Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Truce erupts in war - Book 4 - The alliances between the gods

Terminology in the poem

Throughout 'The Iliad' the same mortal/god/group is referred to in different ways which could be a bit confusing. So here is a list of several names being used to refer to the same thing. 

1. Argives/Achaeans - refers to the Greeks
2. Athena/Pallas - refers to the Greek warrior goddess 'Athena'
3. Sons of Atreus - refers to  Agamemnon and MenelausSome times both are also referred to as Atrides.
4. Son of Cronus - Zeus

The Greek Gods and their interest in the Trojan war

Before we get into Book 4, lets get a quick understanding of the the Greek gods, the dynamics of the relationships between the gods, between gods and mortals and also their stand on the Trojan war. The first thing that strikes one as he reads the Greek myths is that the gods are egoistical and whimsical lot. They are always on the lookout for perceived insults to them by other gods or mortals and quick to offer retribution for what they see as insults. For e.g. if someone forgets to provide an offering before starting a task, he is doomed. At the core of this lies the insecurity of the Gods, towards each other as well as towards mortals. The reason for this insecurity could be due to the manner in which they became gods themselves, (i.e) overthrowing their father 'Cronus' under the leadership of Zeus. So they are always on the lookout for usurpers to their power. Anyone who challenges them is destined to be destroyed. 'Prometheus', a Titan (not a man) is given a punishment of everlasting torment by Zeus for giving Fire to mankind. You would generally associate gods being happy with such an activity which actually helps others, but the Greek god's didn't see it that way. For them  Prometheus disobeyed them and hence had to suffer it's consequences. Jealousy is another driving force for the gods, Hera in particular. She is always jealous of the affairs had by Zeus and tries to punish the women involved in it and also children sired by Zeus. Even 'Heracles', the greatest Greek mythical hero (and son of Zeus) had to suffer due to this. So the mortals are always in fear of offending the gods, sometimes unknowingly but still suffering for it. It is interesting to note that though the gods are in disharmony, the Greeks themselves do not show any favoritism when it comes to gods. They worship and give offerings to all of them. You never read about Greeks squabbling about whether Ares (Mars) or Apollo is great, or whether Athena or Hera is great. Of course, the one thing that is accepted by everyone including the gods is that Zeus is the supreme power. In fact, even the other gods refer to him as 'father', a term of respect mainly rather than indicating any such relationship. (Even Hera addresses him as father)

In contrast if you take, say the Hindu gods, who themselves are in harmony most of the time, you can see the followers attacking each other, disparaging each other, for instance the endless debates between the  'Shaivites' (followers of Shiva) and 'Vaishnavites' (followers of Vishnu). Or even take a monotheistic religion like Christianity where there are a lot of theological differences. But the ancient Greeks do not seem to have had such conflicts. Of course, if they had indulged in it, it would have hurt them only. The gods may themselves be in conflict, but heaven forbid if a mortal offends one of them, the entire set of gods would be onto the mortal in a flash.

As far as the Trojan war is concerned lets see the alliances formed between the gods. As we saw in the previous post, Paris chose 'Aphrodite' as the most beautiful one over 'Hera' and 'Athena'. Aphrodite helped Paris seduce Helen and then the war started. So Aphrodite is at the side of Troy as is Apollo. Hera and Athena obviously are on the side of the Greeks as they want revenge for Paris's insult. Zeus of course is the supreme God, a puppeteer who manipulates both mortals and even the gods themselves, depending on his whims and fancies. As we saw in the first book, he has given his word to 'Thetis' (mother of Achilles) that he would destroy the Greeks to such an extent that they would realize the worth of Achilles. So he is on the side of Trojans for now.

To summarize, the major gods in action in the poem are

1. Zeus - The god of gods. Sides by both Greeks and Trojans as he guides the events to their conclusion.
2. Hera - His consort (and also sister by birth) and on the side of Greeks
3. Athena - His daughter and on the side of Greeks
4. Aphrodite - Goddess of love and on the side of Trojans
5. Apollo - Son of Zeus, the archer god and on the side of Trojans. He is also god who can cause diseases (as we saw in Book 1)
6. Ares - God of war. Blood thirsty, he is mainly on the side of Trojans, but his main concern is with bloodletting in the battle field rather than any permanent affiliation to any one side.

Book 4

At the end of Book 3, we heard the Greeks demanding that Helen be given back to them. At the beginning of book 4, the scene shifts to Olympia where the gods have gathered. Zeus, that randy goat is enjoying the conflict between the gods. You can almost hear him chuckling heartily when he teases Hera and Athena saying

"Look at them-sitting apart, watching the dueling.
So they take their pleasure. But Aphrodite here
with her everlasting laughter always stands by Paris 
and drives the deadly spirits from her man. Why,
just now she plucked him away, she saved his life
when he thought his end had come..."

How do Athena and Hera react to it. Obviously both are pissed at both Aphrodite and Zeus, but dare not show their anger fully. Hera instead of showing an anger, makes a plea when she says

"what are you saying? How can you think of making
all my labor worthless, all gone for nothing

But Zeus gets angry at this and rages at Hera, agreeing to her demand but also includes a threat to her when he says

"don't let this quarrel breed some towering clash
between us both, pitting you and me in conflict.
One more thing - take it to hear, I urge you
Whenever I am bent on tearing down some city
filled with men you love- to please myself-
never attempt to thwart my fury, Hera,

The last lines are the key when Zeus says that, though he agrees with Hera wanting to destroy Troy, on the other hand, Hera should not intervene when Zeus later decides to destroy cities whom Hera loves very much. Hera takes up Zeus on this matter. She is so filled with hatred towards Troy that she is okay with Zeus destroying her most loved cities, if only he allows Troy to be destroyed. (It may seem that Hera has to put with with whatever Zeus, but as we will see later, she manages to get around Zeus several times, achieving what she wants).

