Tag Archives: translation

Review: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) caught my attention the first time I saw it’s title. Nominated for both the Man Booker International prize and the National Book Award prize for translated fiction earlier this year, it’s certainly been getting some buzz. In addition, Tokarczuk was just announced the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. If those accolades aren’t enough, let me tell you a bit about this incredible book.

driveyourplowoverthebonesofthedeadIn the novel, an old woman living in a secluded Polish village looks after the houses of the folk who spend their winters elsewhere. She’s one of three who remain in the cold months- until one day, one of her neighbors comes knocking with a request for her to help him deal with the third man, who’s dead. She has occasion to do a bit of snooping in his house at that time, and will later tell anyone who’ll listen (and some who won’t) that animals have killed him in revenge (he was a known poacher). Most call her crazy and move on, but when more of the villagers turn up dead as the year wears on, it becomes obvious that something suspicious is going on. In the midst of this unresolved murder spree, Mrs. Duszejko continues to complain loudly about local treatment of animals, fighting against even legal hunting practices.

“Sorrow, I felt great sorrow, an endless sense of mourning for every dead Animal. One period of grief is followed by another, so I am in constant mourning.”

Though this book opens with a striking chapter that depicts neighbors dealing with their own dead in a desolate winter world, what first captured my attention about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was not the action but rather the singular voice of the story’s narrator. I don’t often enjoy books about animals, or books that ask readers to pity animals; I have enough natural empathy for living creatures, and don’t feel that my caring more about them will make any difference in the world, so I tend to find them repetitive, needlessly sad, and ultimately ineffective (for me personally- I respect that they are more successful with other readers). But Mrs. Duszejko gave me a human connection to this story that managed to keep me invested even though I didn’t always agree with her or feel interested in her arguments. Her perspective makes perfect sense for her character, though there are occasional moments when even the reader must question her sanity (just another brilliant move by Tokarczuk). Her viewpoint may seem a bit extreme, but there is something suspicious going on, and the way that her neighbors react to her claims can be as telling as the rumors floating through the village.

“Try to keep your theory to yourself. It’s highly improbable and it could do you harm.”

“Don’t get so upset about things. Don’t take the whole world on your shoulders. It’ll all be fine.”

Plot-wise, this book falls into the mystery genre, though it’s not really about the strange deaths of the local men- at least, not for Mrs. Duszejko. For her, the main contention of the book is whether or not anything will be done about the crimes against animals that she’s been diligently reporting. For that reason, it might be more appropriate to call this novel a character study. And that, for me, was the main flaw of the book- it’s structured as a puzzle in which our main character seems to have little interest throughout most of the novel. Of course the pieces come together for her (and everyone else) in the end, but my only real complaint here was that I didn’t feel like there was any driving force to propel me through the book. Convincing humanity to stop hunting/eating/taking advantage of animals seems like an obvious lost cause from the start, and that is the conflict Mrs. Duszejko is concerned with. Even though I enjoyed her odd life and opinions, I would put this book down at the end of the day, and feel no urge to pick it up again the next. It took me twice as long to read as it should have (judging by page count), even though I liked reading it. And I think at the end of the day, that comes down to a disconnect with the mystery element.

Otherwise, my only issue was that toward the end of the story the “villain” has to monologue an explanation of how they’ve gotten away with the crimes to that point. Most of the clues are scattered beautifully throughout the book so that they aren’t immediately obvious but easy to recall when they become important later. A few hints would have sufficed for the reader to piece the mystery together without being told quite so blatantly, but the solution is clever.

Also clever: seemingly random capitalization. I have a theory about this: Mrs. Duszejko capitalizes the things (in her first-person narration) that she has great respect for- things that play a powerful role in the way she lives her life. This list includes mainly naturally-occurring things, like Murk, Night, Animals… It also includes proper names of people and places, but enough common nouns are affected to lend the story a whimsical feel, though its topics are anything but.

” ‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude toward Animals. If people behave brutally toward Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ “

It’s hard to say much more without giving the best parts away, so I’ll say only that it’s a weird, wonderful little book sure to challenge the way readers think about the intricate bond between humanity and the natural environment. Mystery aside, it’s a powerful and timely look at the way we are using and abusing the earth we live on. Despite the narrator’s firm opinion on the modern treatment of animals, the book does not force the reader to take Mrs. Duszejko’s side, and leaves plenty of room for discourse. It’s a book that’s sure to stay with me in the same way that The Overstory now comes to mind every time I look at a tree. Tokarczuk brings Poland to vibrant life with this atmospheric little village, and her characterization of Mrs. Duszejko (and her potential madness) is worth reading even if, like me, you’re not initially sold on the animal rights themes. Even though the mystery was the weakest part of the story for me, there’s plenty of surprise in store for the reader, and plenty of commentary to love. Highly recommend.

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meaning for ourselves‚Ķ And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I thought this was such an accomplished novel, and I’m very much looking forward to checking out Tokarczuk’s Man Booker International winning novel from 2018, titled Flights. She’s clearly a skilled writer. I’m so disappointed Drive Your Plow didn’t make the shortlist for the National Book Award last week, and now very curious about the titles that surpassed it there. Clearly I need more translations in my reading life!

 

The Literary Elephant

The Translated Literature Book Tag

Diana created this excellent tag post a couple of months ago and I immediately made a mental note to try it at some point! Then Callum helped me out by tagging me shortly after! To be honest, I’ve been putting this off a few weeks because I know my list of translated readings is not very substantial yet, and I’ve recently become more invested in trying to turn that around- but my life is so busy right now that I know I won’t be able to pick up all of the great translated titles on my TBR immediately just to do justice to this tag, so I’m going to try the tag now, and make a note to myself to return to it in a year or so and see how my answers have changed! These look like such interesting and versatile prompts that could be filled with so many different titles every time you try it (including some you haven’t read yet), and I think it’s important to any reader’s world perspective to keep picking up translated lit from countries and languages other than your own, so I don’t mind promoting a tag like this twice! I highly recommend checking out both Diana’s and Callum’s posts, and searching for others who’ve posted this tag as well, if you’re looking for some great translation recommendations!

And here’s my contribution:

1 – A translated novel you would recommend to everyone:

25489025Here are two, from the same author: The Vegetarian, and/or Human Acts by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. I recommend them cautiously because they’re both experimental in style and deal with very difficult subject matter, but I think for anyone who is interested in learning about other cultures or pieces of world history these novels are absolutely worth the challenge. The Vegetarian, on the surface, is about a Korean woman who decides she will no longer eat meat; her family and friends cannot accept her decision. Thematically, I’d say it’s a more universal look at how society judges a choice that’s uncommon or hard to understand in cultural context. 30091914Human Acts depicts a student uprising in 1980s Korea and its tragic aftermath. Thematically, it’s an exploration of the cruelty and vulnerability inherent in human nature. Both are brilliant, eye-opening, gut-wrenching books, and I’m eager to read more from Kang!

2 – A recently read “old” translated novel you enjoyed:

22054577I’m going with the very old, and very classic, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Though I had to read big excerpts from both books for high school and college classes and was already fully familiar with the plot and themes of both, I only read The Iliad in full for the first time last summer, and The Odyssey this past winter. I liked the characters, plot, and story arc of the former better, but found the latter much more engaging and immediately entertaining to read. Though I appreciated both, I do not recommend this translation (by Samuel Butler, from the Greek); it resorts to prose rather than trying for anything close to Homer’s epic poems, and generally sticks to such a literal translation that any artistic flare is quite lost. I’m planning to try other editions of both at some point.

3 – A translated book you could not get into:

165035I don’t think this is a bad series at all, but I have to go with The Emigrants (and the entire Settlers series) by Vilhelm Moberg, translated from the Swedish by Gustaf Lannestock. The only reason I was able to stay invested in this series is that the story of a Swedish farming family emigrating to the US in the mid-1800s and establishing a new family farm in the American Midwest is also a chapter of my own family history. Even with that connection, I really struggled to stick with the writing style, which I found rather dry, and the characters themselves are not the most engaging. It was fascinating to me to see some of the challenges faced by Swedish emigrants, but there’s really not a lot of plot here and I can’t imagine anyone without a Swedish farming background finding this series very readable.

4 – Your most anticipated translated novel release:

42983724Technically this book is already released now, but I’m still anticipating reading it: Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (and longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year). I’ve been so eager to get my hands on a copy of this strange little mystery ever since I first heard that brilliant title- I had the first hold in at my library before the official US release date, but it took so long for the library to get the book into circulation that I just got it recently. It’s either going to be my next or second-next read, and I can’t wait to see about this reclusive woman and her dying neighbors! (Could there be a more perfect time of year for this content?)

