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Middle-aged German bachelor of means seeks mail-order Greek bride to assist in the archaeological search for the lost city of Troy. At first glance, the premise of this novel requires a stretch of the imagination. But in the hands of an experienced writer such as Ackroyd (The Lambs of London), all of the sights and sounds and events are entirely plausible. Without wasting space on descriptive prose, the dialog paints the landscape and propels the action of the relatively few characters that inhabit the story. Central is Herr Heinrich Obermann, the German archaeologist and new bridegroom, who is both boisterous and audacious in a Teddy Roosevelt meets P.T. Barnum kind of way. Packed with references to the legends of the gods and goddesses, this unexpectedly humorous novel moves quite rapidly while at the same time slowly unearthing a mystery. Like an antiquity that might be found among the stones, this book is a small gem in the impressive pantheon of Ackroyd's work, which encompasses fiction, nonfiction, biography, and poetry. Recommended for academic and large literary fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ7/07.]
He fell down heavily on his knees, took her hand and brought it up to his mouth. “I kiss the hand of the future Mrs. Obermann.” He spoke in English. Neither she nor her parents understood German, and he disliked speaking demotic Greek. He considered it vulgar.
Sophia Chrysanthis looked down at his bald head, and noticed a small scar. “You have been wounded, Heinrich.”
“A fragment of the statue of Zeus. On the island of Ithaca. That is where I found the palace of Odysseus, the wanderer. I discovered the chamber where his wife, Penelope, had woven her endless tapestry. She was always faithful to him. You will be my Penelope, Sophia.”
“I hope you do not travel as far as Odysseus.”
“You will never leave my side.” He rose, with difficulty, and bowed to her parents, who were standing together by the window. “I will utter prayers for you every day. If I live to be a thousand years old, I will never forget you.” Outside, in the dusty light, the horses and carriages passed along the avenues; he glimpsed three women, holding up parasols to protect themselves from the bright sun of the early Athenian spring, chattering together as they walked upon the cobbles. They were dressed in pale green, with white veils and bonnets, and he knew at once that they were sisters. “This is an auspicious day. Your daughter will be a partner in my labours. She will be cherished by Greece.”
“She has no greater desire than to be your wife, Herr Obermann.” Madame Chrysanthis gave a slight nod, as if making some formal remark for duty’s sake. “We have taught her that a wife is but the shadow of her husband.”
“The women in Germany would not believe you.”
“That is why you are not marrying a German.”
Obermann laughed. He already knew that Madame was a formidable woman, and he hoped that her daughter had inherited her sterner virtues. “But my wife will be my partner in uncovering the lost past of her country. She will stand within the walls of Troy!”
“Sophia has a passion for learning. That is true.” Colonel Chrysanthis deemed it necessary to enter the conversation: the future of his only child was, after all, being discussed. “Ever since your first letter to us she has been reading Homer to me.”
“She draws up maps of the battle lines,” Madame Chrysanthis said.
“This is all good. All excellent.” Obermann had once more taken Sophia by the hand. “She is another Athene, as learned as she is beautiful.”
“I will not be a goddess, Heinrich.”
“I cannot wait to bring you to the plain of Troy. To show you the place where Hector and Achilles fought. To show you the palace of Priam. And the walls where the Trojan women watched their warriors in battle with the invader, Agamemnon, and his soldiers. It will stir your blood, Sophia.”
“It was a long time ago, Heinrich.”
“Not for me. It is eternal. Beyond time.”
“I do not know if I will be able to see so far.”
“My wife will see everything.”
A few days earlier he had led her into the courtyard of the house, cool in the shadows of the evening, and sat with her on the marble bench there. “I must have you, Sophia. Once I have come to a conclusion I cannot be moved. I am unshakeable. As soon as I saw your photograph, I knew that I was yours.”
“So you chose me without reason?”
“We do things because we do them. There is no necessary explanation. Your Greek dramatists knew this. Homer knew it.”
“I thought that you wanted me because I am a woman who reads Homer.”
“That is a part of it. There we are already married. But there is also fate, Sophia. As hard and as desperate as life.”
