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SEASON OF MIGRATION TO THE NORTH BY TAYEB SALIH

A while ago I was in heated conversation with a man, a British man, about the subject of immigration and asylum, and at the end of this conversation he said something like ‘obviously coming here is better for you lot.’ It became clear to me at that point that he was under the impression that I wasn’t English. It is better for me and my kind? Better in what way, sir? ‘Nicer, not like where you came from.’ Putting aside the insignificant detail that I am actually English, the suggestion was that uprooting yourself and moving to a different country, a superior and more civilised country[!], is always an entirely positive endeavour. It is the unfortunate locals who have to put up with us – and our weird rituals, food, smell, etc. – and whose jobs we steal – that one ought to consider and sympathise with.

Perspective is a strange thing. There are some that appear incapable of seeing things through the eyes of others, who seemingly cannot comprehend that one’s cultural practices and values – i.e. what seems right and normal to you – are subjective, are related to your upbringing and experiences; and that to someone else, who has had a different upbringing and experiences, your practices and values may seem equally absurd or immoral. It strikes me that were I to have told this man – who, I am sure, wasn’t trying to offend me – that actually many people who come to England prefer their home countries, and in some cases did not want to come here at all, and that for them this – being in England – is not akin to winning the lottery, but often a sad, yet necessary event, he would not have believed me. Because, well, being a foreigner, my word is hardly the most reliable, is it?

“By the standards of the European industrial world we are poor peasants, but when I embrace my grandfather I experience a sense of richness as though I am a note in the heartbeats of the very universe.”

Tayeb Salih’s The Season of Migration to the North begins with a return, with the unnamed narrator, or partial narrator, discussing his arrival in the ’obscure’ village of his birth after seven years abroad, in England. He returned, he says, with ‘a great yearning’ for his people; he had ‘longed for them, had dreamed of them.’ At home, he re-familiarises himself with ’the room whose walls had witnessed the trivial incidents of my childhood and the onset of adolescence’ and the unique sound of the wind as it passes through palm trees. There are so many novels written from the European perspective, that focus on what it is like, as a European, to visit such a place, and the majority of them accentuate the hostility or strangeness of the landscape and people, and so it is refreshing to read something that provides an alternative point of view, one that is positive and loving. For the narrator this is where he has his roots, and where he feels once again as though he has ‘a purpose.’

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While there is much in the village that is familiar, there is one thing, a man, that is new and unknown, and, perhaps because he stands out in this way, the narrator is excessively curious about who he is and why or how he came to be there. I use the word excessively, because, at least initially, Mustafa Sa’eed does nothing to raise suspicion; he, we’re told, ‘kept himself to himself,’ and always showed extreme politeness, as one would naturally expect of someone who has moved to a new place. In this way, Salih subtly probes the concept of ’the outsider,’ for even in a village of men of the same race, religion, etc, Mustafa Sa’eed is viewed as not quite ‘one of them.’ However, one day he mentions that he has a secret, and it is this secret that provides Season of Migration to the North with one of its two compelling central storylines.

When the two men get together to discuss the secret, Mustafa Sa’eed begins by relating some details of his childhood, details that, I think, say much about his character and give strong hints as to his future behaviour. He was, he says, essentially given the freedom to do as he pleased; he had no father, and his mother was emotionally distant. Of more significance, he describes himself as emotionally distant also. When he is given a place at a school in Cairo he leaves home with little more than a shrug of the shoulders and later admits to feeling no gratitude towards those who help him. Indeed, the more the highly intelligent, but strangely cold Mustafa Sa’eed says, the more it becomes clear, long before the big reveal, that he is at least a sociopath, but probably a psychopath. In this way, the novel could have become simply another in a seemingly endless line of existential dramas focussing on intense, disturbed loners – such as Camus’ Mersault or Sabato’s Juan Pablo Castel – and their terrible crimes, and on the most basic level it is one of those, but it is also much more besides.

I flippantly said to someone the other day that Tayeb Salih must have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for magic literary powers. This, I joked, was the only explanation for what he was able to achieve in Season of Migration to the North in approximately 130 pages. However, I am going to overlook, or only briefly touch upon, many of the complex and challenging themes and ideas present in the novel, not because I am not interested in them, but simply because I have to maintain control over my work and not allow it, as I said in a previous review, to mutate into a dissertation. Therefore, although colonisation, and the effect upon those who are subjected to it, certainly underpins much of the action I am going to leave it for others to tackle, aware that this is generally what reviewers focus upon. I, on the other hand, prefer to look at the more controversial, or uncomfortable, elements of the book.