5 – A “foregin-language” author you would love to read more of:

21411194. sy475 I read my first novel by Haruki Murakami earlier this year: Norwegian Wood, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. I thought the writing was excellent and the story of love, loss, and grief quite moving, and I know Murakami’s other works tend a bit more toward the magical, which sounds potentially wonderful. After finishing this first book, I immediately added The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to my TBR, and have also since picked up a copy of After Dark from a convenient secondhand shop. I’m sure I’ll want to read more as well, but I’m looking forward to continuing with these two next!

6 – A translated novel which you consider to be better than the film:

I’m not sure I can answer this one properly. I don’t watch a ton of films in general, and can’t at the moment think of a single translated novel I’ve even seen an adaptation for! Perhaps I’d say that The Iliad is a better book than Troy is as a movie, but I actually thought Troy was a very interesting adaptation, though not perfect.

7 – A translated “philosophical” book you recommend:

36436073. sx318 I actually don’t like reading philosophy very much, but I did appreciate Albert Camus’s Create Dangerously, translated from the French by Justin O’Brien. Perhaps I appreciate it even more in retrospect than I did while reading- a common trend for me with philosophy (I appreciate the logic of it, but struggle with the circular nature and myriad loopholes). I think I’ll need to reread this one at some point because I think I can take more from it if I put more time into focusing on all of its points, but I do remember fondly some of Camus’s arguments about how and why we create art, and the need to fight for one’s freedoms, even the freedoms we’ve already won. There are three little speeches in this small volume, all worth the read.

8 – A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long:

2429135I think The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland, is the translated novel that’s been on my TBR the longest. I started reading it in 2012, but I picked it up right before I graduated from high school, and didn’t get far enough into the story to be excited about picking it back up that summer… so I never did. Since I own a copy, and am too stubborn to admit defeat, I’ll definitely try again at some point; I am currently more interested in reading this book because it’s firmly in my mind as an “unfinished project” than because I am excited about the story. In fact, I don’t remember anything about the story. Seven years is a long time to pause a book.

9 – A popular translated fiction book you have not read:

36739755. sx318 One novel I’m interested in that I see mentioned quite often and can’t believe I haven’t gotten around to reading yet is Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takamori. This is such a short book (just over 150 pages!) and focuses on one woman’s sense of identity and non-conformity. In theory, it sounds like something I would adore, and even if not, it would be nice to finally be able to weigh in on a title it seems like everyone but I have read!

10 – A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read:

37004370Specifically, I’m going to mention The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa here, translated from the Japanese (I didn’t realize there would be so many authors from Japan on this list!) by Stephen Snyder. This is a brand new (to the US at least) dystopian release in which the “memory police” can make anything disappear; the MC is trying to save her editor and career. This one’s been getting some buzz lately and I would love to jump on board, partially because I’m very interested in this author in general; I have several of Ogawa’s books on my TBR now and still haven’t read a single one- an issue I certainly need to remedy!

 

Since I’ve done a few tags this month and have already tagged quite a few friends, I’m not going to list anyone specific to continue this tag- but I really hope that anyone who sees it and reads translated fiction will decide to take part! I love finding translation recs through these posts. ūüôā

Have you read any of these books? What’s your favorite translated novel of all time?

 

The Literary Elephant

Top of the TBR 8.19.19

Top of the TBR is a weekly post I created that will showcase any books added to my Goodreads TBR recently, with a short explanation of why each title caught my interest. I’ll aim for 5-10 books per post; in weeks that I’ve added more than that, I’ll hold some back, and in weeks that I don’t have enough, I’ll include titles I haven’t discussed yet. Each title will be linked back to its Goodreads page for anyone interested in exploring further, as I’m not a fan of copy/pasting synopses. Anyone who wants to take part in this series with me is absolutely welcome! Please link back to any of my Top of the TBR posts so I can see what you’re reading! ūüôā

Here are some of the new books I’ve added on Goodreads over the last week:

11989. sy475 The Plague by Albert Camus (Pub: June 1947)

How I found it: In Diana’s excellent Translated Literature Tag post! Also I read Camus’s Create Dangerously last year, so I’ve been somewhat on the lookout for a next title to try.