"Excellent! The three cities that love best of all
are Argos and Sparta, Mycenae with streets as broad as Troy's.
Raze them-whenever they stir the hatred in your heart.
My cities... I will never rise in their defense,"

These are 2 gods playing around with the destiny of several cities, coming to an agreement which is mostly based on what would be beneficial to each of them and not based on the merits/demerits of the cities concerned. In this one can see that the Greek concept of destiny is quite different from that of the East, where destiny is set in stone from birth. In ancient Greece too, there are such destinies like that of Achilles who is doomed to death at Troy right from his childhood. But there are situations where based on the god's state of mind at that particular time, the destinies shift shape. Whether it is joy or sorrow, the mortals can never be sure that it will be permanent. The best thing is to be humble, worship the gods and enjoy the good things till they last.

So with the gods agreed, Athena is sent to the Trojan lines to trick the Trojans into breaking the peace. She does it successfully when she incites 'Pandarus' a master archer to fire at Menelaus. (We have seen gods reaching out to the warriors, Helen in the previous books too? You may wonder how the gods go in the middle of battle and speak to the warriors, or how do they go to the royal rooms and speak to Helen. They take the form of other men/women or in some cases appear only to the concerned person). 'Pandarus' fires an arrow at Menelaus. What a bow he does have, built from the horn of a goat. Goat, you may think what an immense goat which Homer explains as

"The horns on its head ran sixteen hands in length

A huge goat indeed. The arrow hits Menelaus like

"The shaft pierced the tight belt's twisted thongs,
piercing the blazoned plates, piercing the guard
he wore to shield his loins and block the spears,
his best defense-the shaft pierced even this,
the tip of the weapon grazing the man's flesh,
and dark blood came spurting from the wound"

Of course, can Athena let her men die? She quickly shifts to the Greek side and just about saves Menelaus. That's why she deflects the arrow and it only grazes the skin, though even that causes great pain. If you think that the above stanza is a graphical description of violence, then wait till the future books. Homer holds back no punches (pun intended) when describing the war. Hera's plan however has succeeded. It is now the Trojans who have broken the truce and they have to pay for it (never mind the fact that Athena tricked them in the first place). The  Greeks are understandably furious now and out for revenge. The Greeks and Trojans approach each other and

"At last the armies clashed at one strategic point,
they slammed their shields together, pike scraped pike
Wildly as two winter torrents raging down from the mountains,
swirling into a valley, hurl their great waters together,
flash floods from the wellsprings plunging down in a gorge
and miles away in the hills a shepherd hears the thunder-
so from the grinding armies broke the cries and clash of war"

When war starts can death be far behind and

"Antilochus was the first to kill a Trojan captain,
tough on the front lines, Thalysias' son Echepolus.
Antilochus thrust first, speared the horsehair helmet
right at the ridge, and the bronze spearpoint lodge
in the man's forehead, smashing through his skull 
and the dark came whirling down across his eyes -

Gruesome violence yes, but note the last line. In the entire poem 'death' is depicted as darkness, with the darkness surrounding the warrior, or dark coming whirling down etc. It the motif for death in the poem.

As the battle rages on and

"That day ranks of Trojans, ranks of Achaean fighters
sprawled there side-by-side, facedown in the dust."

we will take a break and see in Book 5 as to in whose favor it turns.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Helen Reviews the Champions - Book 3 - We get our first glimpse of Helen and Paris

Previous Books
The Rage of Achilles - Book 1
The Great Gathering of Armies - Book 2

The Greek and Trojan armies had gathered together at the end of the previous book. Now, as the armies approach each other we get our first glimpse of Paris

" a challenger, lithe, magnificent as a god"

Menelaus(Helen's husband), on seeing him goes into a rage, this is actually the first reference in the poem that Paris is the main reason for the war. Before that we do not know why the war is being fought other that Helen is somehow involved. But when on seeing Paris

"So Menelaus thrilled at heart -princely Paris there,right before his eyes. The outlaw, the adulterer..."

The last word is the giveaway as to what could have happened and who were the culprits. As Menelaus gets ready to take his revenge, Paris flees back into Troy afraid of facing him. Paris is a man who likes the pleasures of the body and senses, a man who would feel completely at home in a gathering of music, wine and of course women, but not in a battlefield, one of the earliest specimens of the metro-sexual male. As Hector berates him

"...... No use to you then,the fine lyre and these, these gift of Aphrodite,your long flowing locks and your striking looks,not when you roll and couple with the dust"

we get an image of his physical beauty and charm. Stung by Hector's words, Paris offers to fight Menelaus in single combat, with the winner getting Helen. As this would avoid any more unnecessary bloodshed it is accepted by everyone and offerings are made to Zeus and a pact sworn to be upheld. 
Now we get our first glimpse of Helen as the goddess 'Iris' goes to Helen in her rooms and tells her about the single combat. It's actually a kind of anti-climax as there is no describing here of her beauty. The general perception is that Helen is the sole reason for the entire war. But it's not entirely true and there are variants to the tale, one of which involves 'Aphrodite' (goddess of love) and Paris. As a reward for Paris choosing  Aphrodite as the most beautiful woman over 'Hera' and 'Athena', she makes Helen and Paris get together. So in a way, Helen is a pawn in the hands of her destiny which was written by Aphrodite. As we continue with the poem, we shall see that Aphrodite is always on the side of Troy whereas Hera and Athena are rooting for the Greeks (for the slight they suffered due to the judgement of Paris). The line of thought that maybe Helen was a prisoner of love against her will is strengthened when the words of the goddess

"... filled her heart with yearning warm and deepfor her husband long ago, her city and her parents."

In any case Helen is not a femme-fatale who callously left her husband with no remorse. Her image is an example of how male-centric opinions change over the centuries into what is accepted as common truth. If anything, Paris is to be blamed more than Helen for the all the events. But Paris even now is looked upon as a kind of ancient day Don Juan. Helen then goes to the place where the Trojan royal family including Priam have gathered to watch the contest. One thing that intrigues us about the war is how did the Trojan people react to such long lasting war of 9 years and still with no sign of end. What was their feelings toward her, did they hate her? As Helen reaches the assembly

"And catching sight of Helen moving along the ramparts,they murmured one to another, gentle, winged words:Who on earth could blame them?Ah, no wonderthe men of Troy and Argives under arms have sufferred years of agony all for her, for such a woman.Beauty, terrible beauty!A deathless goddess-so strikes our eyes!"

