Songs of the Kings – Barry Unsworth

29 July 2008
Just over a quarter of the way through
It’s very engaging. It starts inside the head of Calchas, a seer, struggling – like everybody else in Agamemnon’s army – to make sense of the adverse wind that’s stopping them from setting sail for Troy. The seer’s point of view is highly convincing – it convinced me, anyway – as he goes through his mental card index of gods and goddesses from all the cultures he’s now having to deal with. Which one might be angry? Why…? Meanwhile a fight to the death is about to take place to decide an obscure matter of honour between two of the tribes camped edgily together. People ask Calchas for his opinion, but he’s not saying. His reason sounds utterly plausible: why would the gods be interested in such a petty squabble? His own mind, however, is made up. Barry Unsworth takes us through his reasoning. The dance in firelight he saw the smaller man perform was a sign of the man’s mortality: what could be more ephemeral than a dance, than fire? (Everybody else thinks he’s had it anyway, for more obvious reasons.) And… he wins. Calchas is mortified – and we can see how it’s not just personal pride. A few dodgy predictions like that and his fragile career is over.

Career. This novel is about careers, ambitions, greasy poles – and the rivalries are presented like office politics. Once we’re outside Calchas’ head we realise that very few of the participants are as sincere as he is. For Odysseus, for instance, prophecies are just bollocks. Which doesn’t stop him from using them to his own advantage if he can: he schools two soldiers to add a detail to an event which is already considered crucial – and when one of them over-eggs it the scene in which he has a post-mortem is pure cynicism. And his complaint to a fellow-conspirator about how hard it was to convene the meeting where the soldiers were brought on could come straight from any corporate organiser. (The novel was written in 2003, when spin was in the air. As it still is.)

It’s a kind of deliberate anachronism… or, it’s Unsworth making human beings behave in ways he knows we’ll recognise. (This happens in other genres as well: I’ve always thought the incarnation of Star Trek with Jean-Luc Picard as captain is like office politics in space.) Anyway. Odysseus has a couple of cronies: a trusted counsellor of Agamemnon‘s, flitting about like Peter Mandelson, and a self-serving priest of Zeus. Other believers are the blind singer – Homer, we’re allowed to guess – and an old woman, keeper of some oracular shrine, who Calchas consults for advice about what the soldiers said. Agamemnon the leader is in the middle trying to make sense of the conflicting advice while the other big noises – Achilles the narcissist, Ajax the dim giant and Nestor the old duffer – offer nothing useful at all.

Neatly, Unsworth has it that Odysseus’ cynical manoeuvring has given Calchas what he thinks is new information, to be subject to his usual scrutiny. He’ll use it to try to work out who has offended which god, and what the offender will have to do to put it right. The smart money’s on Agamemnon as the offender – because that‘s what Odysseus is spinning.

31 July
Three-eighths of the way through
(I’m at the end of CD three in an 8-CD audio version, cleverly read by Andrew Sachs.) So… a bit further on it all becomes even clearer. Odysseus‘ story is that Zeus is annoyed at Agamemnon for allowing his daughter Iphigenia, a fan of Artemis, to build up the goddess’s shrine back home at the expense of Zeus. (In the theology of these politicians the gods are as sensitive to their status as any dictator. It beats the story of the original myth, in which Artemis was angry at Agamemnon because he said he was a better hunter: now that’s just childish.) At another crunch meeting it finally clicks for Calchas: it’s a stitch-up to put Agamemnon under pressure. The only way to save the campaign will be to sacrifice Iphigenia…. Along with propaganda that Odysseus’ crony is having his followers put about all over the camp – that the wind is all Aggers’ fault – the beleaguered boss hasn’t a chance.

In the original myth Calchas is forthright, letting Agamemnon know that his daughter’s got to go. Unsworth has changed all that. Now, his own cowardice – or, at best, his concern for his reputation – has wasted valuable time. He’s not a charlatan – he can see what the signs mean – but he stalls to avoid Agamemnon’s anger. And his own sincere belief has stuffed him: he only realised too late that other people are just using religion for their own ends.

[Our political editor writes. Yesterday (30 July) David Miliband wrote an article in The Guardian about the direction Labour needs to take. It’s been widely seen as a leadership bid: Miliband, along with others, thinks Brown is responsible for the stalling of Labour’s fortunes – or so say the seers and shamans of the media. They may be right, or they may be wrong…. But whether or not Miliband is Odysseus, Brown is definitely Agamemnon. Through no deliberate fault of his, he’s ruining it for everybody.]

2 August
Half-way through…
…i.e. not that much further on. But there’s been a superbly described meeting of all the chiefs: Unsworth shows exactly how Odysseus and Peter Mandelson manoeuvre Agamemnon, through careful reference to responsibility, the weight of office and other flattering terms, into accepting what they want. Calchas is hardly mentioned: he’s out of it.

