Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Thoughts on An Iliad

When you're seeking to modernize something, perhaps it's wise to, well, modernize it.

I say this because that was the intention of Alessandro Baricco when he envisioned An Iliad, which began life as a project to bring back the oral tradition of Homer's Trojan War by staging a public reading of it, before he realized that to modern ears this would be insane, not just time-consuming but extremely cumbersome given changing sensibilities.  It's one thing for people to read The Iliad, quite another to hear its elliptical patterns.  Yes, maybe fascinating, but not compelling.

So Baricco set out to reshape the story, trimming it considerably in the process while absorbing a few select elements to give a more comprehensive look at the end of the war than Homer actually provides.  The problem is that Baricco doesn't really do much more than trim.  He keeps most of it almost exactly as you will remember it in verse.  Zachary Mason he is not.

Interestingly, he chooses to relate it from the perspective of various participants.  Not as interestingly, he rarely seems interested in capitalizing on those perspectives, instead sticking closely to the same chronicle of death that the original presents, and refusing to look very closely at any of the characters he selects.  It's maddening.

Yes, it is a nice summary of the existing narrative, but that's about it.  He also includes a fairly vapid, sprawling essay on the continuing appeal of The Iliad and the nature of our relationship with war, why we still engage in it.  There are some good points, but he's not good enough to make them clear, so instead he just trails on.

I would by any means dissuade anyone from reading An Iliad, but it's another project that did not match its ambitions, or at the very least, its potential.  Maybe ironic for the story of a war that dragged on for a decade for no more discernible reason than the force of convictions in each participant were not always what they should have been...

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