Why I added it: I really want to read more translated lit, and this has been an excellent month (WIT month!) to see what’s out there and boost the translations section of my TBR. Camus doesn’t fit into Women In Translation reading (which I’m still planning to contribute some reviews toward before the end of the month!) but I hope to be reading more translations throughout the year henceforth.

Priority: Low. This one is available through my library, which helps, but I have too many other TBR plans right now to be picking up new things. The trend continues…

9998The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (Pub: 1962)

How I found it: This one also appeared in Diana’s Translated Literature Tag post, but seeing it there reminded me that I’d enjoyed her review as well!

Why I added it: A man on a day trip becomes trapped in a seashore village. He is lodged with one lonely woman at the bottom of a sand pit. This just sounds so bizarre and compelling that I can’t pass it up.

Priority: Low. I’m a bit more interested in this one than the Camus, but it’s not available at my library which will make it harder to come by. (I’m trying really hard to stop buying every book that looks good, it’s an unsustainable habit.)

43209280 Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention by Donna Frietas (Pub: Aug. 2019)

How I found it: I’ve seen this one around bookstagram a bit, but it was Jenna’s recent review that really caught my attention!

Why I added it: Though my interest in fiction has grown, I would still say I’m fairly picky about memoirs. But this one sounds like a subject I’d be interested to read about- a college woman stalked by her professor- that would be difficult to read about from any other perspective than a firsthand account. So I’ll give this one a go for sure.

Priority: Middling. I’d like to get to this one while it’s still fairly new, but it doesn’t seem to be at my library yet, so we shall see.

44596140How Quickly She Disappears by Raymond Fleischmann (Pub: Jan 2020)

How I found it: Naty spotted this one! She’s got a good eye!

Why I added it: The Dry meets The Silence of the Lambs in historical small-town Alaska. I mean, could it possibly sound more promising? There’s also a missing twin, a German bush pilot, and some sort of mysterious game involving tasks in exchange for information. If Fleischmann can pull this off… it should be great.

Priority: Middling. Could easily be shifted to high, but I’d like to see what Naty thinks! If it’s a success, January would be a great time to read a cold-setting thriller like this.

40390773. sx318 I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi (Pub: Aug. 2019)

How I found it: I read Ren’s wonderful review!

Why I added it: This is another new-release nonfiction title that I’ve seen around a bit but not looked into (I should have!). It’s a set of essays that read more or less like a memoir about life with mental illness (bipolar II disorder, anxiety, depression). This is another topic that is probably ideal to read in a firsthand account, and it’s a subject I’ve not read about before, which adds to the appeal.

Priority: Middling. Again, I’d like to get to this while it’s new, but my library doesn’t have it.

 

And that’s a wrap! It was a slow week for my Goodreads TBR, which is actually nice because I’ve got so much on my plate already and am tentatively planning to focus on books I already own (and can get through the library) in my TBRs for the next few months. It’s actually kind of torturous to look through all the books I’m excited about reading that I don’t have time for yet- a side effect I wasn’t expecting from this series, but the excitement of sharing new finds has so far outweighed any negatives.

Have you read any of these, or recognize them from your own TBR?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Norwegian Wood

I’ve long been meaning to read more globally, so when a friend mentioned Haruki Murakami’s¬†Norwegian Wood¬†as one of her favorite books, it seemed like the time was ripe to cross a well-known Japanese author off of my want-to-read list. Or at least, one of his many intriguing titles; Jay Rubin (Murakami’s English translator) states that Norwegian Wood was the book that established Murakami’s “superstardom,” so it seemed as good a place to start as any.

norwegianwoodIn the novel, thirty-seven year-old Toru Watanabe hears a Beatles song that sends him back in memory to his first two years at college in Tokyo, 1968-1970. In this time, he runs into a girl who shared a close mutual friend with him- a mutual friend who committed suicide a couple of years previously. With this shared grief and confusion between them, Toru and Naoko begin a habit of Sunday walks through the city. An incident on Naoko’s birthday brings the two both closer together and farther apart. In the meantime, he meets another girl from his own classes who slowly invades his life and leaves him wondering whether he can ask for more than to care for a damaged girl who can make him no promises.