Then, for the first time, the location shifts away from the claustrophobia of the Greek camp. We’re in Mycenae with Iphigenia – or, rather, we’re inside the head of a new onlooker: Iph’s slave. It’s like Margaret Forster’s Lady’s Maid all over again: I genuinely began to wonder if Unsworth had read it, because the slave-girl is Iph’s friend… except, of course, she isn’t. We quickly get the picture of little rich girl Iphigenia’s lifestyle, including the reality of her ‘priestess’ status: it’s just a bit of fun, really. She likes the forms of religious observance, the rituals and dressing up but, just like with the men, it’s the servant who takes it seriously. It’s in her head that the reality of gods and monsters exists, and Unsworth shows us a world in which every tree, rock and stream has its significance. Iphigenia is just as interested in the son of the garrison chief, cautiously flirting with her when he meets them on the road. But… a messenger arrives from a distant lookout post: horsemen have been seen on the road. And it’s the slave-girl who guesses – without saying anything to her mistress, of course, that wouldn’t do at all – that something is going to shake up their world.

4 August
To the end of the Mycenae section
It’s not been all that riveting. The horsemen arrive to take Iphigenia back with them to the military camp – to marry Achilles who’s decided he can’t possibly go to Troy without, er, marrying her. Again it’s the maid who works out that it doesn’t make sense. Funny, for instance, how he only realised he wanted to explore the contents of Iphigenia’s priestly undergarments after they’d been suffering an adverse wind for so long. Presumably if the wind had been in favour he wouldn’t have been so bothered. Then we get some rather heavy-handed stuff: Iph tells her maid the old story about how her family is cursed – and how the stories are full of tricks and scams. And we see her dressed in her ‘sacrificial garments’, ready to kill the goat. You should have seen the blood. And then, thank God (or whichever deity is in network range) the chapter comes to an end.

There’s a problem with this novel. It’s not really a novel: there just isn’t enough going on, and no matter how much detailing there might be of thought processes or of the tangible reality of lives 3,000 years ago, it simply feels thin. Is it a novella really? I’ve certainly found myself wishing for an abridged version

9 August
To the end
After the attenuation of the middle chapters, the last third or so is more engaging. The satire of spin-doctors and propaganda becomes broader, if anything – as when Odysseus is faced with Achilles the homicidal maniac (I think Odysseus actually refers to him in this way), fuming that he wasn’t consulted about being used as bait for Iphigenia. Odysseus uses all his skills to persuade Achilles that not consulting him was precisely the best course of action – he persuaded me anyway – and Achilles wanders off to find a mirror. Probably.

Calchas, finally understanding how he was outflanked, spills all the beans spectacularly… but all that he achieves among the big noises is an atmosphere of shuffling embarrassment. By the end of the novel, having been deserted by his servant, he’s a wreck. Odysseus is triumphant – never more so than when he has to face the task of persuading Iphigenia that being sacrificed is the best possible way that she could serve her father, Mycenae, Greece, the gods….

She doesn’t buy it at first – why should she, as one of the bureaucrats asks, it being difficult to sell it as in any way life-enhancing – but then she does. And we know why: unsurprisingly (it’s a cliché of master-servant relationships in fiction) her servant has turned out to be far more resourceful and in tune with the ways of the vicious world than her mistress. She has a cunning plan: she herself will pretend to be Iphigenia – she’s already sold the idea to Odysseus that allowing Iphigenia the familiar moon-mask makeup of the priestess of Artemis will help to persuade the princess – and Iph will be spirited away by the young soldier who’s escorted her from home, the one who’s always carried a torch for her. Ah… the myths have always contained an element of doubt about the sacrifice, rumours that she was seen escaping. But Unsworth has something cleverer – and fairer – in mind: as Iphigenia gets her own servant ready for the sacrifice she has second thoughts. Her servant can only stand aside, aghast that her mistress has been fooled by Odysseus’ arguments, as she decides that yes, only the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s real daughter will satisfy the gods. She’s been flattered by the idea of this being her royal destiny, and nothing her servant says will dissuade her.

We don’t witness the sacrifice. As with a lot of this section, if there’s any point of view taken it’s that of a marginal character. The servant is able to escape – it’s her moon make-up a fisherman sees – and she hears the roar of the army as they get what Odysseus has persuaded them they wanted.

But this is only part of the story – because this novel is about the stories, or the songs, passed down by the singer. They’re the songs of the kings because they are the victorious ones, and have the power to decide what will be told. It’s an old idea, but we‘re happy with it because it forms a thread of the novel. Calchas loses his servant to the singer: despite Calchas’ warnings that the songs are only versions of the truth, versions put about by those who want to sway the people, the boy loves to hear them. As far as he is concerned, the singer’s beautifully crafted fictions are the truth. He becomes one of many in this novel whose views are shaped by people who need them to believe what they’re peddling: Agamemnon himself, Iphigenia, the whole army. And it does Calchas no good at all to be able to see through it: his truth is too messy, not convenient enough.

Ok, does it work as a satire of what we all think we know about late-20th and early-21st Century spin? It depends what you think of Odysseus as Unsworth presents him. As the novel went on I found him more and more engaging. His little tics – like the search for the mot juste as he drafts his persuasive speeches while speaking them, using his crony as a walking thesaurus – mark him out as a modern PR man. The fact that the words his sidekick comes up with sound ever more like the jargon of business or PR consultants just adds to the fun. (I wish I could remember them, but I’ve taken the CDs back to the library now. I remember flexibility and adaptability from the meeting to persuade Agamemnon in the first half of the book, but the ones from later on are toe-curling….)

So yes, since you ask, it does work for me. Now I’ll have to read Homer, I suppose. There was a new translation about a year ago…. Watch this space.

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