“He used to say “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis” and he laughed so widely you could see the back of his throat.”

For large parts of Season of Migration to the North Tayeb Salih investigates and challenges liberal and conservative, Eastern and Western, attitudes towards sex and race; indeed, the nature of Mustafa Sa’eed’s ‘villainy’ is both sexual and racial, and even political [but, as stated, I am not going to linger over that]. When he moved to England his chief aim was to bed as many white women as possible, in the process playing up to the stereotype, and playing upon the fear of conservative white Europeans, of the savage, sex-obsessed invading African black male. Yet Salih takes this one stage further, for the women who succumb to his charms do so with his race, and the accompanying stereotypes, at the forefront of their minds, even when they believe that they are dismissing it or ‘accepting’ of it.

For example, one woman appears to be under the impression that Mustafa has just crawled out of the jungle, wearing a loincloth and smelling of mangoes. For her, this fantasy, which he encourages, adds an exotic flavour, an alien quality, something quixotic, to the proceedings. Another of the women imagines herself, and calls herself, Sa’eed’s slave, a woman who wants to be dominated, of course, and who clearly associates the subjugation of women with Arab culture. Words and phrases such as ‘savage bull’ and ‘cannibal’ are thrown around; and Jean Morris outright calls this ‘showpiece black man’ ugly. Yet, once again, Salih wasn’t satisfied with presenting only one side, for he makes it clear that Sa’eed also finds the novelty of these kind of couplings exciting [he comments on their bronze skin and the intoxicating but strange ‘European smell’]. All sexes, all cultures, all races can experience the allure of ‘the other.’ This is fascinating, thrilling stuff.

The only criticism I have to make of the novel, which is as beautifully written as it is brave, is in relation to the murder of Jean Morris, which is preposterously melodramatic, although I guess it is purposely reminiscent of the conclusion of Othello. Regardless, this act is not, for me, the most heinous in the novel, nor is this death [or Sa’eed’s fate] the most tragic. Throughout Season of Migration to the North one is led to believe that the European women, with their sexual rights and freedom to choose [even a black man], are a symbol of modernity or modern attitudes. In contrast, when the aged lothario Wad Reyyes falls in ‘love’ [which for him is the same as lust] with Hosna Bint Mahmoud, who outright refuses him, he declares, ‘She will marry me no matter what you or she says.’ In this village, he continues, men make the decisions. In short, Reyyes wants to fuck the woman, and so she will be fucked. However, when he, with great violence, attempts to take her by force, and Bint Mahmoud follows through on her promise to kill Reyyes and herself, one comes to realise that it is she who is the modern woman, not the so-called liberal, free Europeans. Why? Because Bint Mahmoud kills to make a statement, to say no when no is not permitted.

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THE MOON AND THE BONFIRES BY CESARE PAVESE

Some years ago I decided that I wanted to go back to the place where I had been raised. Just for the day. Or for an hour or two, at least. I had been away at university, and although that had changed me, had helped me to come to terms with many of my childhood experiences, I was still aware of it – my home town – creeping around, spider-like, in the corners of my mind. I arrived by bus around midday, and I stood at the bottom of the hill, gazing up at the gloomy council estate in which I had spent so many unhappy years, and something unexpected happened: although I had come to say goodbye, to bear witness, I actually felt as though I was reacquainting myself with an old, much-missed friend. How peculiar nostalgia is; it is like an amiable old cleaning lady who is able to remove the most stubborn, unpleasant stains.

“One needs a town, if only for the pleasure of leaving it.”

The Moon and the Bonfires by Cesare Pavese begins with a similar scenario, which is to say that the nameless narrator has returned to the place where he grew up after a period of living elsewhere. He is, therefore, obviously trying to reconnect with the past, or with his past self; yet, crucially, he doesn’t know whether he was born in the region, being a bastard who was left on the steps of a cathedral as a baby and later taken in by a local couple. In this way, what he is actually searching for is a home; he is wanting to claim a piece of land for himself, despite an overriding feeling of rootlessness; he wants to feel part of something, and yet, simultaneously, feels alienated, or distant, from almost everything.