“The years nineteen and twenty are a crucial stage in the maturation of character, and if you allow yourself to become warped when you’re that age, it will cause you pain when you’re older.”

Essentially, Norwegian Wood is a romance in which one young man falls into the dilemma of loving two women at the same time. But the novel does so many other things that to dismiss it as a simple story about a love triangle would be an injustice.

This is a book that delves into Japanese culture, evokes a particular moment in time, and perhaps most prominently, focuses on mental health. Though arguably overstuffed with suicides and a mix of sexual content, this novel manages a beautiful and tragic balance of love and grief. Naoko talks about why she thinks their friend ended his life so unexpectedly; she tells Toru a story about her dead older sister; and through Naoko’s letters and Toru’s time with her, the reader steps deeper and deeper into the troubled mind of Naoko herself. The list of complex characters does not end there, however. It seems that every person who finds a place in Toru’s life in these two formative years is battling to overcome some unique personal struggle, and Toru certainly earns his sad place among them.

“No truth can cure the sorrow we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see it through to the end and learn something from it, but what we learn will be no help in facing the next sorrow that comes to us without warning.”

Murakami’s construction of the novel prevents the central deaths from feeling sensationalized; in the first pages, the reader learns how Toru’s relationship with Naoko will end, making this a powerful story about self-discovery and timeless love rather than a shocking plot. In fact, there is very little plot. Norwegian Wood¬†is a dark, slow, self-contained bildungsroman that will appeal especially to fans of Sylvia Plath’s¬†The Bell Jar, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and J. D. Salinger’s¬†The Catcher in the Rye. My only criticism is that the careful way in which the two deaths that most affect Toru are explored is somewhat undercut by several side characters meeting similar fates. Even Storm Trooper, whose departure from the story is left mysterious, leaves the reader with a nagging worry that only the butt of endless jokes in a book brimming with death and depression can.

If you’re thinking by now that¬†Norwegian Wood sounds like a very sad story, punctuated by tragedy after tragedy, you’re correct. When I had finished the novel, I went back to the opening paragraphs to reread the older Toru’s impression of the Beatles song and found myself moved nearly to tears- a rarity for someone usually so adept at compartmentalizing fiction. But the reason all of this sadness is so effective is that Murakami buoys the reader along with all of the promising emotions of Toru’s first loves; it’s a perfect blend that hurts only after it manages to elevate.

The 1960’s is not generally an era I find myself interested in reading about, but Murakami transports and captivates. The sheer number of Beatles songs mentioned in the text made me happy, the commune-like sanatorium kept me intrigued, and the period-appropriate catchphrases amused.

We have both Murakami and Rubin to thank for beautiful, accessible language, and a story that will surely last many times the length of the few decades it already has.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Admittedly, I went into this book with such strong trust in a recommendation that I didn’t even bother reading the synopsis until after I’d finished the book and the back cover was simply the only text left. I’m so glad that I’ve finally read one of Murakami’s novels, and this one impressed me on such a level that I will certainly be picking up another. I’m thinking¬†The Wind-up Bird Chronicle¬†next (though I don’t know when that might be), but I’m certainly open to other recommendations!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Odyssey

I’ve had¬† a bind-up of The Iliad and The Odyssey on my currently-reading shelf for over a year, and I’ve finally reached the end of the book! I’ve recently set a goal for myself to complete bookish projects that I started oh so many moons ago, and the first objective is to clear off the books that’ve been hanging around on my currently-reading shelf for¬†months. My focus for February was crossing Homer off of that list.

theiliadandtheodysseyAbout the book: After ten years of fighting in the Trojan War, Odysseus sails for home along with the rest of the Argives. But in his journey, he angers Poseidon, who dooms Odysseus to ten years of hardship at sea while his family suffers in Ithaca, unsure whether he is alive or dead. Finally Athena decides it is time to help redirect his course, and in the last stretch of his travels Odysseus describes the troubles he’s encountered at sea. Ithaca faces its own troubles as a mass of “suitors” attempt to squander Odysseus’s estate in his absence, eliminate his son, and marry his wife.

“I have traveled much, and have had much to do with heroes, but I have never seen such another man as Odysseus.”

I’ve read long excerpts from¬†The Odyssey both in high school and college, but I didn’t know how very much of¬†The Odyssey¬†I’d already read until I managed it cover to cover this month. I recognized at least 16 of the 24 chapters of this volume from my previous readings.

