Sunday, June 5, 2016

Achilles - Hero of the Trojan war ( A book review)

( This is my first essay penned from my new home. It was important that my grey cells continue to be well-oiled  I am deeply satisfied with the penetrating silence of my neighborhood, stillness which stimulates thought, and an atmosphere that will sustain my writing. I remain grateful to life and God.)
Achilles - Hero of the Trojan war ( A book review)
Just as Ramayana and Mahabharata are part of Indian psyche, whether we acknowledge it or not; Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey lie behind the highly individualistic Western personality. These epics are our wise voices from the past, from antiquity, from those beautiful days when conflict between the Heart and Mind was almost non-existent ; when Men and women lived by an inner force that drove them irrevocably towards a destiny which they could neither chose nor control; when each act - whether Good or Bad, right or wrong- had its place in the universal scheme of things; when Men and Women lived as they were born to live, in tune with their innermost vocations and passion; and above all these Glorious tales contain within their pages an inner message, a hidden mystery which - like the unfolding of rose petals to the first touch of sunlight- begins to unveil to astute readers who can penetrate its deep symbolism, look behind the fantasies and magical realism of its unbelievable drama - and stand face to face with the reality it sought to convey.
When I first came to the United States, It was my desire to read, understand and appreciate Homer, Virgil, Ovid and the rest of the Western epic story tellers in their best translations possible. So as part of my Book collection, I managed to collect al least a couple of translations of each of these major works, written by eminent poet laureates and brilliant writers. It is not easy to translate an hoary, ancient language and its cadences to modern poetic idioms and prose. But fortunately, since the fifteenth century, when scholars re-discovered classics, there has been a flurry of masterly attempts starting from Petrarch himself to eminently literary stylists of today. Among those , Robert Fitzgerald's eminent rendering of Iliad and odyssey in peerless dextameter is one of my cherished books. In his translation, I have found the true meaning and intent of Homer's magnificent narrative of Troy and its catastrophic consequences. Unlike the Indian epics, Iliad and Odyssey are not easily accessible. Which is unfortunate!!. Even in the best rendered translation, the real meaning and flow of its narrative is obscure and quite difficult to keep pace with. Try reading a translation, and you will know what I am talking about.. That the king of Troy had abducted Helen, and the entire Greek force descended upon its gates to retrieve her - is the gist of the Iliad. But from the point of view of a story, the causes that led to it, individual tales of its heroes and heroines, the moral issues confronting hem, the incorrigible treachery of the Gods. - all these wonderful details get lost in heavy allegorical style of its narrative.
That brings me to the point of this essay. The Hero of the Trojan war was Achilles. Great warrior, son of God, the young man whose chiseled face shone with brilliance of the Sun , whose skin glowed with hue of Gold, whose athletic body rippled with supple and hard Muscles covered in thin sheen of sweat , whose sea blue eyes reflected his keen sense of destiny, he who was Undefeated and undefeatable - and without whom Troy cannot be subdued and Helen not rescued. Such, in short , is Achilles as drawn by Homer. But what you would not derive from even a deep study study of Iliad is the Human element in Achilles. He would come out as a supernatural man with no resonance in common man, and this is one of distinguishing features of Greek epics from its Indian counterpart. When we read the story of Karna - the legendary and tragic warrior in Mahaharatha, Vysa ensured, we understand him as a normal person given to vacillations, indecisions and emotions of a Man having to eke out his destiny. Therefore, we as readers have deep empathy for him. Homer, on the other hand was more interested in the grandeur of the war than minute portrayal of Individual protagonists. His Achilles seems more superHuman than Human. It is this perhaps this aspect, which is both the Beauty, and possibly a drawback of Iliad and Odessey. Having said this, I must also add that this is not the fault of Homer or of his epic. The fact is Achilles was a known legend during Greek times, and there are other sources reading public could draw upon , which can provide those missing Human details which Homer chose not to provide. But when we read the Iliad in isolation and not in tandem with surrounding texts, those facts do not come to light. However, Fortunately, for us, there is a contemporary scholar, literalist and a lover of Homer, who has filled in those gaps. We can now appreciate and revel in the Achillean legend more immersively then ever before.
In 2011, Madeline Miller - a Greek scholar from Yale, young graduate, teacher to young high school students published her debut novel titled "the song of Achilles". It took her ten years to write it, and three aborted attempts. But, we will be eternally grateful she persisted in writing his beautiful work. In it, for the first time, the story of Troy, and Achilles in particular finds its fullest expression. As a young girl, Madeline's parents read Homer to her each night; and from those dreamy nights, her passion for Troy and Achilles took roots. She needed to understand the complex psychological character of Achilles better. His relationship with Patroclus (friend, lover and confidant) needed more elaboration. Homosexuality found its first expression in the relationship between Achiles and Patroclus, and Madeline with great sensitivity injects this love into her broader story of Troy. It is this search for authenticity and holistic understanding that took her across the Homerian landscape. And the results of the effort consummated itself in this wonderful novel. For Madeline, it was a matter of proper expression to a right audience. Understandably so!. When you need to teach Homer to High school kids, you have to mind your language. For them to understand, Madeline had to couch complex allegories, subtle nuances and deep historical background into something that is easily digested; but more importantly, she had impress upon those young minds the beauty and texture of Homerian narrative and irs relevance for Modern western Man. Thus was born and written "the song of Achilles". From the very first sentence to the last concluding word, Madeline weaves a story of intensity, turmoil, love, loyalty, passion, sex and war that it leaves us breathless. One can literally sense, how careful She has been in carving words and sentences. Simple, without pretence, beautiful - and above all without an iota of compromise on historical accuracy and Homerian sense of Story telling. This Book won the prestigious Orange prize for fiction. And Joanna Trollope ( a wonderful author herself) chair of the judges, commented "This is a more than worthy winner – original, passionate, inventive and uplifting. Homer would be proud of her." No better praise or honor is required for a writer.
What started as a recommendation of a Book has ( as usual) turned out to be a full fudged essay. But that's how it should be.. One cannot write unless one feels deeply. Words are merely means to an end. Madeline Miller's has given me the perspective I needed, and plugged a lot of gaps in my understanding of Homer and his imperishable epic.
I strongly urge my readers ( if you are interested) to taste the beauty and energy of Madeline miller's magnificent book!! It's a journey well worth taking...
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala

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