This sense of rootlessness pervades the novel. As a young man, the narrator moved to America, a land, he says, where everyone is a bastard. It is, moreover, a land of opportunity, and yet, despite making his fortune, he didn’t fit in, or feel at home, there either. It is only when another Italian enters the restaurant where he is working that he feels a connection to something. They talk, critically, about the lack of good wine, and about American women, and the narrator points out that it isn’t their  – the Americans’ – fault; this is their home, he says, indicating, of course, that isn’t his. Ironically, on his return to his home town, the locals call him the American, which only further emphases his exclusion. To them, he is a foreigner, a stranger. Even the dogs mistrust him, and bark and pull at their leashes when he passes by.

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As he wanders around Gaminella, the Belbo, and the Mora, the narrator is on the look out for the familiar, while, at the same time, acknowledging that he will not find it. Things change. The past cannot be recreated. The people that he knew in his youth – Padrino, Giulia, etc – have died, or moved on [if not literally then symbolically]; they have got married, had new experiences, become different people. Even the ‘pine tree by the fence’ has been cut down. One of the locals that he does reconnect with is an old friend, Nuto. Indeed, one of his functions in the novel is to contrast the narrator, for Nuto stuck around, stayed in the town. But he too has changed, of course. He was once a musician – an activity that suggests freedom – but gave that up in order to concentrate on being a carpenter, a steadier occupation for someone with responsibilities.

“What use is this valley to a family that comes from across the sea and knows nothing about the moon and the bonfires? You must have grown up there and have in in your bones, like wine and polenta, and then you know it without needing to speak about it.”

At one stage the narrator says to Nuto that he too ought to leave; and he says the same thing about Cinto, a lame boy he attempts to befriend. It is an interesting psychological quirk that he appears to want the locals to behave as he did, although one gets the impression that it is not necessarily because he thinks it is the best thing for them, rather because he wants them to be like him, to mirror him; it is further evidence of the narrator trying to find himself in a place. Indeed, his relationship with Cinto is fascinating. On one level he is used by Pavese to point the finger at Italy and the way that it mistreats its poor, in the same way that Dickens used his chimney sweeps, etc; he is an innocent victim of his circumstances, for his condition is credited to a mother with bad milk, who didn’t eat enough and worked too hard.

However, he is also the person with whom the narrator most intensely identifies, who he sees himself in. This results in one of the novel’s finest passages, which is when the two first meet. Cinto looks at him ‘in the sunlight, holding a dried rabbit skin in one hand, closing his thin eyelids to gain time.’ He is barefoot, with ‘a scab under one eye and bony shoulders.’ This vision, this vulnerable boy, reminds the narrator of ‘how often I had chillblains, scabs on my knees and cracked lips.’ It is a strangely tender, touching piece of writing, as, for the narrator, it is almost like a meeting with himself, like looking at and speaking to himself as a child. Indeed, he tries to convince Cinto that he was once a child himself, a child just like him, as though he needs the boy’s recognition.

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As always, there is more that could be discussed; war plays a part in the narrative, as does politics; there is, furthermore, the dual, repeated symbolism of the moon and fire, one of which represents home and the other faraway places. But, in all honesty, I don’t find any of that particularly stimulating, and I am sure other people have, or will, labour over it in my stead. One thing I do want to acknowledge, however, is the number of lukewarm reviews the book has garnered; from those floating around the internet it seems as though very few people fall in love with Pavese’s most famous work; it is, they often state, plotless and tedious. Well, for what it is worth, I loved it the first time I read it, and I appreciated it even more the second time around. Yes, it is unceasingly ruminative, and therefore low on high octane thrills; but I have never chased after that kind of thing, myself. What I want from a book is quality writing, insight, and an emotional punch; and this one has each of those things in abundance. In short, The Moon and the Bonfires is, for me, a masterpiece; it is a powerful, near-flawless novel, that so resonated with me that, appropriately, reading it felt like finding a part of myself, it felt like home.

SOUL BY ANDREY PLATONOV

The heating has never worked in my apartment. I’ve flipped switches, I’ve read manuals, I’ve turned dials, I’ve struck out petulantly at inanimate objects…nothing. Have you ever experienced the callous winters of northern England? Occasionally, I’ll sit on the sofa in the living room, attempting to behave like a civilised human being. And I’ll fantasise about chipping the frozen skin off my face, like restructuring an ice sculpture. I never do it, of course, because my fingers are so cold I can’t move them. So most of the time I hide away in my bedroom. I’ll wrap a thick quilt around myself, smoke warm cigarettes, and survive in relative comfort. However, a few days ago I became ill. I have a good immune system, but it failed me this time. Something got in, and it hated me. It started in the evening, when I realised I could stand, but I couldn’t walk. No big loss, I thought. But then thin water started to pour ceaselessly from my eyes and my nose. And I shook, rattling my teeth like a tin can full of coins.