The ceremony was conducted in the little church of Hagios Georgios, set back from the Odos Ermou in a small square, while the servants of the Chrysanthis household prepared the wedding feast. There was much discussion among them about the relative merits of bride and groom. The maids considered him too old for Sophia. She was in her mid–twenties, whereas Herr Obermann must be fifty, no, more than fifty. He would soon be stout, and he wore pebble glasses; he was short, too, with a great round head like a cannon ball.
“He speaks too loud,” Maria Karmeniou said. “You can hear his voice booming through the house.”
“It is the German manner,” Nikola Zannis explained. “They are strong. Impatient.”
The butler and the valet took his part. Miss Chrysanthis was young—-and some even called her beautiful—but she had a shocking temper like her mother. She had been as sweet to him as the honey of Hybla, but they prophesied that this would not last long after the wedding night. It was agreed by all of them, however, that Herr Obermann must have paid a very large dowry for his new wife. And, for this, they were grateful. In recent months their employers had pared down costs so much that they had had little opportunity of cheating them.
The feast itself was lavish, of course, with all the sweet pastries and dainty confections that are usual on such occasions. Obermann drank a great deal of wine, and even called out for Bavarian beer; but there was none on the premises. Then before the meal was over, against all custom, he stood up and made a speech. He began by praising the beauty of Greek women, as exemplified by Madame Chrysanthis, who had presided over the most charming meal since Aphrodite dined with Zephyrus and the Nereides. Her consort, the great man Colonel Chrysanthis, the pride of the National Patriotic Army, who had fought so valiantly against the Asiatics, was especially worthy of praise; but he deserved most thanks for producing out of his powerful loins his most splendid daughter. “Will you raise your glasses to the young lady whom I have the honour to call Frau Obermann?” He picked up his own glass for the toast. “She will be my comrade in the field. Thanks to the exertions of her parents, she is a lover of learning. She has been an admirer of the Homeric poems since her earliest childhood, and has expressed to me her heartfelt sympathy with my task. When I return to the plain of Troy, as I shall do very shortly, I shall take with me a blessing greater than the Palladion that protected the old city!” At this point he began to recite from memory the passage of the Iliad in which the goddess, flashing–eyed Athene, instils courage and hope into the breast of mighty Diomedes. Only Sophia could understand a word of the ancient Greek. The others listened in perplexed silence as Obermann continued his oration.
When the meal was over, he danced wildly in the courtyard of the Chrysanthis house. Sophia stood with the other married women as he leaped into the air and threw out his arms, in imitation of the Turkish peasants whom he had seen in the small villages near Troy. He began to sweat dreadfully, and his bald head seemed to be melting in the rays of the afternoon sun. And Sophia thought, how can I love a man who dances so badly?
That night, after he and Sophia had retired to the marital chamber—the bed strewn with flowers, according to custom—the servant on that floor was awakened by the sound of howling. She hurried down the corridor and put her ear to the door of the Obermanns’ chamber. The howling had stopped. But then she heard Herr Obermann singing, and there was a noise like that of feet banging on the wooden floor. She crossed herself, and went back to her room. She could not have known that this was a German marching song.
At breakfast the next morning, to her parents’ evident surprise, Sophia greedily consumed all the bread and dates in front of her; she ate the cheeses and the potted tongue, and even nibbled at the olives, which she normally despised. She had in the past condemned them as “peasant food,” but now she seemed to take a certain pleasure in biting into their taut black skin. Her husband ate very quickly, as was his habit, looking around at the others with wary eyes. He devoured his food as if it were about to be snatched from him. Now, for the first time, Sophia remonstrated with him. “You will do harm to your constitution, Heinrich. You eat too fast.”
“There is nothing wrong with my constitution. I am tough. I am energetic. Who else do you know to swim in the sea at dawn? Or ride an hour before breakfast?” He rose early each morning and greeted the rising sun, stretching out his arms and welcoming “the rosy–fingered dawn,” rhododaktulos eos; then he would ride down to the harbour at Cophos and plunge into the waters of the Saronic Gulf, to the amusement of the sailors and fishermen, who did not consider the sea to be a place of recreation. “And who are you to advise me about my health, Sophia? You drink too much coffee. It poisons the kidneys. Our children will be dwarves.”
“Do you wish to see the Gazette?” the colonel asked him.
“No. It is barbaric Greek. Wait. Let me read the shipping news.”
