The opening pages of David Malouf’s Ransom had me gasping for breath, mesmerised by the poetic language, lulled by the music of the words, wooed by a seductive dance.
Based on one of the earliest poems of Western Literature, Homer’s epic Iliad, it fleshes out the characters of the great warrior Archilles and King Priam. Priam’s personality in particular is so finely drawn, so recognizable in its regal remoteness that our own reigning Queen Elizabeth occasionally came to mind.
But the character I found most interesting is one realised totally by Malouf. It is Somax, the carter who is persuaded to transport Priam to Archilles, who stands out. He provides the perfect contrast, in his earthy practicality, to the king’s pomposity. Poor Somax. He is “bull-shouldered, shock-headed” and so clearly out of place “in his homespun robe and broken sandals” amongst the dazzling cleanliness and orderliness of the palace courtyard.
Priam, in cavalier fashion, bestows upon Somax the name of Idaeus because that has always been the name of the man at the king’s side (whether or not it had been the same man was inconsequential because, according to Priam, it is “the office and the name that matters, not the person” (97). While confirming what we know of Priam, it also imparts something of the carter’s sense of self. He is “silently, sullenly affronted” by the idea that his name should be considered of no import and wonders how the gods will recognize him without it. Then, when the royal princes start calling him by his new moniker, he smoulders and “in spirit at least, clenches his fist” (100).
Despite their differences, Priam warms to Somax, understanding that the carter is full of good will and that “It was not reverence he lacked, only a knowledge of the forms”. (117) Through Somax, Priam gains some appreciation for the minutiae of life like the feel of cooling water running over his feet, the fish that come to investigate and the wheeling birds, recognizing that these things were always there but there had been no reason previously for him to take notice of them for “They were not in the royal sphere” (122).
Priam and Somax have both lost sons but even that commonality is not fully shared for where Somax knew his children so well, Priam was distanced from his. “Royal custom – the habit of averting his gaze, always, from the unnecessary and particular – had saved him from all that.” (139)
While noting that it is unnecessary to know anything about the Iliad, Lisa Hill in her review at ANZ LitLovers writes that “for those who read Ransom, Malouf’s imaginative rendering of this episode of The Iliad will forever be an unforgettable part of the original”.
The story ends as we know it will, and yet the end came too soon.
Some other interesting reviews:-
Tom Holland for The Guardian. Holland is ultimately disappointed feeling that “Malouf does not do enough with his source material”, John Clanchy’s award-winning review for ABR, in which he calls Ransom a “minor miracle of a novel” and Read, Ramble.
Addition 22nd January 2012.
Apologies, book detail not originally posted.
Malouf, David. Ransom. 2009. Random House, North Sydney. ISBN 798 1 74166 965 7