The following day I found it difficult to remain conscious. I’d open my eyes and immediately they’d start to close again, despite my will. In the one or two periods when I was awake, I found that people were attempting to communicate with me. My phone lit up. My brother entered my room. I watched it all impassively. Nothing mattered to me – not food, not human beings – except heat. I glared at the radiator. It ignored me. In the midst of the demoralising cold and the illness, my consciousness had been reduced to some kind of Neanderthal state, whereby I was only dimly aware of myself as myself. I was no longer complex. I was basic. I was mentally rubbing two sticks together. The cat must have sensed something. He would prowl around the bed, making horrible mewling sounds, before jumping on my chest and laying down. I was sure he was going to eat me, or suck what little life I had left out of me. If I shooed him off he would skulk away, only to return mere moments later, in the hope that I was now too weak to resist or defend myself.

By the third day I had started to come back to myself. The most compelling sign of recovery is that I picked up a book from the bedside table. It was Soul by Andrey Platonov. I usually choose meticulously, but this choice was about what was closest to hand. In any case, as I read a strange thing happened. I started to enjoy myself. Joy had crept back into my heart, like a teenager stealing home long after curfew. It was only with strength or health that I could experience joy, or interest in anything outside of warmth. I did not forget about the cold completely, but it stepped off, and hid away at the back of my mind as I focussed on Nazar Chagataev, and the trials of the Dzhan nation somewhere in the desert. Indeed, the further I penetrated into the story, the more I realised that, while I had been laying in bed, ignorant of the world, a novel had laid beside me, so to speak, that was itself about overcoming suffering [albeit a much greater suffering than mine, of course] and embracing life. And being happy again, I could smile at one of the little miracles of coincidence that life throws up every now and again.

“Everything in the existing world seemed strange to him; it was as if the world had been created for some brief, mocking game. But this game of make-believe had dragged on for a long time,for eternity, and nobody felt like laughing anymore.”

The novel begins in Russia, with Chagataev attending a party, having finished his studies at the local university. The tone is melancholic, with the emphasis being on leaving familiar things behind. Nazar is a melancholy sort himself; he is, we’re told, a young man with ‘pure eyes,’ which communicate a kind of ‘gloomy kindness.’ This kindness, this sensitivity, leads him to approaching and attempting to comfort a middle aged woman called Vera, whom no one else is paying attention to. One sees in this one of the defining aspects of his character, and one of the novel’s major themes, which is an interest in ‘unneeded’ or neglected things. For example, as a child, Chagataev’s mother left him to fend for himself, which led to him being given refuge in Russia; Vera also has a daughter, Ksenya, whose father has taken off; and once Chagataev returns to his home land, in the desert, he comes across all manner of  abandoned things, including a camel, flocks of sheep, and the Dzhan people, of course.

It is Chagataev’s aim to ‘build happiness,’ to, as noted in my melodramatic introduction, make the nomadic Dzhan tribe, to which he belongs, embrace life. The only problem with this is that they are, I would say, the most wretched group of people I have ever encountered in a novel. And I’ve read almost the entirety of Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre. Drawn from runaways, exhausted slaves and orphans; fed and given employment for only a few weeks of the year; and, the rest of the time, left to wander in extreme poverty. I say wander, but most are too sick to move. They are thoroughly destitute, having nothing, not even madness, because madness requires energy, as does happiness. At one point Chagataev comes across his worn-out mother, who is doubled up, her face almost to the ground. She doesn’t recognise her son, and doesn’t experience love or relief, or even shock or surprise, when he introduces himself. She, like the rest of the Dzhan, has entered a state of being that is almost animalistic. Just like me[!] hibernating in my fever, they have no internal life. They exist, and that is it; they, to paraphrase Platonov, are not living, they just haven’t died yet.

