kind of Beauty: Note on War”. His view of The Iliad is that it is a “monument to war,” something I believe could not be further from its purpose. As usual, I reserve the right to be completely wrong. But carefully describing a decapitated head sitting next its body with a spear stuck in the eye socket, does not strike me as glorifying war. There are no punches pulled in describing the cost of war, whether through the casualties in battle, the personal expense involved, the loss experienced by family and friends, or the crippling of community. If anything, The Iliad asks anyone considering going to war to look at the realities of what happens in battle and how wide the circle of war's impact becomes.

Baricco mentions those that seek the front line in order to find themselves, to experience life at its fullest. Are there people who view war as the ultimate personal test? Undoubtedly and he lists a few writers who thought so. But I think it takes a deliberate misreading of The Iliad to think the work supports that outlook. What the original work highlights is the irony of battle for humans—an activity that can cause their death also gives the opportunity for great and heroic feats. Man can achieve great things, but oftentimes the risk in doing so is accelerating his death. That is part of the nature of humanity, dovetailing with my notes above on the differences between mortals and gods. War is part of the human condition, as is peace. Reducing Achilles carrying his shield to the description “holding the world” excises a wealth of imagery and symbolism. As well as meaning.

Regarding the additional text added by Baricco, I found it distracting, heavy-handed, and counter to the original work most of the time. Thersites, the ugly soldier who heckled Agamemnon (and was beaten by Odysseus) has this deep insight early on in his section: I want to tell you what I know, so that you, too, will understand what I understood: war is an obsession of old men, who send the young to fight. Aside from the banal bumper-sticker philosophy, the story contradicts this in many different ways. Menelaus, only a few pages later, calls for King Priam to be summoned, saying “he is an old man, and old men know how to look at the past and the future together, and understand what’s best for all” when a peace settlement is offered. Hector makes it clear over and over again that he would rather not fight this war but it is his duty to do so. Peace is desirable, but to ignore man’s nature, and war as part of that nature, misreads the work completely. Which is the confusing part of Baricco’s version—he states that he understands this yet he is adding desired text (and meaning) that cannot be supported. His entire ‘feminine’ discussion in the end-note seems to me a Rorschach test of what is hiding between the lines. You see what you want to see regardless if it isn't really there.

I highly recommend listening to a recorded version of the original Iliad. Given the amount of time it will take to make your way through the work, I understand it isn’t an option for everyone (which leads to the potential appeal of Baricco’s approach). I can’t recommend his book, but I hope I gave enough information on his approach for those it might appeal to. I think it speaks highly of the original work that the story can still shine through despite many different approaches and changes. In the introduction Baricco talks of doing a similar project with Moby-Dick. I fear for the white whale’s fate in his hands, suspecting it will succumb to anthropogenic global warming after surviving Ahab. I hope I’m wrong…

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