Before the Iliad there was Aulis . . .
Reviewed in the United States on 25 April 2003
An intriguing tale out of Greek legend, the kick-off of the Trojan War in which Agammenon, High King of the Achaian host, must overcome inauspicious, contrary winds to launch his fleet of brigands and cutthroats . . . or lose the opportunity for war and loot. Importing a somewhat modern sensiblity into the ancient tale of Iphigeneia at Aulis, Unsworth nevertheless blends the modern and ancient skeins remarkably well. Calchas, the reluctant and overly intellectual seer struggles with himself to defeat the manipulations of an always wily (and somewhat sadistic) Odysseus who would oblige the foolish and egoistic Agamamenon to sacrifice his favourite daughter to the chief god of the Greeks. But Calchas is not up to the challenge and finds himself sinking more and more deeply into the morass of intellectual and moral quicksand that Odysseus has created.
The book bogs down when it shifts to Iphigeneia herself, in Mycenae, as we seem to lose the narrative momentum, but it picks up again with the summons from Aulis where the fleet is beached. Although the tale's end is predictable, even as Unsworth works to create suspense right up to the end, and the characters never fully come to life, the story is nicely told and resonates with our modern idea of politics and war and the justifications that often make the two overly comfortable bedfellows.
Iphigeneia, herself, is rather wooden and Sysipyla, her slave girl and erstwhile saviour, is not much more vivid. Macris, too, the young soldier who has his eye on Iphigeneia, also fails to ignite as a character. The best, the clearest of the characters is, remarkably, Odysseus himself, despite certain tiresome locutions. He is a complex creature, cruel and smart, though ultimately a man of little fundamental depth. He cleverly plays the awkward king and manipulates Chasimenos, the king's chief advisor, along with Calchas the seer . . . a man who finds his courage too late to change history.
The two Ajaxes are the ridiculous buffoons we find in the Iliad itself, just as you'd imagine them in more modern voice. And Achilles, of course, is dynamically narcissistic. The Singer is, well, the Singer, a proxy for Homer and all the Homers that were to come.
In the end it is the dynamic of bureaucracy and political expediency, combined with the all too human human penchant for rationalization, that foreclose the options and ensure the denouement that Odysseus has schemed for since the idea of the sacrifice first entered his head. Sysipyla alone sees though him and works to undo the awful sentence. But can she?
This book was most satisfying, as much for the modern spin it put on an ancient tale, as for the richness of the Achaian world it evoked, even via a semi-modern voice. But the story itself was rather stilted and the characters not entirely compelling. Still, it is certainly worth reading if you like historical fiction with a contemporary slant on things and especially if you are fascinated by tales of the ancient Greeks.
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