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The word Dzhan means, we’re told, soul or dear life. As with many Russian novels, the state and importance of the human soul, and what indeed constitutes the soul, plays a central role in Platonov’s work. Chagataev is eager for his people to accept life, to begin to live a meaningful existence, and he is dismayed that the Dzhan can’t or won’t do this. Indeed, he all but charges them with laziness. Sorrow is easy, he thinks. But he comes to realise that the body needs nourishment, so that the soul can function and happiness blossom. The middle section of the book is, therefore, given over to his attempts to feed the tribe, resulting in one of the most extraordinary passages in literature, where he lays on the ground, encouraging vicious birds to peck at and try and kill him, so that he can shoot them for food. Once nourished, however, the Dhzan scatter. Renewed strength and vitality has given them optimism, hopes and dreams and desires, but these dreams etc do not fit in with Chagataev’s vision for the people. They have embraced life, certainly, but they have done so in a kind of selfish, in some ways hedonistic manner.

Yet eventually the tribe return, and it is here that I think the reader comes to understand what Platonov, or Chagataev at least, means by soul. There is a lot of stuff in the novel about displacement and exile – most notably the central character being forced to leave his home country  – which all, of course, fits in with the aforementioned abandonment theme, but which also suggests the importance of human interaction, family and community. Chagataev enjoyed the benefits of community in Russia, he was allowed to live and study and work; alone, in the desert, these things would have been impossible. Moreover, one sees in his desire to marry Vera, who is pregnant with another man’s child when he meets her, how much significance he places upon building relationships, looking out for each other, working together, making sacrifices for each other, and so on. This is, then, a healthy soul, one that looks outside of itself, one that wants to live and engage and work with other people. This is happiness…a, if you will, communistic happiness. [One could, in fact, see Soul as a kind of parable about right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy ways of living, whereby the suffering that Platonov is referring to isn’t literal or physical, but, so to speak, spiritual]. Indeed, the novel ends: Chagataev knew that help could come to him only from another human being.

You will, I’m sure, have paid special attention to a particular word in the preceding paragraph. A dirty word. Communism. I’m always surprised when Platonov’s work is called pro-Stalin. If you have read The Foundation Pit, which is concerned with collectivisation and the starvation of the Russian peasantry, you will understand how ridiculous that claim is. But that is not to say that the author wasn’t pro-Communism. The two – Stalinism and Communism – are not the same thing. I may be wrong, but Soul did strike me as advocating Communistic principles, i.e. the sharing of labour, the ownership of one’s own labour, the importance of the community over the individual, etc. Yet what is quite clear is that Platonov did not advocate brutality or dictatorship. Indeed, there is a tyrant in the novel, the Khan of Khiva, who the Dzhan rise up against, and who struck me as perhaps a stand-in for Stalin. Moreover, Stalin once said that death is the solution to all problems, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that the most villainous character in the novel, Nur Mohammed, appears to live by that principle, gleefully counting off the Dzhan as they die, hoping for their death, because it would mean more for him. So, yes, Joseph Stalin is frequently referred to by name in Soul and is described as a loving father, as the father of all abandoned people, but I would suggest that there is more than a hint of irony about all that, especially when you consider that the Russian leader had such a low opinion of Platonov. Scum, is what he called him.

THE ODYSSEY BY HOMER

My parents split when I was very young. The arrangement they made between them was that my brother and I would spend the weekends with our father, but would live, during the week, with my mother. One winter, when I was ten years old, it started to snow heavily and gave no indication of stopping any time soon. It was a Sunday morning and my brother and I were due to leave dad’s and return to what, for us, was home. The snow, however, had other ideas.

To go home we had to catch two buses. The first was running late, but, otherwise, the ride, although slow, was pretty uneventful. We arrived in the centre of Sheffield sometime around one o’clock. It was then that things started to go awry. At the stop where we would usually catch the next bus, which was to take us into Rotherham, there was one already waiting. It did not, however, give the appearance of preparing to go anywhere; the engine was off and the driver was stood outside, smoking a cigarette. Being ten years old I did not want to ask the driver what was happening but I heard another potential passenger enquire as to when we would be allowed to board. ‘You won’t’ said the driver. ‘All buses have been cancelled due to the snow. I’m returning to the depot.’

At this a strange kind of panic overcame me. My brother and I were halfway between my mother’s and my dad’s, with no phone and our fare the only money in our pockets. Typically, my brother wanted to wait it out. The buses would start running again soon, he said. But I knew that wasn’t the case. The snow had settled, and heavy spidery flakes were still bombing the city. Waiting would only make it harder to walk; and walking, I knew, was inevitable.