The Trojan elders admire her beauty, yes, but with a qualification 'terrible'. What use is beauty if it is causing so much suffering and as they say

"But still,ravishing as she is, let her go home in the long shipsand not be left behind... for us and our childrendown the years an irresistible sorrow" 

They would be very happy if Helen were to go away, but no one says that explicitly, the honor of the clan/race taking precedence now over the destruction that it is causing, for if Helen were to be sent back, wouldn't it be a loss of face for Troy? Never mind that the city itself would survive, but their honor would be lost wouldn't it. Priam welcomes Helen warmly. Priam of whom it is said

"words, endless words - that is your passion, always"

Priam is now an old man, his affection for his son Paris clouding his judgement and hence a mute spectator to all the events around him. But his kindness, understanding of human mind and fatalistic acceptance of what is going to come is borne out when he says to Helen

"Come over here, dear child. Sit in front of me,so you can see your husband of long ago,your kinsmen and your people.I don't blame you. I hold the gods to blame."

The first 3 lines shows Priam's intuition where he knows and understands that Helen would want to see her husband and country men. The last line shows a weary resignation of the events. Priam now wants Helen to tell her about the great warriors lined up. As Helen tells her about the different warriors, the most interesting remark from Priam comes regarding Agamemnon the leader of the Greek expedition. Pointing out to him, Priam remarks

"... Look,who's that Achaean there, so stark and grand?Many others afield are much taller, true,but I have never yet set eyes on one so regal,so majestic... That man must be a king!"

Yes, Agamemnon is not the fiercest warrior (Achilles is), neither is he the greatest strategist ( Odysseus is), nor the strongest (that would Great Ajax). But then why is he the leader of the expedition? The others have other pressing concerns. Achilles is plagued by the knowledge of his destiny that he will not survive the war and hence wants only to become immortal anyway by etching his memories into mankind for generations to come. Odysseus never wanted the war, he didn't even want to come to Troy, feigned madness to escape, but finally had to come to escape the wrath of Agamemnon. His only ambition right now is to do the job (capture Troy) by any means and get out there alive, back to his wife. (Little does he know that his return journey will take another 10 years, but we are getting ahead of ourselves here, lets focus on the current events). But Agamemnon's ambition is different. Yes he wants to avenge his brother, wants to get back his honor, but along with that he is also one of the first imperialist. At that time, Troy was the only city that rivaled Agamemnon. So with the pretext of helping his brother he wants to sack it, destroy it and make himself the omnipotent ruler of the ancient world. If it was honor then, it is 'WMDs' in the 20th century which act as a pretext for imperialism. Some things don't change ever, do they? 

After Helen tells about the warriors, the sacrifices to the Gods are made, a pact is signed that the winner will take Helen and everything is ready now for the contest to begin. What contest? It would be more appropriate to term it as 'non-contest'. How can Paris who worships 'Aphrodite' be equipped to fight Menelaus who is battle hardened and also thirsting for revenge. Even Priam knows that as he says

"This is more than I can bear, I tell you-to watch my son do battle with Menelausloved by the War-god, right before my eyes.Zeus knows, no doubt and every immortal too,which fighter is doomed to end all this in death."

Now Homer describes in detail how the contestants get ready. It gives an idea of the armory worn in those days. People sure wore a lot of protection and it's actually a wonder that they managed to walk at all wearing all those, leave alone fight.

"one warrior harnessed burnished armor on his back,magnificent Paris, fair-haired Helen's consort.First he wrapped his legs and well-made greaves,fastened behind the heels with silver ankle-clasps,next he strapped a breastplate round his chest,his brother Lycaon's that fitted him so well.Then over his shoulder Paris slung his sword,the fine bronze blade with it silver-studded hilt,and then the shield-strap and his sturdy, massive shieldand over his powerful head he set a well-forged helmet,the horsehair crest atop it tossing, bristling terror,and last he grasped a spear that matched his grip."

Phew, some preparation by the contestants, wouldn't the person be tired by the time he has worn all these, but ah, this was a time when men were not merely men but close to giants (in stature and strength) and sometimes close to even the gods . Doesn't an image of a battle ready warrior form in your mind slowly as he you read the above lines, little by little till we see the warrior in his full armored glory. The touch about 'horsehair crest tossing and bristling', is particularly interesting as it contrasts with the heavy weapons that are described above, much like sweet desert that comes after a heavy meal.

The contest begins. The pessimism of Priam is proved appropriate when the fight turns out to be an extremely short one. In fact, there is only a single throw of the spear by Menelaus which fells Paris. But Paris is not dead. Just as Menelaus is dragging Paris to the Greek lines, 'Aphrodite' intervenes and takes Paris to the safety of his rooms. She then callously asks Helen to go and tend to Paris who is waiting for her in the bed room. Helen's reply to that again suggests that maybe she is not a willing participant to the whole drama.

"Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now?Luring me to my ruin yet again?Where will you drive me next?.."

The above lines show her exasperation at Aphrodite. But can the gods be denied. Aphrodite frightens her saying

"Or in my immortal rage I may just toss you over,hate you as I adore you now - with a vengeance."

What can one do when the goddess of love says that she will hate you? Helen does what we all would do, returns back to Paris and insults him. But Paris is not known as a ladies man for nothing. For all the help 'Aphrodite' gives him, he also has considerable charms of his own and once again seduces Helen saying

"Never has longing for you overwhelmed me so,no, not even then, I tell you, that first timewhen I swept you up from the lovely hills of Lacedaemon,sailed you off and away in the racing deep-sea shipsand we went and locked in love on Rocky Island...That was nothing to how I hunger for you now-irresistible longing lays me low!"