He grew less courteous to his parents–in–law in the days immediately after the wedding; with his wife, he also seemed less restrained. The struggle was over. He had gained, as always, the object he desired. It soon became clear, too, that he was impatient to leave. Every morning he looked in the shipping columns, to discover what ships had arrived and departed from Piraeus. He received telegrams every day from Constantinople and Kannakale; he read them eagerly, and tore them into little pieces. Then, at the end of their first week of marriage, he had visited the shipping agent and booked himself and his wife on the passage by steam–boat to the Dardanelles.
When he informed Sophia of this decision, she wept.
“Come now,” he said, “this is your new life.”
“I have never left Greece before, Heinrich. You must allow me a few tears.”
“It is only natural in a woman. I grant you that. But Frau Obermann does not shed tears.”
She looked at him for a moment, then wiped her eyes. “You will never see them again.”
“Good. And now to business. We leave on Monday morning aboard the Zeus. I have taken an additional cabin for our luggage.”
“And how long will we be gone?”
“Some months. The rains do not begin until December.”
He had spoken to her already about his excavations at Hissarlik. He had left them in the charge of his Russian assistant; but, from the first days of his courtship of Sophia, he had been eager to return. “You ask me why it has become my obsession,” he said to her one evening. “Why? Why is it considered to be the first city? Why is it the vision of the poets? Why has it haunted mankind for three thousand years? I do not know the answer to these things.”
She realised soon enough that he did not enjoy being questioned, on that or any other subject; but, after a few glasses of wine, he would invariably furnish her with all the information she required. “Do you know the Cypriot proverb, Sophia,” he had asked her a week before the wedding, “‘Son of a priest, grandson of the devil’?” He chuckled. “My father was a Lutheran pastor.”
“I have heard the saying.”
“It is true! But he was not an ordinary minister. He told me of trolls and fairies. Of ghosts and demons. Of treasure buried in the bowels of the earth.”
“Is that what you are digging up?”
“No. I am digging for science, not for reward. And then, when I was about six years old, he began reading Homer to me. I did not understand the Greek, of course, but it was the music of the verse I loved. I became aware of the sound and the pattern. That is how I learned Arabic. And French, Greek, Russian, English, all of them came rolling off my tongue.”
“You told me that your father had no education.”
“And how did he become a minister? That is nonsense, my little Sophia. He educated himself in Greek.” She was silent for a moment. “That is why I promised him to study Homer. It was not difficult for me. It is pure. It is the origin.”
His letter to the Chrysanthis family had been wholly unexpected. He had requested from a friend in Athens, Stephanos the surgeon, photographs of young women of his acquaintance who might make suitable brides. “Please see if you can find me a young woman,” he wrote to Stephanos, “with a Greek name and a soul inspired by the history of her ancient land. I am a very good judge of faces, and my first impressions are never wrong.” Among the photographs Stephanos supplied was one of Sophia, the daughter of his friend the colonel, and Obermann wrote back at once. “Sophia Chrysanthis is a splendid woman, easy to talk to, compassionate, kindly and a good housewife, full of life and well brought up. I see in her eyes a great inclination for learning, and I am certain that she will love and respect me.” He also asked several questions. What property does Colonel Chrysanthis possess? How old is he and how many children does he have? How many male and how many female children? How old is Sophia? What is the colour of her hair? Does she play the piano? Does she speak foreign languages and, if so, which? Does she understand Homer and other ancient writers? The answers from Stephanos were entirely satisfactory: Sophia understood English and, more importantly, she read Homer with avidity. “I am overjoyed,” he wrote to his friend. “I have wished for such a companion all my life. We will be married within three months.” He immediately made plans to travel to Athens for his first meeting with his intended bride. In his letter to her parents, despatched from Constantinople, he enlarged upon her obvious propensity for learning. He described his excavations at Troy, and his previous excavations at Ithaca, “known to all the civilised world.” He also promised a dowry of fifteen thousand francs.
The colonel and his wife did not take long to agree to his proposals, but they took the precaution of consulting Sophia. “It is an unusual courtship,” her mother told her, “but he means well.”
“Am I to live abroad?”
“He refers to Paris and London. He has houses in both cities.” She did not mention the current excavations; Anatolia had a reputation among the Greeks for lawlessness and barbarism. “He is an influential man, Sophia.”
“Then I may learn to love him."
“You must try.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted March 27, 2011
No text was provided for this review.