To return to dad’s was, relatively speaking, easier; it was closer and the route was straightforward; but, as when after the split, when we were asked which parent we wanted to live with, we instinctively felt drawn to our mother, despite the inevitable hardships. And so, our decision made, we set off through the snow in the direction of home, following the route the bus would have taken. Yet time and distance, we found, are deceptive. What had taken 25 minutes on a bus, would, we thought, only take us an hour. But the bus wasn’t a young child; it wasn’t cold and tired and scared. On the bus, home had always seemed close, just around the next corner; but as we mashed through the snow it seemed impossible, unreachable; it seemed, after a couple of hours, as though it no longer existed; nothing existed, except the snow, which is all we could see.

Two or three times my brother fell down, and I, almost without stopping, dragged him to his feet, shouting encouragement into the snow. At some point night fell too; and still the heavy spidery flakes came down, punctuating the darkness. By this stage I could not have said why I was doing what I was doing; instinct had kicked in; one foot followed the other, regardless. I remember coming to a distinctive spot, a part of the journey that, by bus, always felt significant, because it meant only another five or ten minutes until we reached home. But on foot, mashing through thick boot-clinging snow, that last leg, which was up hill, seemed monstrous.

Eventually we made it, of course. As we descended the hill on the other side we were met by my mother and her then boyfriend, who, we were told, could not bear to wait any longer and had started to walk to meet us on the way. And there it was: home; which is, I found, not a physical building, but the look in my mother’s eyes as she ran to greet us.

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[Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus by Jacob Jordaens]

The point of this story is to illustrate how universal great literature is, for whenever I think back to that day, which is something that I do quite often, I am immediately reminded of The Odyssey, Homer’s immortal poem. My brother and I did not encounter any Sirens, or Lotus Eaters or Cyclops, but our walk through the snow was, in principle, a fight to get home, to overcome adversity and return to the familiar and comfortable. And, on the most basic level, this is just what The Odyssey is about. Following the war at Troy, as he sought to return to Ithica, to his wife and son, Odysseus had stumbled from one disastrous situation to the next, until the great warrior found himself entrapped on an island for seven years by Calypso, a Goddess. Eventually, with the help of Pallas Athena, he is allowed to leave; and so continues his famous, epic quest.

“Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say
that we devise their misery. But they
themselves- in their depravity- design
grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.”

It may seem like an unusual thing to say about epic poetry, but there is a tremendous amount of dumb fun to be had when reading The Odyssey. The tricking of Polyphemus – who Odysseus gets drunk and subsequently blinds – is probably the most famous episode, but I also particularly enjoyed the beautiful witch Circe, who turns a number of the ship’s crew into pigs. To the modern reader, The Odyssey is a fantasy, having much in common with something like The Tempest or A Midsummer’s Night Dream or even fairytales; indeed, to highlight a more recent example, one can draw a number of parallels between Homer’s work and the Lord of the Rings saga. In this way, I would say that it has a broader appeal, is easier to digest, and certainly contains greater variety, than the brutal, relentless Iliad.

Despite the weird creatures, the faraway lands, the quest, and the prominence of a great hero, the heart of The Odyssey is conventional and domestic, in that it is concerned with values such as love and friendship and the importance of family. Again, this is in contrast to The Iliad, where honour and death and war are the focus. When Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, goes in search of news of his father he is given hospitality from a number of Odysseus’ friends, and their sons and daughters and wives, who are willing to do all they can to help him. Penelope, meanwhile, is, even after a number of years, and not knowing whether her husband is alive or dead, still resisting the suitors who have almost taken over her house. In fact, she even plays a trick on them, promising to take a new husband only after she has finished weaving a shroud, while unpicking it each night to make sure that she never does.

“Now from his breast into the eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,
longed for as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
Few men can keep alive through a big serf
to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches
in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind:
and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,
her white arms round him pressed as though forever.”

One thing I find refreshing about Greek myths, and by extension Homer’s work, is that women play such a strong role. It’s funny how hundreds of years later women would be seen as delicate, incapable creatures who need protecting by being locked up at home, and yet here their position, and personalities, are not dissimilar to the men’s. For example, Goddesses are worshipped and invoked just as much as God’s, and it is not the case that these Goddesses are concerned with flower arranging and children, they get their hands dirty, intervening and interacting with what is happening on earth, be that war or whatever. In fact, although The Odyssey is certainly Odysseus’ story [the clue is in the title], the second most important character is the grey-eyed Pallas Athena. Moreover, as noted earlier, Penelope, although upset that her husband is lost or dead, is no sap, while, conversely, the mighty Odysseus frequently bursts into tears.