This coming from man who has just been humiliated by his lovers husband. But more that, what this stanza tells is is about the events of the past, how Paris and Helen met, how they eloped etc. 'The Iliad' never tells us fully neither the entire back story nor the events after Hector's death. But there are hints like these dropped here and there, from which we can try to piece together the events. Of course, a prior knowledge of the basic story is a must so that we understand the references clearly.  As Paris and Helen reconcile

"And now, while the two made love in the large carved bed,Menelaus stalked like a wild beast, up and down the lines-where could he catch a glimpse of magnificent Paris"

This Paris must have been some character. First he snatches away a married woman, a woman of great beauty, plunges his country into 9 years of war because of that, gets beaten up the husband of the woman, that too in front her and right after that seduces and makes love to her. Right or wrong, moral or immoral, how many could do such things? Also spare a thought for Menelaus, victory was within his reach only to be cruelly snatched away. But fear not, for doesn't the pact says that the winner will get Helen and since  Menelaus is the winner, shouldn't the Trojans hand over Helen. Agamemnon asks the same to the Trojans

"Hear me now, you Trojans, Dardans, Trojan allies!Clearly victory goes to Menelaus dear to Ares.You must surrender Helen and all her treasure with her...."
"So Atrides demanded. His armies roared assent"

What happens now? Do the Trojans keep up their agreement. Lets find out in the next book.

Am not sure who organized the poem into books, whether it was by the translators or was it like this in the original itself. Whoever did it, he obviously has a sense of drama and taste for theater, finishing the books at interesting points.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Great Gathering of Armies - Book 2 - Odysseus the great tactician

Previous BooksThe Rage of Achilles - Book 1

At the end of the first book we saw that Zeus had decided to cause destruction in the Greek army for the sake of Achilles. Now he sets out to do it and how he does it shows us another facet of him. Zeus could have simply given a sign/portent that Greeks would win and fooled Agamemnon. But no, Zeus is not brawn alone, he is as cunning and devious as he is strong, a potent mixture of brawn and brain.  So

"he would send a murderous dream to Agamemnon.Calling out to the vision, Zeus winged it on:"Go, murderous Dream, to the fast Achaean shipsand once you reach Agamemnon's shelter rouse him,order him, word-for-word, exactly as I command."

Here you see the beauty of the idea whereby dream becomes more than an abstract concept, it is treated like an tangible, almost physical entity to whom Zeus speaking to. The dream is also devious, it takes the form of 'Nestor' who is the person trusted most by Agamemnon and informs him as Zeus has instructed it to.  Agamemnon is pleased with the dream, but he tries to be too cute for his own good. He wants to find out who among the Greeks are truly committed to the task and so tells the soldiers that they can leave for Greece they Troy cannot be taken. What happens? The Greeks who have been fighting for 9 years here, having almost forgotten the faces of their wives, children are only too ready to leave. A mass exodus beginning with them scrambling to get to their ships and start leaving.

'Hera' sees it and wants it to be stopped. (Isn't she the person who set in motion the sequence of events that led to this war). She hates Troy and wants it destroyed. 'Odysseus' is given the task of preventing them from leaving, Odysseus who is always referred to as the 'great tactician'. (Achilles on the other hand is 'the most violent one''). If Zeus were to be split into 2 individuals it would be as Achilles and Odysseus, one with the strength and power of Zeus and the other with all the cunning and deviousness of Zeus. We understand why Odysseus is so highly regarded as he manages to stop the Greeks, with a mixture of both persuasion and ordering, depending on who he is addressing. When he addresses a fleeing king it is as 

"My friend - it's wrong to threaten you like a coward,but you stand fast, you keep your men in check!"

But when he comes across a fleeing soldier

"You fool - sit still! Obey the commands of others,your superiors - you deserter, rank coward,"

Whereas kings are treated with deference, soldiers are bullied into staying. The armies are gathered back and here for the first time in the poem we hear the opinion of a soldier, the person in the forefront of the brutal war. So far we have heard only the kings and gods discussing, not the soldiers. 'Thersites' a soldier still doesn't want to stay and from him we hear the sufferings the soldiers have undergone and their resentment. He abuses Agamemnon saying
"....What are you panting after now?Your shelters packedwith the lion's share of bronze, plenty of women too,....How shameful for you, the high and mighty commander,to the lead the sons of Achaea into bloody slaughter"

Odysseus now goes to the next stage of persuading.(Remember the Sama/Bedha/Thanda methods of persuasion?) Seeing that Thersites could incite a revolt again, he abuses and thrashes him in front of everyone.

"And he cracked the scepter across his back and shoulders.The rascal doubled over, tearing streaking his faceand a bloody welt bulged up between his blades,under the stroke of the golden scepter's studs"

It may seem inhuman today, but isn't this what armies do even today, when someone wants to leave it during the war. Once you commit to the war there are just 2 possibilities, either you come out of alive or you die in the battle field. You cannot retreat on your own unless your commander tells you too. Then Odysseus  gives a final speech which turns the tide in his favor and the armies get ready once again to fight. It is beautiful mix of addressing the concerns of the soldiers, even sympathizing with them on one hand and boosting the confidence so that they would fight again, on the other. He tells of the sufferings of the soldiers

"Any fighter, cut off from his wife for one month,would chafe at the benches, moaning in his ship,...A month-but look at us.This is the ninth year come round, the ninthwe've hung one here. Who could blame the Achaeans for chaffing, bridling beside the beaked ships"

Then he moves on to a portent that appeared at the beginning of the war. He recounts it and tells them that victory would be theirs.

"As the snake devoured the sparrow with her brood,eight and the mother made the ninth, she'd borned them all,so we will fight in Troy that many years and then,then in the tenth we'll take her broad streets."

This speech seals it , the armies are now fired up with the prospect of impending victory and are ready to fight. Odysseus  has tactfully achieved what was entrusted to him, the man could be a study of management principles to get the job done, whatever it entails (much like Krishna who also finally gets what he wants?). We also get the first reference to 'Helen', the person at the center of the entire conflict

"So now let no man hurry to sail for home, not yet....not till he beds down with a faithful Trojan wife,payment in full for the groans and shocks of warwe have all borne for Helen"

It is still not said what exactly happened, this line is the first indication that conflict is due to Helen but doesn't say why. This could be an indication of the oral tradition where the earlier events are recounted in an earlier poem. Another thing to be noticed is the reference to the bedding of a 'faithful Trojan wife'.  It shows that Women as usual are the ones most affected by the conflicts, that the mindset of marauding armies do not ever change, haven't changed over thousands of years, whether it be the 'Classical' Greeks, the liberating Nazis/Russians, or the the peace-keeping 'Indian'/Sri Lankan' armies. Whatever the time period, whatever the army they behave in pretty much the same way, women bearing the brunt of their brutality. These little insights into an ancient world is one of the most important things about this poem in addition to its terrible beauty. It is easy to miss them, being so caught up in the events of the war but they offer valuable information of how people lived, their mindsets etc.

