The Wrath of Achilles

An Iliad
By Alessandro Barrico
Vintage
158

Alessandro Barrico, of the fame of Silk, had an idea. He thought it was a neat idea to read Homer’s Iliad to a paying audience in Rome. He soon found out that the length and the archaic language and the structure of the original classic tale would be too tiresome to modern public. He came up with a clever solution. He cut out passages, all those Greek paeans, invocations, and lengthy descriptions that hindered the progress of a spanking good read. Then, he went on and did something really daring: he made the major and some minor characters in the tale recount from their perspectives the battles between the Achaens and the Trojans, caused by the abduction of Helen of Argos by Paris. The battles lasted more than a decade until Odysseus came out with the brilliant idea of the Trojan horse to end the war. As it turned out, Barrico’s idea worked, judging from the people who packed the readings, and later through the public broadcasting system to enthralled listeners.

This book, An Iliad, is the result of that successful experiment. But how successful it is in book form? I imagine that while reading this tale the reader or readers must have added plenty of flourish to each of the character, but reading it through in a book I found it rather hard to distinguish Hector from Achilles. In Barrico’s abbreviated version, the characters come off rather crisp and clean-cut. The tale of Achilles’s eventual participation in the battle because the death of Patroclus, his cherished friend, looms so large as a plot it somehow blots out the necessity of characterization. As it is, it reads like a modern day thriller, spearheading toward the culmination of the events, the battle between Hector and Achilles. Without the vexing digressions and cumbersome distractions of Homer’s paeans and invocations, An Iliad is truly an engrossing book. One could almost get through it without any trouble in one sitting.

But somehow one feels there’s a big hole in the whole thing. One misses the premonition of death that hangs over Achilles as predicted his deity Mother, and Hector’s hesitation in going into the war, Paris’s cowardice and Andromache’s solicitation for Hector not to go back to battle. All this is thrown out in by Barrico, but in ever so minute and precise portions that one longs to go back to Homer’s original version.

Maybe that was Barrico’s intention in the first place, to whet modern readers’ appetite for the real thing. He was weighing between doing Herman Merville’s Moby-Dick or Homer’s Iliad, and decided in the end to take on Homer’s Iliad, obviously for the luridness of its subject: the war.

As if anticipating modern day readers’ objection to another tale about wars, Barrico appended an elegant explanation on the last pages of the book. He invoked several passages in the tale in which the womenfolk seemed to be the only ones who fought to restrain their husbands from going to battle. Andromache’s pleas for Hector to stay back with his family and child, Hecuba, Hector’s mother’s longing for her valiant son to come back to her bosom as he used to do as a child, and Achilles’s statement of the value of life above anything else in the world. Barrico’s honest description of wars as an irresistible beauty to humans, who are somehow attracted to them because they test their mettle to the utmost, is disturbing. Iliad, as he posits, is a monument to war. Tales of war will continuously be told because not only are they cautionary tales, but they have also the appeal of beauty.

This adage, at first glance, seems to work well with today’s filmgoers that love watching with precarious thrills as limbs fly and heads blown up in the big screens. Barrico should know better, however, that even in Hollywood the producers are now wiser of the audience’s abhorrence for war movies. This is clearly shown by so many recent flops of war-related movies.

In hindsight, one would think that Barrico would have done the readers a better service by rendering Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or Homer’s The Oddysey. The world needs more tales about human struggles to come to grips with their aggression and digression from the path of goodness, rather than submitting themselves at the alter of battles, no matter how appealing the beauty invoked might be to the senses.

In the end, I would like to believe though Barrico’s An Iliad is a summon to all of us to go back to the classics. The beauty of these everlasting works, however, is exactly what they pertain to be: classical. They mark a time, a place, a style and a life that is far removed from us and yet they keep harkening us back to them for the beauty of the unworn truth told. To tamper with them with any reason other than luring us back to them is a monumental transgression against the pillars that constitute the greatness of literature. Once, discerning readers had to tutor themselves in Greek and Italian in order to read Sophocles and Dante. Now, everything is made easy for us in English translations. Let’s not ask for anything as unreasonable as petty excuses for not reading the classics. The ones of course which continue to point the light on the right path. Such as, The Odyssey, the tale that poets and fiction writers never cease going back to plumb its depth. The Iliad will in the long run be Homer’s take on human’s follies, far and away from any suggestion of the beauty or monument of war. In the eyes and ears of modern readers, wars are simply and without any apologies blasphemies of the worst kind.

2 thoughts on “The Wrath of Achilles

  1. back with the ex

    Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research on this. We got a grab a book from our local library but I think I learned more clear from this post. I am very glad to see such magnificent information being shared freely out there.

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