If you have read any of my reviews you will likely know that, when approaching translated literature, choosing the best translation is, for me, of paramount importance; so much so that there are books that I haven’t enjoyed in one translation, and later really liked in another. The question of which translation one should read becomes particularly critical when one is concerned with poetry. Part of me, I must admit, is resistant to the idea of translated poetry altogether, because I just cannot see how it can possibly bear any great or significant resemblance to the original. Yet I think this is less of a danger with epic, narrative poetry; with something like The Odyssey, the translator has a story to tell, and as long as he or she tells it faithfully they have done at least half the job right.

For The Iliad I chose Robert Fagles’ critically acclaimed version. The reason for this is that I felt that his robust [you might uncharitably call it inelegant] style suited the material. I did, however, cringe frequently at some of his phrasing and word choices, which were far too modern for my taste. Therefore, for The Odyssey I went with Robert Fitzgerald, who, I believe, had a stronger ear for poetry and a more subtle touch. Yet, having said that, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Fitzgerald’s rendering to the first time reader of Homer’s work. I think the popularity of Fagles’ translations has much to do with how accessible they are; the truth is that most people don’t care about the use of modern language in an ancient Greek text; in fact, the average reader would likely prefer language that is recognisable to them.

In comparison, Firtzgerald’s rendering is more of a challenge. Don’t get me wrong, his work is still readable and is, for the most part, easy enough to get a handle on, but some of his choices are potentially alienating or disorientating. For example, character and place names are spelt in a way that most of us will not recognise [Calypso is Kalypso, Circe is Kirke, Ithica is Ithika etc]. In most cases, deciphering these is, as you call tell by my examples, not especially difficult, but occasionally the spellings are outright baffling. The worst I can recall is Sirens, which in Fitzgerald’s version is Seirenes. When one encounters something like this, one is, unfortunately, taken out of the text as you try and work out what or whom exactly we are dealing with.

However, as previously hinted, the strength of his version is that it stands up as poetry. I can’t, of course, say that it is the best or most successful version, not having read them all, but it is consistently smooth, beautiful and stirring. There’s one line in it, which is repeated throughout the text, about the dawn’s ‘finger tips of rose,’ that I was particularly taken with, and which, moreover, I have seen elsewhere translated in such disappointing and clunky ways.

sirens

[Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper]

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the poem is the sophisticated structure. I expected that it would be episodic, and it is, but I did not anticipate a non-linear narrative. The Odyssey begins in media res, with significant proportion of the action already in the past. As we enter the story, Odysseus has been missing for many years, the suitors are surrounding his house in an effort to take his wife, and his son is about to begin his own journey for news of his father. Therefore, for quite some time the main character is off-stage, so to speak. When he does appear, he spends much of his time recounting the details of his life following the war in Troy. So, we only have access to the most exciting, and the most famous, episodes as flashbacks.

What this highlights is the important role that oral story-telling plays in the text. Throughout, Odysseus and many other characters tell tales, be they fictional or true, as a way or bonding or sharing information or entertaining each other, in the same way that we do now. I have always found this interesting, this seemingly universal, immortal desire to give voice to, and share, stories with other people. It is something, as the rambling introductions to my reviews attest, that I feel compelled to do myself. At one stage, Athena turns Odysseus into a beggar, and the hero creates for him an entire history, fleshing out and breathing life into the character he is playing. So there you have it: a book that shouts loudly about home and family and so on, but which, in a more subtle fashion, is equally concerned with, as well as being itself an example of, the joy and importance of communication and human interaction.

I THOUGHT YOU WERE GOOD AT CLIMBING?

As far as his housemates were concerned he had gone home to see his family. No one knew that at home they were not expecting him, that he hadn’t called ahead, that he hadn’t taken the early train in order to visit his mother and his brother, but to bear witness, or at least to mollify himself with reality rather than live with exaggerated ideas of how awful everything had been where he had grown up. Or maybe it was nostalgia that had brought him to this place, that strange, masochistic nostalgia people sometimes feel even for unpleasant things.