The remaining book is pretty much an inventory of the armies that have gathered. It's too long to recount here and as Homer himself says

"Sing to me now, you Muses who hold the halls of Olympus!You are goddesses, you are everywhere, you know all things -all we hear is the distant ring of glory, we know nothing -who were the captains of Achaea? Who were the kings?The mass of troops I could never tally, never name,not even if I had ten tongues and ten mouths,a tireless voice and the heart inside me bronze,never unless you Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeuswhose shield is rolling thunder, sing, sing in memoryall who gathered under Troy. Now I can only tellthe lords of the ships, the ships in all their numbers!"

What an evocative piece that tells the immensity of the armies without telling anything at all.After the Greeks, the Trojan armies are explained. We get our first look of Hector

"First, tall Hector with helmet flashing, led the Trojans-Priam's son and in his command by far the greatest, bravest army,.."

 While reading this stanza and the remaining ones detailing the army my mind flashed back to the 'Mahabharatha'. I thought about 'Sanjaya' (the first live commentator) explaining the armies gathered at Kurukshetra to the blind king 'Dhritarashtra'. Being from India, my mind keeps going back to Mahabharatha at several books during the poem seeing flashes of relation, points of concurrence between the two. So the armies have gathered, ready to do battle again. What next?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Rage of Achilles - Book 1

"Rage-Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,"

Thus begins 'The Iliad'. Popular perception of 'The Iliad' is that the poem contains the entire events, right from the elopement of Helen, to the 10 years of Trojan war and finally the fall of Troy. But it actually tells us about a small part of the entire events, a part that occurred in the tenth and final year of the war. Well, what is about then? As the beginning of the poem states, it is mainly about Achilles and his rage. 'Rage', 'Anger', 'Wrath', whatever the term is , it has got to be one of the purest emotion an emotion that takes no prisoners and destroys everything in it's path. And it is the running theme here.

Why is Achilles angry. It is told next. During the course of the war, the Greeks (am using the term 'Greeks' here instead of 'Achaeans' that is used in the book, simply because it seems easier to relate), took the daughter of a priest of the sun god Apollo prisoner. When 'Chryses' comes to the Greeks and is ready to pay a huge ransom for his daughter, he is rebuffed by Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek coalition. The sorrow stricken old man invokes Apollo

"the old priest prayed to the son of sleek-haired Leto,
lord Apollo, "Hear me, Apollo! God of the silver bow
If I ever roofed a shrines to please your heart,
ever burned the long rich bones of bulls and goats
on your holy altar, now, now bring my prayer to pass.
Pay the Danaans back - your arrows for my tears!"

The last 4 lines are most interesting here. Thousands of years ago an old man invoked a God reminding about all the offerings, sacrifices he had given to him and it still sounds familiar even today. Don't we do the same today,  don't we invoke the gods of today reminding him of all the good things that we have done, asking for his blessing in return?

Apollo decides to honor the request and strikes the Greek army with plague. For nine days the Greek army is decimated by it. The Greeks hold a meeting and Achilles asks a diviner among them, Calchas to tell them the reason for this plague and how to stop it., Calchas

"Thestor's son, the clearest by far of all the seers
who scan the flight of birds. He knew all things that are,
all things that rae past and all that are to come,"

Calchas tells the gathering that the daughter of the priest has to be returned and sacrifices made to Apollo for the plague to end. But there is a problem here. The girl is in the custody of 'Agamemnon' 
".. who now claims to be, by far,
the best of the Achaeans"

These lines give an idea of his mindset about his stature and standing. So obviously he refuses to let the girl go. Achilles persuades him, but Agamemnon has another trick up his sleeve. He says that he will take as compensation the girl in the custody of 'Achilles', a girl equal in beauty to the one he is giving up. Achilles goes into a rage and wants to kill him then and there, but is stopped by the goddess 'Athena'. He restrains himself and cannot stop the girl in his custody from being taken by Agamemnon. He however refuses to take any further part in the war, until

"someday, I swear, a yearning for Achilles will striker
Achaea's sons and all your armies! But then, Atrides,
harrowed as you will be, nothing you do can save you -
not when your hordes of fighters drop and die,
cut down by the hands of man-killing Hector! Then-
then you will tear your heart out, desperate, raging
that you disgraced the best of the Achaeans!"

This reminds one of Karna deciding to not enter the battle until Bheeshma is alive. Notice too the reference to Hector here. Why is he singled out at the very beginning when no one from Troy has been introduced as yet. (Keep in mind that the poem doesn't say anything about the events preceding the current situation and so Hector from the PoV of the poem is as yet an unknown quantity).  Is it  a pointer that the book is going to be mainly about Achilles (which we come to know from the very first lines) and Hector, the two main protagonists in this war to end all wars?. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here, lets concentrate on the here and now.

So Achilles is humiliated and powerless to take his revenge. So what does he do. This is where we get an insight into what different forms the human emotion can take. Achilles in his rage, asks his mother 'Thetis' to ask Zeus to turn the war against the Greeks so that they are driven to the brink of destruction and everyone

"so even mighty Atrides can see how mad he was 
to disgrace Achilles, the best of the Achaeans"

A huge turnaround in mindset. Achilles who wanted the girl to be sent back so that the Greeks could be saved from destruction, now wants the same Greek army to be near decimated. All because of his individual ego and rage. But here Homer throws in several hints that Achilles may not live for long. Lines like

"You gave me life, short as that life will be"

"Doomed to a short life, you have so little time.
And not only short, now, but filled with heartbreak too,"

tells us that he may not survive the war. Remember, you need to the poem as if you are hearing about the events for the first and you do not know anything in general about it. That's when you would be able to appreciate the nuances in it. If you carry the baggage of your existing knowledge the above lines do not have the same impact as you already know the fate of Achilles. So it's not just ego that drives Achilles, but the yearning to make the most of the short time he has, the short time in which he has to carve out his own standing in pantheon of heroes. 