But through the familiar and the unfamiliar, I struggled far less with this book than I did with¬†The Iliad. Since I’ve already complained about my dislike of this translation in my review of¬†The Iliad, I won’t go into all of that again here. I’ll say only that the translator of my edition, Samuel Butler (whose introductions to these epic poems are dated in the 1890s), used a very literal translation style that transformed Homer’s epic poems into rather flat English prose.

Fortunately, despite Butler’s style, I found¬†The Odyssey¬†much more readable. There is far less repetition in this story than¬†The Iliad, and fewer lists of names and lineages that hold little interest for the casual reader. Battle scenes are brief and contained, and further the plot of this book. Though¬†The Iliad seems to me the more accomplished and perhaps more memorable of these ancient texts,¬†The Odyssey was far more fun and engaging to read.

Odysseus is known as a very wise man who can trick others easily. For this reason, a plot centered around Odysseus makes for a story full of puzzles and deceit. He must scheme his way past the obstacles that the gods set before him. This is a rather episodic journey, but we spend much more time with these main characters than with those of The Iliad simply because there are fewer of import. But as in¬†The Iliad, we still witness the gods’ manipulations in the lives of the mortals; stories from mythology (The Odyssey¬†included) balance gods so well, in some cases using them to explain what many today would probably consider acts of fate or science (weather, illness, personal strengths and weaknesses) but also presenting them as characters with physical presence. Of course, mythologies are interesting not only because of the stories they tell on the surface, but for the glimpse into historical cultures that they afford. Though we may harbor different beliefs today, there is still a timeless human connection in these ancient stories that can be found in the artist’s efforts to moralize and explain.

“Men live but for a little season; if they are hard, and deal hardly, people wish them ill so long as they are alive, and speak contemptuously of them when they are dead, but he that is righteous and deals righteously, the people tell of his praise among all lands, and many shall call him blessed.”

It was also interesting for me to read¬†The Odyssey after picking up¬†Circe,¬†The Iliad, and¬†The Silence of the Girls all within the last year. I love classic retellings, but the first step to appreciating them is to familiarize oneself with the original text. I made myself finish¬†The Iliad before picking up Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, but I did let myself read Miller’s Circe before completing¬†The Odyssey. She doesn’t see much page-time in¬†The Odyssey, so I was glad to have Miller’s exploration of her character in mind as I went through that part of the classic. With¬†The Iliad behind me also, I was more aware of the character and plot references related to the Trojan War that crop up in¬†The Odyssey than I had been while reading stand-alone excerpts in the past. And after reading The Silence of the Girls, I was more aware of the women in this story, few though they are, and could more easily see the unspoken hardships that they faced.

“She screams aloud and flings her arms about him as he lies gasping for breath and dying, but her enemies beat her from behind about the back and shoulders, and carry her off into slavery, to a life of labor and sorrow, and the beauty fades from her cheeks.”

I think the order in which I read these related books improved my experience with¬†The Odyssey,¬†though they certainly aren’t mandatory prerequisites.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can see why this story has survived so long, and will continue to do so. I’ll definitely want to reread both¬†The Iliad and¬†The Odyssey in other translations that are at least more reminiscent of the original poetic form; I’m sure that I could enjoy the actual reading process of both these stories more if I could find a style better suited to me.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Iliad

I had been meaning to read Homer’s¬†The Iliad for YEARS. I read long excerpts for class and on my own, but I never actually made it through. Until now! It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience (more on that in a sec), but it’s an incredible story.

theiliadAbout the book: Paris has taken Helen to be his wife in Troy; she was Menelaus’s wife first, and he raises an army against Troy at the injustice of having her stolen from him. Heroes on both sides fight for honor, though Paris plays little part in the fighting, leaving the battle against the Greeks to his more capable brother, Hector. At the opening of the book, two of the chief Greeks are at odds with one another: Agamemnon has slighted Achilles, who then refuses to fight though he could turn the tide of the war. But even as Achilles holds himself apart from the battle, he does not remain untouched by it– he sends his closest companion into danger alone, and learns of his own impending fate at Troy.