At the bottom of the hill he hesitated, pulling off his jacket and taking out his cigarettes, as though he was stalling for time. It was Autumn, and the soft cool air crept over him like a lengthening shadow. At the top of the hill he picked out the estate where he had grown up, and then the two-bedroom flat where he and his mother and his brother had lived until the previous year. They (his mother, his brother) had moved to another flat in another part of the city almost as soon as he had left for University, as though he had been the only reason to remain there all those years, as though his once seemingly futile desire to get away had been the sole reason to hold on.

He walked forward ten or fifteen paces, then remembered the cigarettes. He stopped again, took one out of the packet and lit it. He leaned against the fence before what was once Martin Flanaghan’s house. One day after school he had watched Martin Flanaghan fight Danny James on this spot. He had tried to avoid it, but had run into Danny and his new friends on his way home. He had been friends with Danny once; they had been at primary school together; they would sing popular songs to each other during breaks and lunchtime, which, when he thought about it, seemed crazy but they were little kids then, and they had not yet learned to hate and mistrust everything.

At the comp they had immediately gone their separate ways, almost ashamed of each other, but when Danny saw him on his way home that day he wouldn’t let him miss the fight, he insisted that he come along. He was sure that Martin wasn’t going to answer the door when Danny called on him, but he did. He and his mother came out on the pavement and his mother watched while Danny and Martin went at it. Only Martin was losing badly, so the mother grabbed Danny by the hair and pushed him to the ground. Martin then kicked him repeatedly in the face.

He noticed a young girl had been watching him smoke, the kind of girl that, he thought, as she skated up to him, had always seemed to be kicking around here when he was growing up, regardless of the time of day or weather, the kind that appear out of nowhere, wearing grimy beige shorts and once-white vests on their slight but durable bodies.

– Do you live round here? she said.

– No, I’m visiting

– Who you visiting?

– No one

The girl climbed up on the fence. He turned around to face her.

– Get down, you’ll fall

– I won’t. I’ve never fall.

Fallen. And you might one time and then you’d wish you’d listened.

– You’re not my dad.

– No.

– Are you good at climbing?

– Yeah, course. I’m good at everything.

– Don’t be silly. You ever fall?

– All the time.

– I thought you were good at climbing?

– I’m good at falling too.

– Don’t be silly. What you here for?

– I told you, I’m visiting

– Who though?

– No one. I’m looking around. I used to live here.

The girl jumped down off the fence and poked him.

– You shouldn’t do that.

She grinned.

– Why?

– It’s not nice.

She stuck out her tongue.

– Shouldn’t you be at school or at home? he said.

– You’re not my dad.

– Where’s your dad?

She shrugged.

– Do you know my brother? she said.

– Yeah, I know him.

– What’s his name?

– Arnold

– His name’s not Arnold.

– It is. You don’t know him like I know him.

– It’s Steven.

– Not when I knew him it wasn’t.

– You don’t know him.

– I know him. Name’s Arnold. Has a little sister who likes climbing and asking questions.

She frowned.

– Did you live in this house? she said, meaning Martin Flanaghan’s.

– No. I lived at the top of the hill.

He pointed.

– Up there?

– Yeah.

– Why aren’t you still there now?

– I moved. I’m at University.

– Agh

– Yeah.

– Who lives there now?

– I don’t know.

– Is it Jessica Evans?

– Probably. Who’s Jessica Evans?

– Dunno. She’s in my class.

– At school?

– Jessica’s got a rabbit.

– Good for her.

– Have you got a rabbit?

– No. My mum has two cats though.

– Do you like your mum?

– Everyone likes their mum.

– I don’t.

– Understandable. Why not?

– She’s shouts. She goes yah yah yah yah yah

– Ok, I get it.

He tried to picture the mother. But he saw his own mother instead.

– If I had a rabbit I’d call her Daisy.

– Call her Arnold.

– Don’t be silly. Is that your name?

– I gotta go now.

– Me too. It’s late.

– It’s not. But bye.

The girl walked away, up the hill as though it was the easiest thing in the world. As he watched her climb the sandy-coloured pavement the blunt sun dropped behind a bank of clouds, and the air grew damp and lost its softness. He stayed behind, telling himself that he wanted to give the girl a head start, so that she wouldn’t think he was following her. He thought about his mother, about how he would feel if she were still at the top of that hill, if she was living still in the same block of flats, which, from where he stood, appeared to hang over him like a red-brown spider.