Now the scene shifts to Mount Olympus, where Thetis goes to Zeus and asks him to do as Achilles has requested. What does Zeus say? It's a interesting insight into the marital lives of Gods and a bit humorous too if I may say.

"Disaster. You will drive me into war with Hera.
Even now in the face of all the immortal gods
she harries me perpetually, Hera charges me
Away with you now. Hera might catch us here.

Is Zeus, the god of all gods, the leader of the Pantheon a henpecked husband? Not really, but looks like even the greatest of the great gods are bit afraid or lets say respectful of his wife, not wanting any marital discord. And like any other husband, his secrets cannot remain hidden, as Hera finds about the request of Thetis and says

"Always your pleasure, whenever my back is turned,
to settle things in your grand clandestine way.
You never deign, do you, freely and frankly,
to share your plots with me - never, not a word!"

mmm, Hera could be speaking for all the wives of the world here. Quite an interesting scene of domesticity in Mount Olympus, a philandering, autocratic husband and a jealous, suspicious wife. Should make us feel a bit glad that domestic strife is common even there and that we poor mortals should not make too much of our strife here.

Zeus as we all know is quite autocratic and as Hera herself says "settling things his way". So a domestic fight ensues and Hera finally backs off when their son 'Hephaestus' plays peacemaker between them.

The book ends with a familiar scene at the end of any marital discord when Zeus goes to is own bed

"There he climbed and there he slept and by his side
lay Hera the Queen, the goddess of the golden throne"

What next? Oh a whole of things are about to happen, but not in this post. Lets take one book at a time and savor the nuances, meter, arrangement of words in this great poem. I am   not qualified to comment on the classics and am reading it from the view of a layman and things that I was fascinated by in it. So do join me if you are interested in this journey through a violent war, with scenes of destruction and beauty interspersed, through the journey of men driven to madness and clarity, men who are helpless in the face of their destiny, are driven to their end by it, men who crave to be become immortals (in thought if not in reality) and actually become one by killing and paradoxically by being killed. 

Oral Tradition and Written form

There has been a constant debate on whether the poem was recited orally at first and then converted to written format. 'Alexander Pope', reputed to be one of the best translators of 'The Iliad' has said 'Homer makes us Hearers'. I am not a scholar and so cannot comment with any great confidence on this, but as I am reading it, I can hear the words echoing in the mind and so may be it is true that it was initially in the oral form. 

I also noticed an interesting thing while I was reading. The part where the priest's daughter is captured, when he comes with the ransom, his being rejected and finally invoking Apollos is repeated nearly ad-verbatim when Achilles recounts the events to his mother. This got me thinking. In modern texts, the author would just have mentioned it as say "he recounted the events to his mother", but not so here. Why? If the poem had been targeted at the reading audience then maybe it would have work, but when you are catering to listeners, then probably you would want to recount the events again, because the listeners do no have any thing to fall back on (except their memory). But when he is the midst of listening to the poem, can his mind go in parallel to what was said earlier, while he continues to listen what the bard is saying now? The modern reader however can turn a few pages back and read what was said earlier, a facility which was not available then. Of course, this is just my observation and (useless) two cents on it.  

Note on the translation

There are 3-4 translations which are said to be the best. My choice of the translation itself would take a post, but suffice to say that it involved a lot of, what else googling and reading about the translations. I settled on the translation by 'Robert Fagles' mainly due to the post here. The person here has analysed 3 translations and given his first choice as

"Fagles provides is an easy read, but not too easy, and his style is superb without being overwhelming. I would also say though, that any of these three would be a terrific choice – provided you purchase the right copy of Fitzgerald. If you’re only going to get one however, I’d suggest Fagles."

As a lay man this is what I wanted from a translation, something that wouldn't overwhelm a normal English speaking/reading person like me, but at the same time wouldn't dumb it down. And the post is spot on in it's analysis as far as I have read the book. 

"Robert Fagles’ translation is a bit freer than Lattimore’s, which again can either be a good or bad thing depending on your needs"

"Of the three translations, Fagles is the most recent and so his verse is the most ‘modern’ sounding."

Yes, it seems a bit free and does sound modern. For instance the lines

she harries me perpetually, Hera charges me
Away with you now. Hera might catch us here.

In fact the entire stanzas about Zeus and Hera is quite modern, but as I said it doesn't dumb down the entire action. Thanks to the person at 'http://oldbooksblog.wordpress.com' for guiding me in making a good choice.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - Dave Eggers

'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius' - Don't judge a book by its title, because if you do so you could miss out on this book.  The title itself could be off putting for some, you could think, who the hell is this author, what is thinking of himself, how dare does he put such a boastful title etc etc. You could think all these be wrong on all these counts if you do not read this book, skipping it based based on the title alone. 

This is a quasi memoir of a part of Dave Egger's life when his parents passed away with a very short period of each other (1991-1992, when Dave was 21 ) and his taking care of his younger brother Tolph (8 at the time). There are 3 major themes things in this book 

     1. Altering the rules of conventional reading. 
     2. Zeroing in on a intensely personal experience and telling in a zany manner, without diluting it.
     3. Mapping the personal core to an universal experience

The rules of conventional reading are altered from the very beginning, right from the (supposedly) preface. Actually, whatever I (or any reader) am trying to convey in this post could already have been covered in some manner in the preface itself (an instance of the author predicting the reader), but having read it I have to say what I feel irrespective of whether I was manipulated as the author wanted or not. 

