by David Malouf
Reviewed by Brian Doyle
Some 3,000 years ago, it may be, one grim, ferocious warrior killed another on the coast of what is now Turkey. The killer was Achilles, the dead man Hector. By the custom of the times, Hector's corpse would return to his royal family for mourning and burial; but Achilles, mad with rage, mad with grief over his fallen companions, maddened by 10 consecutive years of battle, insulted the Trojans by dragging their slain hero behind his chariot, "up and down under the walls of Troy," not once, but 12 days in row -- Hector's raw-ribboned body being miraculously restored every night by the gods, themselves shocked at Achilles' dark fury.
In the besieged city, no warriors were left to stand against Achilles and reclaim the body of their beloved prince; but finally the king, against all advice and regal habit, sets out himself, accompanied only by a wagon driver, to ransom the body of his son. The king, Priam, flies in the face of sense and status in doing so, but miraculously, movingly, his courage and love for his boy pierce Achilles' rage, and the "Iliad" ends with Priam bringing Hector's body, "his wounds every one of them closed though many pierced him with their spears," home to be buried.
Thousands of years later a boy in Brisbane, Australia, becomes riveted by the story. "We too were ... in the midst of an unfinished war," writes great Australian novelist David Malouf of the boy he was in 1943, "the war, our war, was real: highways of ash where ghostly millions rise out of their shoes and go barefoot nowhere. ..." In his new novel Ransom, Malouf goes back to the story again, but now with a master novelist's tools in hand. Priam's imaginative leap is what fascinates Malouf -- to envision what has not been done, cannot be done by all sense and habit, and then, dogged and frightened, do it -- this is the story of Ransom, in which Malouf, with the magic of the best fictioneers, creates a whole world from a few lines of the "Iliad."
He does so with a wonderful grace and simplicity; the one vice of his previous novels was a certain dense ambiguity, a dreaminess that, done well, made for shimmering layers of story (Remembering Babylon) and done too much made for lyrical confusion (The Conversations at Curlew Creek). But Ransom boasts all of Malouf's capacious talents for imagination, for grace of line and image (he has written seven books of poetry), and for lean and piercing storytelling that made his novel An Imaginary Life and his boyhood memoir 12 Edmondstone Street such admirable adventures.
Malouf may fairly be called Australia's greatest novelist, and the reasons why are all here, in an economical package -- the penetration of his mind into hearts and motivations; the limpid, lucid prose; the bracing immediacy of the story, the art of his artlessness. A simple tale, cobbled from a few lines of an ancient text, but Malouf brings Achilles and Priam and the wagon driver to turbulent life: Achilles escaping the prison of his grief and rage, Priam escaping the prison of his regal dignity, Somax the driver itching to get back to the city with some gift for his toddler granddaughter. A remarkable feat.