Booklicious: Booklicious Reviews: The Lost Books of the Odyssey

January 28, 2010



The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) is everything it is promised to be and more. Zachary Mason does an excellent job of mentally transporting his readers to the realms of mythical Greek islands three millennia past and setting them adrift, like Odysseus, to find their own way back. I disagree with the author's stated goal in the prologue, that the stories “... omit stock epic formulae in favour of honing a single trope or image down to extreme clarity.” His stories are short, much shorter than the real books of the Odyssey, but they bring to mind too many questions, thoughts and interpretations to be clear, finishing each time with the mixed emotions of wonder and unease that mark many classics of Greek drama. Most of the stories, such as “Blindness” (a tale told by Polyphemus after his blinding) and “No Man's Wife” (a meeting between Odysseus and Penelope's shade), could be woven directly into the greater tapestry of Greek mythology without modification, while some others, such as “The Myrmidon Golem,” blend different mythological traditions. He works in the story of Theseus and the Minotaur through a transformation and a bit of sleight of hand (and neatly so) and paints differing pictures of Penelope, Odysseus and even deities like Athena throughout the various incarnations of the story. His prose is similarly inventive and entertaining, with excellent phrasing (“blood-warm equatorial seas,” for example), bringing vivid pictures of action and panoramic mental vistas to readers with ease. 

The problem, then, is the more. 
Scattered throughout the stories are footnotes, ostensibly to aid readers not acquainted with some of the elements of the mythology (such as King Minos' wife getting it on with a sacred bull and bringing the curse of the minotaur to Crete). This seems like a good thing, until some study is done. The preface of The Lost Books of the Odyssey speaks of the excavations at Oxyrhynchus (an ancient Egyptian town named in honour of a sharp-nosed fish), implying that we are in fact about to read some of those long-lost papyri. This is a pretty common, harmless device in most fiction; it's not like J.K. Rowling had to include a disclaimer telling everyone that Hogwarts was not, in fact, a real school located in merry old England. However, here in their faux-scholarly guise, the footnotes are actually poised to do a bit of damage. Mixed in with helpful information are footnotes that are actually fabrications that support Mason’s stories. If he (or his editors) had differentiated the two, I wouldn't be the least bit critical, but presenting fiction as fact is completely unacceptable. Think James Frey.

As best as I can determine without the resources of a university library (don't worry, people, I didn't just zip over to Wikipedia – I took every myth class available in college and have a bulky reference section to prove it) – there are some very questionable additions to Mediterranean history. There certainly were no Egyptian colonies planted on Hellenic shores during the 18th dynasty; the Egyptians being far too busy reconquering their own lands to muck about in the cold northern waters. The goddess Quickness, featured as an aboriginal aspect of Pallas Athena in “Death and the King,” does not appear in extant sources at all (records from 1800 B.C. in northern Greece being conveniently nonexistent), and the so-called Pelasgian legends of lycanthropy mentioned in the footnote on page 10 most likely stem from the much later Greek myth of Lycaon, who was turned into a wolf by Zeus (curiously, the best-known version of this myth is Roman, from Ovid's Metamorphosis). The extant Greek source is Pausanias, who wrote a century after Ovid and anywhere from 900 to 1200 years after Homer. Apollodorus, another Roman, attributes versions of the tale to Hesiod, who also lived several centuries – half a millennium, give or take – after Homer). The same footnote also seems to confuse the Hellenic peninsula with the Indian subcontinent, calling the Pelasgians “pre-Aryan” (the Athenians maintained their autocthonic origins, and the Dorian Greeks claimed that the Ionian Greeks were actually Pelasgians). There are also some mythological embellishments, such as Mason’s assertion that unidentified “fragmentary sources” claim Telemachus was an albino, or the footnote that describes the nature of Helen's beauty as being literally in the eye of its beholder. Sources are, of course, unavailable for this statement as well.

These historical and mythological “liberties,” if I may call them such, serve two purposes: one, to strengthen the author's case should he choose to change his name to Alistair “The Father of Lies” Mason, and two, to heighten the reader's uncertainty when encountering the twists and turns of the various meta-narrative tales in The Lost Books of the Odyssey. These tales, among them “Guest Friend,” “Fugitive,” and “Fragment,” refer back to themselves, the Odyssey, the other versions of the characters, etc., until they begin to take the fourth-wall breaking form of irritatingly self-aware works (Odysseus stands on a beach smoking, holding a sign that says “I am not Odysseus; this is not a pipe).  Similarly, there are footnotes that speak of “the translation,” or what “the text omits,” a gimmick that is truly unnecessary given the overall quality of Mason's prose. There are echoes of Einstein's Dreams, but also stories that are a mishmash of archetypical imagery without common ground, somewhat akin to sentences constructed of random, yet grammatically correct, words. Anachronisms also abound, with bronze nails and Homer being inexplicably acquainted with katakana, a Japanese script antedated by the poet to the tune of 1000 years.

I read a wide range of literature, but what I enjoy most are the classics, mythology and history. Mythology is a living, growing thing that expands as we grow, both as storytellers and readers, but I simply cannot excuse the fact that Mason and his editors chose to play the role of historical revisionists, covertly refashioning certain aspects of ancient tales merely to reinforce their newer counterparts. Mason's work certainly does not need the help of literary falsehoods to stand on its own. Were all of the key figures renamed, the remaining prose would still resonate with people, such is its depth and wit. I can't help but wonder how much more I would have enjoyed it had someone had more faith in the originality of Mason's storytelling. 

My sources, of course, are available upon request. If you have more mythological references I should be aware of, I would love to have them. You can reach me through the contact page.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey goes on sale February 2. 


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