I have always loved Greek mythology. As a boy, one of my treasured possessions was a book of Greek myths illustrated with beautiful color plates that made Zeus and the other Greek deities come alive.However, I was never able to get through The Iliad, Homer’s account of the Trojan War,which seemed to be one long orgy of killing. The poetic format was off-putting and the treatment was diffuse and difficult to follow.
“An Iliad” by Alessandro Barrico is a radically new, eminently readable version which provided me with insights that the original didn’t. Barrico, an Italian novelist, conceived the idea of reading the entire Iliad in public. Since the original would have taken 40 hours to read, he condensed it and made several changes to suit a modern audience. He cut out the many repititions in the original as well as all apppearances of the gods. He modernized the language and ,most importantly,rather than narrate the entire saga from a single omniscient viewpoint he had the characters tell their individual stories . Thus each chapter is related by a different character , some of whom are major presences ( Helen, Patroclus Achilles, Odysseus) and others, bit players ( Thersites, Chryseis). Finally, Barrico added some material of his own ( in italics) as connectives as well as one complete chapter, related by the bard Demodocus, to explain events after the death of Hector. The original stops with the return of Hector’s body to King Priam and does not go into the sack of Troy.
Purists will of course be offended by this treatment, understandably so. But , consider this…..
In 2004, when Barrico read out his Iliad to a (paying ) audience of 10,000 , the performance was also broadcast live. Many of his listeners were so enthralled that they sat in their parked cars for hours, unwilling to miss even a little. The live audience was similarly engrossed. And now, people like me who were left cold by the “original” are drawn to this ancient saga. Surely, that isn’t bad.
It was a brilliant idea to tell the story from the viewpoints of the multiple characters. In doing so, the emotions become wonderfully concentrated and the whole becomes human in a way that the original is not.There are two insights which Barrico touches on in his afterword on War. One, the evenhandedness with which Homer depicts both Trojans and Greeks. Homer was Greek but it is remarkable to see the compassion he exhibits when he describes the lamentations of Priam on the death of his son Hector; it is no different than when he portrays Achilles’ anguish at the death of Patroclus. Second, the reluctance of even the heroes to go to war. Once the battle starts they fight ferociously but before they enter the fray, they reflect upon the hopelessness of war. Rather than glorify war, the Iliad sometimes seems to be a cry for peace.
If there is any criticism I have of Barrico’s version, it is that the language is sometimes inappropriate as when one character uses the word “sissies”. But such miscues are probably the fault of Ann Goldstein who transalated the work from the Italian and they are few and far between.This is a good read and it will sharpen your interest in all things Greek.
” An Iliad” by Alessandro Barrico (Knopf , 2006).