 The preface begins with the following note from the author

"DIALOGUE: This has of course been almost entirely reconstructed. The dialogue, though all essentially true - except that which is obviously not true, as when people break out of their narrative time-space continuum to cloyingly talk about the book itself - has been written from memory and reflects both the author's memory's limitations and his imagination's nudgings. All the individual words and sentences have been run through a conveyor, manufactured like so: 1) they are remembered; 2) they are written; 3) they are rewritten, to sound more accurate;4) they are edited to fit within the narrative (though keeping with their essential truth); 5) they are rewritten again to spare the author and the other characters the shame of sounding as inarticulate as they invariably to, or would, if their sentences, almost invariably began with the word "Dude - as in, for example, "Dude, she died -" were merely transcribed. "

At the very outset our opinions of memoirs are torn apart. If this is a memoir  then how can things like dialogues be rewritten/edited to fit the narrative fit into it?. Isn't a memoir supposed to be fully true, right down to the last clearing of the throat by a character. But that's just an illusion, a unspoken, sub-conscious agreement we enter with an author when we start reading a memoir (i.e) whatever is in the book is completely true and as it happened and it makes us cry/laugh with the (real?) events that happened. We do not take into account for instance the tricks that memory can play. This is true of all memoirs, but none of them come out in the open at the very beginning and straight out tell that there are obvious re-constructions in it. (well Marquez of course did it in his 'Living to tell the Tale' where he put it succinctly in a single line, but of course that memoir came about later than ABWOSG). This sets the tone for the entire book where we are always self-conscious about what is happening. No, this is not the much ballyhooed self-consciousness of a reader that he is at all times reading a work of fiction, but rather goes into the next level where the reader is as self-conscious about the fact that the author too is self-conscious about the reader being self-conscious as it is about being self-conscious about the content of the book itself. Confusing it may seen, but just look at it as endless recursive consciousness between the author and the reader. Dave plugs it in the preface where says

"The knowingness of the books self consciousness aspect:
While the author is self-conscious about being self-referential, he is also knowing about that self-conscious self-referential. ..... : he also plans to be clearly, obviously aware of his knowingness about his self-consciousness of self-referentiality. Further, he is fully cognizant, way ahead of you, in terms of knowing about and fully admitting the gimmickry inherent in all this...."

Let me tell you an instance of this self-consciousness. Midway in the book, the narrative style changes to an interview format, where Dave recounts his younger days in this format. Just as you think, "mmm, nice move by Dave to plug-in his past in a different format", he pops-up (in the middle of the interview) and says that, yes, he has brought in this gimmick. This is what I mean by endless recursive consciousness between the author and the reader, where the author too is conscious about how the reader would feel at certain points of the book.

There is also a section 'Mistakes we knew we were making' at the end, where Dave lists some omissions, changes, additions he did (like changing events, or events that didn't happen at all) making us look at the book in a different manner.  It would be interesting to read the book once again after going through 'Mistakes we knew we were making', it would surely be a different experience to the first time. Just think, you read something deeply moving, but then in this section you find that it didn't happen at all. If the book is labelled fiction, then it doesn't matter at all, but how would you feel about it in the context of this book being treated as a memoir. As for me, I look at it as both (quasi memoir) and probably that's the best way to approach this book, where you are never sure whether the author is laughing with you or at you.

These in your face proclamations in the preface (running up to 20 odd pages) can make a reader think that the author is showing off, trying to impress and intimidate.  But as I mentioned in the beginning, there is a deeply emotional core to the book, which starts off with Dave's mother terminally ill (his father having passed away just short time earlier), her demise and moves to Dave giving up his studies to take care of Tolph. They move to California where Tolph is enrolled and the rest of the book is pretty much about the next few years and their living together. Dave has an elder sister (not much older though) and elder brother. Just imagine this, a guy just 21, whose father has just died and he has come home again to see his mother too pass away. What sort of a scar it can leave to one. And it's not a case of the mother passing away suddenly, she is suffering from cancer and it is a gradual descent into the nothingness that is death. We know the outcome, but are not aware of when it will actually happen. Any decline in health could be it, but it could also turn out to be a false alarm. This uncertainty can be as tormenting as the actual event.   Dave's mother has one such sharp sudden decline in health and the conversation between Dave and his sister on it, brings forth the helplessness of being in such a situation. 

"This can't be it"
"It could be it."
"I know it could be it, but it shouldn't be it"
"She wants it to be it"
"No, she doesn't"
"She said so."
"She didn't meant it."
"What do you think?"
"I think she's scared"
"And I think she's not ready. I mean, are you ready?"
"No, of course not. You?"
"No. No, no".

Not your everyday conversation between two 20 something siblings right. It is the worst thing that could happen to any of us, where we something bad is going to happen and we are powerless to prevent it. It is bad enough when one is old and mature enough to face it, but when you are so young what do you do?Death could then become an obsession with you and that's what happens here,  the specter of death hanging over the entire book (more on this below).

Dave and Tolph migrate to California where Tolph is enrolled in a scholl and Dave does some part time jobs taking care of him. The narrative tone here is light, almost flippant, because that is how a 21 year old boy (because, lets face at 21 you are more of a boy than a man) would react to situations beyond his control. He is not a child to cry, but neither is he a man to face things stoically. So under the facade of lightheartedness, the emotional turmoil is buried. There is an overcompensation by Dave with respect to Tolph when he wants Tolph to feel utterly normal, as normal as he would feel if their parents were alive. (they play act with Dave as the father and Tolph asking him for something that is refused) There is always a balancing act on what Tolph should see or hear and what he should not (e.g. Dave's girlfriends are not discussed much). Dave becomes a kind of surrogate father albeit of a blundering kind. The blunder could be a minor one where Dave wakes up very late, resulting in Tolph being late to school, for which Dave composes the following note.

"Dear Ms.Richardson,
I am sorry Chris is late this morning. I could make something up about an appointment or a sickness, but the fact is that we woke up late. Go figure.
Brother of Chris"

The blundering could also be of a slightly more serious (hygienic) kind like

"We have an ant problem. We have an ant problem because we have not yet grasped the difference between paper mess and food mess. We leave food out, we leave food on the plates in the sink, and when I finally turn myself to the task of washing the dishes, I must first wash away all the ants, those tiny black ones, off the plates and silverware and down the drain."

These may be flippantly described, but underneath it is the struggle they undergo to just get through a normal day. The apparent lightheartedness is exposed when Dave tells that

"We scrape through every day blindly, always getting stumped on something we should know - how to plunge a toilet, how to boil corn, his Social Security number, the date of our father's birthday - such that every day that he gets to school, that I get to work and back in time for dinner, each day that we cook and eat before nine and he goes to bed before eleven and doesn't have blue malnourished- looking rings around his eyes like he did for all those months last year - we never figured out why - feels like we've pulled off some fantastic trick - an escape from a burning station wagon, the hiding of the Statue of Liberty"

So, Dave misses forms to filled, sending them in at the last moment, forgets date/time of the school functions, the house is unclean, Tolph is often dressed shabbily but still the 2 manage to create a household of sorts, which is very different from the normal ones, but that's because you cannot expect a 21 year old care full boy to suddenly become the master of the house, with no one guiding him. And, in a truly poignant role reversal of sorts, sometime after a couple of years, one night Dave is down and out and Tolph fixes food and takes care of him. It is a very small part yes, but it's like when parents become aged and the children start taking care of them. Similarly at that point we see that Tolph is no more a child who needs full time caring, but is one who can look after his elder brother. Small moments like these bring forth the bonding between the two.

Where Dave takes the personal into the universal is his obsession with death. Dave obsesses about his own death of AIDS, wonders about funerals, obsesses about the remains of his parents and is always trying to face up to it. His casual attitude is but a reaction to the omnipresent death. It is always the unspoken, unseen character in this book. It is present everywhere and at all times. Death and flippancy go hand in hand here, complementing each other like the Ying and the Yang. Even when Dave is happy, he cannot stop thinking about it. When Dave goes on a date leaving Tolph with a babysitter he cannot stop obsessing about how the babysitter turns out to be a child abuser and torments and kills Tolph. Not just Dave, but death does touch several of his friends too. Shalini has a near death experience after which she goes into a coma and only partially recovers, John also has lost both his parents and is always threatening he is going to commit suicide, leading him to be admitted to psychiatric wards. Death leaves no one untouched and it is final. But it is something that is very difficult to come to terms with even when you are old and mature, leave alone when you are so young. At that stage in life, you try to avoid it, try to put it off as late as possible, but the harder you try the harder it becomes to forget about it. That's why Dave discusses a world where all people get together in the morning, raze all the buildings to ground and build a new set of buildings at the end of the day. The next day the same routine is followed. Nothing is permanent except the impermanence of everything and there is no finality (like death) as buildings keep getting destroyed and built and every day(the resurrection is almost instantaneous). Kind of like 'Sisyphus' myth in reverse, where man is ready to the same thing again and again and chooses (partially) infinite monotony over finality (death).

Caught up in these emotions, one could easily fail to grasp the sense of time and place that is captured in vivid detail here and which is of importance too. The time period is the early 90's, a period where the initial breakthroughs of all the advancements in technology/entertainment were being made. We see through Dave's eyes the tech companies set up in California (in what would be widely known throughout the world just a bit  later as of course 'Silicon valley'), people working there for 10-12 hours in search of the next breath through. We see the advent of MTV and reality shows in their infancy and their potential for causing havoc with our lives. Even Dave's obsession with Aids is a reflection of the times. Remember the early 90's when Aids first burst on the screen? It was the scariest thing imaginable. I remember the uproar it caused even in India when Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV. Remember it was the time of pre-liberalized or just liberalized India and the media wasn't so pervasive. But still I remember reading about HIV in just about every paper and magazine (both English and Tamil). It was the N-bomb of that 90's just waiting to explode. That's why Dave doesn't just worry about death, AIDS is always a tag to it. These things make the book more real and not like the events in it happened in some kind of vacuum

Heartbreaking it definitely is, but staggering? Yes it is that too in several places, but Dave kind of extends it to an extent where it seems thrust upon. I will put it this way. Consider an instant in a tennis match, where Federer is in the middle of the court, his opponent is completely out of position at one end of the court, one entire side of the court is available to Federer to launch a winner, but what does he do? He plays a cute drop shot, which is risky. What happens then? If the shot falls correctly and he gets the point, we praise him for his incredible ability. But if it hits the net, then we tend to say it was a risky shot. Here in Tennis, the validity of the shot depends on it's outcome, but it hits the target it's a good shot irrespective of whether it was the correct shot for that moment. But fiction doesn't work that way. Irrespective of whether something is written well, it makes a impact only when the author can convince a reader that what was written at a particular point makes sense at that point. If the reader is not convinced about it, that part seems superfluous to him and that's what happens here some times. Like at the beginning of the book, after Dave and his Sister talk about their mothers sudden deterioration, there is a 2-3 page inner monologue where Dave starts imagining about the funeral, who will come, the eulogy etc. Now, he obsesses about death a lot throughout the book, but here at this point it seemed a definite attempt at manipulation. Of course, in the preface itself he mentions that the books will do all these kinds of trickery, but still it's a bit jarring. Compared to this, his thinking about Tolph being killed by the babysitter is more in tune with the flow of the book. Yes, it's acceptable that Dave would think constantly about his Tolph on a date especially given their situation, but when you think about it in detail, it is debatable whether he would go to the extent of imagining Tolph being sexually assaulted, the baby sitter taunting Dave with notes etc. But this is where as a reader you get into a tacit agreement with the author, whereby you accept this obsessiveness as being possible. This happens several times in the book, at the same time it does fail too sometimes. 

Ultimately, whether you like the book or not, whether you find it staggering or heartbreaking depends on your expectations of fiction. If you are one who likes precise, almost perfect fiction you would probably be put off by it. But if you like large, sprawling works (not in size, but in ideas and themes), which may not be perfect or near perfect, has some extraneous parts, but which however take us to areas unseen and unobserved till now, this is for you.

While reading it, one cannot avoid thinking about 'Infinite Jest' and the manner in which both these 2 books converge and diverge, not in any specific themes, but in a more general manner. It starts right from the titles. 'Infinite', 'Heartbreaking', etc immediately indicate a larger scope . If DFW uses footnotes as a means of disrupting our reading, Dave uses the preface and the 'Mistakes we were making' section to do the same. If one hand, DFW takes the universal concept of pursuit of happiness and maps it to individuals and it's impact on them, Dave takes the deeply personal emotion of an individual seeing death and maps it to mankind's general obsession with it. And finally both books prove that the form/narrative style of a book need not be gratuitous or self-serving, that it can co-exist with it's content without affect the actual storytelling and indeed embellish it too. This to me is the  biggest achievement of this book, that in spite of the various tropes like the meshing of different of all narrative styles, disruption of the reading process, the author popping up now and then etc, it still remains deeply personal and moving.