There were two things about this book that combined to make finishing difficult for me: 1) I was already 100% familiar with the story so no part of it was at all unexpected, and 2) I disliked the edition I read. It seems to be a very literal translation (by Samuel Butler), which in theory is where I would’ve wanted to start and it is the copy I own. But the grammar and wording is clunky in places, and it felt like some of the artistry of the story is lost in trying to match the language so directly. None of the other excerpts I’ve read from other authors have been this awkward to read, and I was pretty close to giving up.

“On this, with fell intent he made towards the city, and as the winning horse in a chariot race strains every nerve when he is flying over the plain, even so fast and furiously did the limbs of Achilles bear him onwards.”

What worked for me in the end was to read only a couple of chapters at a time. I do plan to pick up a more liberal translation at some point with the hope of enjoying the telling of the story more, as opposed to just appreciating its bones.

What I did love about The Iliad is the duality to the story, the way that the men are fighting the war, but also the Gods are fighting the war; in some ways the players remain separate, but ultimately they’re all playing off of each other to the point where it’s hard to tell who’s really in control of events.¬†I also find it so easy to root for both Hector and Achilles, even though they oppose each other. Both sides are humanized and compelling.

“No man may fight Achilles, for one of the gods is always with him as his guardian angel, and even were it not so, his weapon flies ever straight, and fails not to pierce the flesh of him who is against him.”

I’ve also noticed a personal change in my reading of this story. I was such a na√Įve reader when I first tried picking this story up; I would follow any character or any narrator anywhere, taking everything at face value. Now that I’m a smarter reader, and especially lately as retellings are being published with stronger female leads, I’ve been paying more attention to characters like Helen and Briseis, and respecting the role that the women play in such a man’s story.¬†The Iliad is about war, a man’s occupation– the women only cry for their husbands in the background, or are offered as prizes in competitions. Even so, they have fascinating stories between the lines. A big part of the reason I pushed myself to finish¬†The Iliad this month¬†is that I’m looking forward to reading Pat Barker’s¬†The Silence of the Girls within the month as well, a retelling of the Trojan war from Briseis’s point of view. (I’ll probably be reviewing it early next week.)

I know that Greek stories like The¬†Iliad¬†were originally meant to be sung from memory, not written and read. And I do think it’s impressive that such a long and detailed account could have been narrated this way. But I am not a listener of epic poems in ancient Greece, I am a reader in 2018. And there is something that doesn’t work for me in reading this book: the level of detail. I am very much a reader who likes to hold every detail in my head as I go, but there are so many specifics in¬†The Iliad that no matter how many times I read it I will never keep every minor character distinct in my mind, which made this a frustrating read at times. There are 10 pages (in my copy) devoted entirely to listing the names of principal fighters on both sides of the battle. 10 whole pages. That was the hardest part of the book for me to get through.

Even after the naming of the fighters, there are a lot of individual skirmishes that occur during the battles in which the narrator describes each blow dealt by this lesser character to that lesser character, going from pair to pair, none of whom matter much on an individual basis in the grand scheme of the plot. I want to appreciate this level of detail, the way Homer shows which side is winning or losing by showing each man that stands or falls, but it’s an overwhelming amount of names.

In the end, though this wasn’t the translation for me, I was reminded of how much I love¬†The Iliad‘s bones– the politics, the emotion, the mythology, the grit. It’s no wonder this tragic story has survived thousands of years, and is still captivating new readers all the time.

“For all our grief we will hide our sorrows in our hearts, for weeping will not avail us. The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a great story, and undoubtedly well-crafted. I was sad to feel during this read that some of the magic had been lost in this translation, but I loved the story anyway and look forward to reading it again someday in a more artistic rendering. I’m also planning to finish¬†The Odyssey¬†within the year (because I read¬†Circe a few months ago and because Goodreads won’t count this toward my 2018 reading unless I finish both books in this bind-up); it’s translated by the same person so I’m a bit wary, but I feel like I’m on a roll so I might just keep it going in the background.

Further recommendations:

  • Virgil’s¬†The Aeneid also looks at the Trojan War (though mainly the aftermath), including the best surviving description of the Trojan Horse scheme. I actually rated¬†The Aeneid¬†higher, but that might come down again to translation. They’re both great stories, though while The Iliad is Greek, The Aeneid features the (mythologized) account of the birth of Rome.

Are you a fan of any particular mythologies or ancient cultures?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant