Ransom

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Overview

In his first novel in more than a decade, award-winning author David Malouf reimagines the pivotal narrative of Homer’s Iliad—one of the most famous passages in all of literature.
 
This is the story of the relationship between two grieving men at war: fierce Achilles, who has lost his beloved Patroclus in the siege of Troy; and woeful Priam, whose son Hector killed Patroclus and was in turn savaged by Achilles. A moving tale of suffering,...

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Ransom

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Overview

In his first novel in more than a decade, award-winning author David Malouf reimagines the pivotal narrative of Homer’s Iliad—one of the most famous passages in all of literature.
 
This is the story of the relationship between two grieving men at war: fierce Achilles, who has lost his beloved Patroclus in the siege of Troy; and woeful Priam, whose son Hector killed Patroclus and was in turn savaged by Achilles. A moving tale of suffering, sorrow, and redemption, Ransom is incandescent in its delicate and powerful lyricism and its unstated imperative that we imagine our lives in the glow of fellow feeling.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for David Malouf and Ransom

“Impressive. . . . That this tender novel lingers so long and hauntingly in the mind is a testament both to Malouf’s poetry and to his reverence for the endless power of myth.”
The New York Times Book Review

“An eloquent and deeply moving tale of war, kingship, fatherhood, our common mortal lot, and—not incidentally—the enduring power of a good story. . . . Every sentence sings.”
Dallas Morning News

“Subtle and extremely moving. . . . Highly inventive. . . . Ransom is a rich meditation on literary genre. . . . Embroidered with imaginative details that often reanimate familiar elements of the epic. . . . Like Euripides, Malouf has scrutinized the vast fabric of Homer’s story, looking for open spaces in the weave to insert his own design.”
The New Yorker

“Thrillingly profound. . . . Malouf’s prose feels timeless—lyric and direct in ways that recall the source material yet seem wholly contemporary.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“The ‘matter of Troy’ has provided the world with timeless examples of heroism, nobility, cleverness and tragic destiny. In Ransom, Malouf adds to this great tradition. . . . Ransom returns again and again to the fundamental human need for story and storytelling.”
The Washington Post
 
“Malouf is at once powerful and tender.”
Los Angeles Times
 
“A writer with great imaginative powers and a gift for acute psychological characterization.”
Boston Globe
 
“Malouf may fairly be called Australia’s greatest novelist, and the reasons why are all here, in an economical package—the penetration of his mind into hearts and motivations; the limpid, lucid prose; the bracing immediacy of the story, the art of his artlessness. A simple tale, cobbled from a few lines of an ancient text, but Malouf brings Achilles and Priam and the wagon driver to turbulent life. . . . A remarkable feat.”
The Oregonian

“Exquisite. . . . Lovely and moving. . . .  Malouf doesn’t exploit Homer’s Iliad; he fully respects its majesty and at the same time fulfills his own deep need to link the distant past to the terrors of the present. Ransom is a joy to read.”
Providence Journal-Bulletin
 
“Vivid. . . . Priam’s character [has] a warmth and immediacy that reflects Malouf’s skill for animating historical figures.”
The Wall Street Journal
 
“Remarkable. . . . Highly evocative. . . . That [Malouf] is able to cut such an epic tale down to size (and in the process make it his own) is truly a testament to his gift as a novelist.”
Sacramento Book Review
 
“[A] lithe, graceful and deeply moving tale. . . . These pages of Ransom are nothing short of magical. Malouf’s prose is delicate, marvellously alert to the natural world and endowed with a quality that has one name only: wisdom.”
The Sydney Morning Herald
 
“[Malouf is] a storyteller of achievement, for whom simple things gracefully become totems for deeper thought.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Lyrical, witty, gentle, this is above all a story of transformation. . . . Immensely moving.”
The Independent (London)
 
“Though Malouf’s sparingly deployed details, vigorous language, and sly wit humanize these tragic heroes, the story is unmistakably epic and certainly the stuff of legend.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Steve Coates
It will inevitably be said that Malouf's novel "subverts" or "undermines" the Iliad, but his impressive knowledge of the epic's more abstruse themes and features and their subtle redeployment belie such a rote notion…That this tender novel lingers so long and hauntingly in the mind is a testament both to Malouf's poetry and to his reverence for the endless power of myth.
—The New York Times
Michael Dirda
The Trojan War and its heroes have inspired writers for more than 2,500 years and inspired various unknown "singers of tales" for even longer. From Homer (the "Iliad" and "Odyssey") and Aeschylus ("Agamemnon") to James Joyce (Ulysses) and Derek Walcott ("Omeros"), the "matter of Troy" has provided the world with timeless examples of heroism, nobility, cleverness and tragic destiny. In Ransom, the Australian novelist, short-story writer and poet David Malouf adds to this great tradition by re-imagining the circumstances leading up to the climactic scene of "The Iliad": King Priam's visit to Achilles to beg for the body of his son Hector. Malouf packs an enormous amount into his 200 or so pages: Achilles' grief over the death of his foster brother Patroclus, vignettes of life inside Troy, flash-forwards to the destruction of the walled city, appearances of the gods themselves. Besides all these, Ransom returns again and again to the fundamental human need for story and storytelling.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Revisiting scenes from The Iliad and delving into the hearts of two ancient heroes, Malouf (Remembering Babylon) evokes the final days of the Trojan War with cinematic vividness. After Achilles withdraws his forces from combat, a move that cripples the Greek army, his best friend, Patroclus, persuades Achilles to let him take the Myrmidons back into combat and to wear Achilles' armor. After Trojan king Priam's beloved son, Hector, kills Patroclus, guilt, rage and grief drives Achilles on a frenzied quest for revenge that sees him slay Hector and then tie Hector's corpse to his chariot and drag it around the besieged city. Priam, desperate to stop the desecration, decides to visit the enemy camp and offer money in exchange for Hector's body. He hires a humble cart driver and, aided by Hermes, they set out on a journey that takes Priam into the unknown and toward a meeting with Achilles. Though Malouf's sparingly deployed details, vigorous language and sly wit humanizes these tragic heroes, the story is unmistakably epic and certainly the stuff of legend. (Jan.)
Library Journal
The first novel in ten years from Australian-born 1996 IMPAC winner Malouf is a moving, lyrical retelling of Achilles' desecration of Hector's corpse and his capitulation to Priam's appeal for proper rites and burial for the Trojan hero. Malouf's prose is triumphantly sure, and his characterizations of the subtle and complex bonds between Priam and Achilles, gods and mortals, wives and husbands, parents and children, nobles and commoners, and beasts and men resonate with authority. This authorial credibility thrums strongest in Malouf's meditation on the relationship between Priam and Somax, the humble carter who bears his ransom to the Greek camp. Their connection is rooted in the novel's great theme of chance and the choices, obligations, and responsibilities it bestows on us. Malouf ultimately explores how chance, or opportunity, serves as the muse of all great storytelling. VERDICT Malouf's masterly return to the novel ably stands with recent versions of Homeric themes such as Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy and Christopher Logue's War Music.—J. Greg Matthews, Washington State Univ. Libs., Pullman
Kirkus Reviews
The Australian poet of absences and silences reimagines the terror and exhilaration of the Trojan War. Malouf (The Complete Stories, 2007, etc.) opens on a characteristically quiet note as he looks back more than 3,000 years to the plains of Scamander. A man stands on the shore, his ear cocked, listening for what we might imagine to be the whispering spirit of his mother. "The man is a fighter," writes Malouf, "but when he is not fighting he is a farmer, earth is his element." It is the job of Achilles to put other men into the earth, many of them, as he takes his part in the ugly curse of the House of the Atreus. There before Mount Ida, he and his Myrmidons, "for nine years . . . have been cooped up here on the beach, all the vast hordes of them, Greeks of every clan and kingdom." Malouf's principal source, of course, is the greatest story any human has ever told, the majestic songs of the Iliad and Odyssey. He adds to it, as he writes in the afterword, with his store of experiences in Australia during wartime and readings from other ancient writers such as Apollodorus, as well as with liberal helpings of imagination that allow him to insert characters of his own invention into the proceedings. Given the possibilities already present in the tale of Achilles' rage, Hector's enmity and Patroclus' suffering, some readers may find these inventions to be lily-gilding, but no matter. Malouf's book works, illuminating the epics with language that comes from our own time while retaining its otherworldly poetry: "He is surprised, too, by the tallness of these Trojans. And their voices, which are thin and high-pitched, unlike his own and those of the folk he lives among." Savor this poem in prosealongside Christopher Logue's verse recastings of the Iliad in his War Music series. A splendid, creative precis of ancient events that still reverberate.
The Barnes & Noble Review
In popular culture, Achilles has fared pretty well. Though he came from an age crowded with demigods, he has outlasted his contemporaries to become uniquely prevalent in the modern imagination. Anybody who's been devoted to a sports team knows that a season can be lost to a torn Achilles tendon (so named because Achilles learned archery from a great tutor, and their bows were made from ankle sinew), and anyone who's ever uttered a cliché is familiar with an Achilles heel (derived from the post-Homeric legend that Achilles's mother gripped his foot when she dunked him in the River Styx, thereby leaving it untouched, and unprotected, by the death-defying waters). Today, moreover, if you've ever flourished an emoticon you'll affiliate the Greek warrior with Brad Pitt, all bronzed forearms and gorgeous pout.

But the Achilles who appears in literature is a more ambiguous hero, and for this dubious legacy as well as his superstardom he has Homer to thank. For one thing, the bulk of the Iliad is framed around Achilles's least flattering hour, when, in the tenth year of the Trojan War, he has sulkily withdrawn from combat (and even prayed for Greek losses) because his general has stolen his girlfriend. Even his glorious moment of redemption, when he kills Hector and avenges the death of his closest friend, Patroclus, is stained by a similar childishness. Like a spoiled boy repeatedly smashing a toy he's already broken, Achilles proceeds to defile Hector's corpse by dragging it behind his chariot as he circles Troy at full speed.

The figure who emerges from Homer's epic has a lot in common with tarnished sports stars like Alex Rodriguez and Tiger Woods. Achilles is unmatched on the battlefield but disastrously ill equipped to be a paragon in any other aspect of life. We read with increasing dislike as he wrong-foots his way through Patroclus' funeral games, his tears histrionic, his commands officious, his attempts at stoicism sententious and insincere. When finally Zeus has had enough of his depredations upon Hector's body and orders him to yield it up to the Trojan king, Priam, the slain man's father, Achilles snaps, "So be it. [Priam] can bring the ransom and take off the body, / if the Olympian himself so urgently bids it" -- a reaction that any parent of a teenager will easily translate as "Fine. Whatever."

Priam's visit to plead for Hector's body is the basis of David Malouf's slim, hypnotic novel Ransom, and it is characteristic of Achilles' fate at the hands of the Muses that Priam owns this book almost from the outset. For emotional depth, farsightedness, and even courage, Achilles is a mere stripling sidekick to the bereaved Trojan king.

Even so, Malouf deals compassionately with Achilles, invoking what may seem like a curiously modern diagnosis for so ancient a story. When Ransom begins, Achilles is afflicted by feelings of emotional numbness, "a self-consciousness that at times makes us strange to ourselves and darkly divided." He has avenged Patroclus and outraged Hector's corpse and yet discovered that these acts have done nothing to assuage his guilt and sadness. So he is trapped in a "self-consuming rage," taking out his anger on a dead body and knowing as he does so that he's only sharpening his despair.

Priam is likewise haunted by an unappeased ghost. He has already lost 50 sons in the war, but Hector was different, the first born and first among his children in the king's regard. As long as Hector's body is held hostage, Priam's mourning is without solace, and endless.

Ransom, then, is a novel about grief. Achilles is prevented from truly mourning for Patroclus because in his role as a hero he tries to conquer grief as he would any adversary, with strength of arm and will. The forlorn Priam is constrained by the obligations of royalty, which requires an outward equanimity in the face of catastrophe. His bold decision (conceived with some divine nudging) to go to Achilles in plain clothing, and with only a mule carter as his escort, is inspired by his need to break the strictures of his mighty role in order to discover a more human way to grieve. "I believe," he tells his skeptical wife, Hecuba, "that the thing that is needed to cut the knot we are all tied in is something that has never before been done or thought of. Something impossible. Something new."

This theme of newness is what elevates Ransom from a capable homage to the Iliad to a novel that expresses the distinctive fixations of a wise and searching writer. Throughout his impressive career -- totaling over 20 books, including poetry and libretti -- David Malouf has been charting treks into the unprecedented and undiscovered. Indeterminacy is at the heart of all his work. Most of his books take place in the shakily settled bushland of his native Australia, like the terrific story collection Dream Stuff (2001) or the book club favorite Remembering Babylon (1994), a novel about a European who was raised by aborigines and so serves as a kind of living bridge between civilized society and the frightening outback. But Ransom has the most in common with Malouf's exquisite 1978 novel, An Imaginary Life, a fiction based on the Roman poet Ovid's exile to the barbarian village of Tomis. Ovid is a cosmopolitan poet and lover forced to start over in rude surroundings; he soon comes to renounce his past and even distance himself from the meager trappings of civilization in the hinterlands of the empire. "What else," he says, "should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the unknown...."

Priam's journey into the unfamiliar is immediately invigorating to his senses, and gives rise to some of Malouf's most joyously descriptive prose. The king is struck, for instance, by the difference between the cunning silences that pervade the "realm of the royal" and the noisiness of nature:

...out here, if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn't silence at all, it was a low continuous rustling and buzzing and humming, as if each thing's presence was as much the sound it made as its shape....

Garrulous, unselfconscious nature is here personified by Priam's mule carter, a commoner named Somax invented by the author. He's a fine creation, often offering a sweetly funny counterpart to the grandeur of the legends who surround him. (When we first meet Somax, he notices a chickenhawk flying overhead; he is surprised that a royal priest proclaims the bird to be an eagle, provoking the palace to erupt in gratitude for Jove's good omen.) During the trip he talks about his mules, his beloved daughter-in-law, and then his two dead sons. As he tells of his losses, a change comes over Priam like that which affects King Lear on the stormy heath -- he is filled with empathy for another man's sorrows.

It is this spirit of empathy, as much as the aid of the smart-alecky god Hermes, which allows Priam to gain access to Achilles and elicit from the warrior an unwonted tenderness. Priam and Achilles discover that they are linked not only by the decrees of destiny (they both possess a slippery prescience that Achilles will soon die and his son Neoptolemus will kill Priam) but by the fellowship of mortality. They see their own grief in the face of the other.

"Grief," C. S. Lewis wrote, "gives life a permanently provisional feeling." A soft, evanescent Iliad novel is admittedly a strange thing to encounter, and it is jarring to make a cognitive association between the gentle breezes of Malouf's passages and the sweat and ordure of Homer's epic. War has a dreamlike unreality in Ransom -- Somax, for one, gives no sign that he knows it's been ongoing for a decade outside his city's walls (his sons both died in domestic accidents; it's hard to understand why they weren't soldiers). Viewed from afar, the novel can seem diminutive.

Yet Ransom faithfully adapts the very brief parenthesis of amnesty that concludes the Iliad. The touchstone moment comes when, in Richmond Lattimore's translation, Achilles "gazed on Dardanian Priam / and wondered, and he saw his brave looks and listened to him talking." It is possibly the first time in his adult life that Achilles has pensively listened to another person. Petulant and selfish to that point, Achilles is enlarged by his interaction with Priam; he becomes, at least for the moment, gracious, even mature.

Malouf depicts the complex kinship between these two enemies with beauty and prowess. The surest mark of his success is in the speech Priam delivers to Achilles when he begs for Hector's body. In some ways, the whole of the Iliad converges upon this moment, and it contains the poem's most famous line: "I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children." You have to achieve a symmetry of eloquence and humility to make this plea convincing. Like so much else in Ransom, Malouf carries it off wonderfully:

Think, Achilles. Think of your son, Neoptolemus. Would you not do for him what I am doing here for Hector? Would your father, Peleus, not do the same for you? Strip himself of all ornaments of power, and with no concern any longer for pride or distinction, do what is most human -- come as I do, a plain man white-haired and old, and entreat the killer of his son, with whatever small dignity is left him, to remember his own death, and the death of his father, and do as these things are honorably done among us, to take the ransom I bring and give me back my son.
Thus spoke the aged, godlike Priam.
--Sam Sacks

Sam Sacks is the fiction editor at Open Letters Monthly (www.openlettersmonthly.com).

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307475244
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/25/2011
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 162,254
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

David Malouf—winner of the inaugural Australia–Asia Literary Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Prix Femina Étranger and the Los Angeles Times Book Award—is the author of, among other works, Remembering Babylon, An Imaginary Life and The Conversations at Curlow Creek. He lives in Australia.

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Read an Excerpt

I

The sea has many voices. The voice this man is listening for is the voice of his mother. He lifts his head, turns his face to the chill air that moves in across the gulf, and tastes its sharp salt on his lip. The sea surface bellies and glistens, a lustrous silver-blue-a membrane stretched to a fine transparency where once, for nine changes of the moon, he had hung curled in a dream of pre-existence and was rocked and comforted. He hunkers down now on the shelving pebbles at its edge, bunches his cloak between his thighs. Chin down, shoulders hunched, attentive.

The gulf can be wild at times, its voices so loud in a man's head that it is like standing stilled in the midst of battle. But today in the dawn light it is pondlike. Small waves slither to his sandalled feet, then sluice away with a rattling sound as the smooth stones loosen and go rolling.

The man is a fighter, but when he is not fighting he is a farmer, earth is his element. One day, he knows, he will go back to it. All the grains that were miraculously called together at his birth to make just these hands, these feet, this corded forearm, will separate and go their own ways again. He is a child of earth. But for the whole of his life he has been drawn, in his other nature, to his mother's element. To what, in all its many forms, as ocean, pool, stream, is shifting and insubstantial. To what accepts, in a moment of stillness, the reflection of a face, a tree in leaf, but holds nothing, and itself cannot be held.

As a child he had his own names for the sea. He would repeat them over and over under his breath as a way of calling to her till the syllables shone and became her presence. In the brimming moonlight of his sleeping chamber, at midday in his father's garden, among oakwoods when summer gales bullied and the full swing of afternoon came crashing, he felt himself caught up and tenderly enfolded as her low voice whispered on his skin. Do you hear me, Achilles? It is me, I am still with you. For a time I can be with you when you call.

He was five then, six. She was his secret. He floated in the long soft swirlings of her hair.

But she had warned him from the beginning that she would not always be with him. She had given him up. That was the hard condition of his being and of all commerce between them. One day when he put his foot down on the earth he knew at once that something was different. A gift he had taken as natural to him, the play of a dual self that had allowed him, in a moment, to slip out of his hard boyish nature and become eel-like, fluid, weightless, without substance in his mother's arms, had been withdrawn. From now on she would be no more than a faint far-off echo to his senses, an underwater humming.

He had grieved. But silently, never permitting himself to betray to others what he felt.

Somewhere in the depths of sleep his spirit had made a crossing and not come back, or it had been snatched up and transformed. When he bent and chose a stone for his slingshot it had a new weight in his hand, and the sling had a different tension. He was his father's son and mortal. He had entered the rough world of men, where a man's acts follow him wherever he goes in the form of story. A world of pain, loss, dependency, bursts of violence and elation; of fatality and fatal contradictions, breathless leaps into the unknown; at last of death-a hero's death out there in full sunlight under the gaze of gods and men, for which the hardened self, the hardened body, had daily to be exercised and prepared.

A breeze touches his brow. Far out where the gulf deepens, small waves kick up, gather, then collapse, and new ones replace them; and this, even as he watches, repeats itself, and will do endlessly whether he is here or not to observe it: that is what he sees. In the long vista of time he might already be gone. It is time, not space, he is staring into.

For nine years winter and summer they have been cooped up here on the beach, all the vast horde of them, Greeks of every clan and kingdom, from Argos and Sparta and Boeotia, from Euboea, Crete, Ithaca, Cos and the other islands, or like himself and his men, his Myrmidons, from Phthia. Days, years, season after season; an endless interim of keeping your weapons in good trim and your keener self taut as a bowstring through long stretches of idleness, of restless, patient waiting, and shameful quarrels and unmanly bragging and talk.

Such a life is death to the warrior spirit. Which if it is to endure at the high point needs action-the clash of arms that settles a quarrel quickly, then sends a man back, refreshed in spirit, to being a good farmer again.

War should be practised swiftly, decisively. Thirty days at most, in the weeks between new spring growth and harvest, when the corn is tinder-dry and ripe for the invader's brand, then back to the cattle pace of the farmer's life. To calendar days and what comes with them; to seedtime and ploughing and the garnering of grain. To tramping in your old sandals across sunstruck fields, all dry sticks and the smell of wild mint underfoot. To sitting about in the shade doling out the small change of gossip, and listening, while flies buzz and the sweat streams from your armpits, to interminable disputes-the administering of justice on home ground. To pruning olives, and watching, over months, the swelling of a broodmare's belly or the sprouting of the first pale blade among sods. To noting how far a son has grown since last year's notch on a doorjamb.

In these nine years his own son, Neoptolemus, away there in his grandfather's house, has been growing up without him. Days, weeks, season after season.

The sun is climbing now. He pushes to his feet. Stands for a last moment filled with his thoughts; his mind, even in its passive state, the most active part of him. Then, head down, his cloak drawn close about him, starts back along the sloping beach towards the camp.

There is a singing in the air, so high-pitched that it might be spirits. It comes from the rigging of the ships that swing at anchor, recent arrivals, or are drawn up in pinewood cradles along the strand. There are more than a thousand of them. Their spars, in silhouette against the pallid sky, are like a forest magically transported. After so many months ashore, their hulls are white as bone. They stretch in a line back to the camp, and on the sea side make one of its walls.

He moves quickly now, it is cold out of the sun. Walking awkwardly against the slope of the beach, he has a drunken gait. His sandals slip on the pebbles, some of which are as large and smooth as duck eggs. Between them, brown-gold bladder-wrack still damp from the tide.

When the last of the line of ships is behind him, he pauses and takes a long look out across the gulf. The sea, all fire, spreads flat to the horizon. So solid-looking and without depth, so enticing as a place to move to, that a man might be tempted to make a sharp turn right and try walking on it, and only when it opened and took him down discover he had been tricked by a freak of nature.

But the sea is not where it will end. It will end here on the beach in the treacherous shingle, or out there on the plain. That is fixed, inevitable. With the pious resignation of the old man he will never become, he has accepted this.

But in some other part of himself, the young man he is resists, and it is the buried rage of that resistance that drives him out each morning to tramp the shore. Not quite alone. With his ghosts.

Patroclus, his soulmate and companion since childhood.

Hector, implacable enemy.

Patroclus had simply appeared one afternoon in his father's court, a boy three years older than himself and nearly a head taller. Thin-jawed, intense, with the hands and feet, already disproportionately large, of the man he was growing into.

Achilles had been hunting in one of the ravines beyond the palace. He had killed a hare. Great whoops of triumph preceding him, he had come bounding up the steps into the courtyard to show his father what he had got.

Ten years old. Long-haired, wiry, burnt black by the Phthian sun. Still half-wild. His soul not yet settled in him.

Peleus was angry at the intrusion. He turned to reprove the boy, but gentled when he saw what it was. He gestured to Achilles to be still. Then, with a small helpless showing of his palms-You see what it is, I too am a fond parent-apologised to his guest, Menoetius, King of Opus, for this unintended discourtesy.

Achilles, still panting from his long run in across the fields, set himself to be patient. Idly at first, with no intimation of what all this would one day mean to him, assuming still that the centre of the occasion was the hare trailing gouts of blood where it hung from his wrist, he stood shifting from foot to foot, waiting for the visitor's business to be done and his father's attention to be his.

The story Menoetius had to tell was a shocking one.

The boy with the big hands and feet was his son, Patroclus. Ten days ago, in a quarrel over a game of knucklebones, he had struck and killed one of his companions, the ten-year-old son of Amphidamas, a high official of the royal court. Menoetius was bringing the boy to Phthia as an outcast seeking asylum.

In a voice still hollow with wonder at how, in an instant, so many lives could be flung about and broken, the unhappy man led them back to the fatal morning.

Two players, fiercely engaged in the rivalries of the game, squatting in the shade of a colonnade and laughing. Taunting one another as young boys will. Eyes raised to follow the knucklebones as they climb, with nothing untoward in view.

For a long moment the taws hang there at the top of their flight; as if, in the father's grave retelling of these events, he were allowing for a gap to be opened where this time round some higher agency might step in and, with the high-handed indifference of those who have infinite power over the world of conjunction and accident, reverse what is about to occur. The silence is screwed up a notch. Even the cicadas have shut off mid-shriek.

The boy whose fate is suspended here stands with parted lips, though no breath passes between them; lost, as they all are, in a story he might be hearing for the first time and which has not yet found its end.

Achilles, too, stands spellbound. Like a sleeper who has stumbled in on another's dream, he sees what is about to happen but can neither move nor cry out to prevent it. His right arm is so heavy (he has forgotten the hare) that he may never lift it again. The blow is about to come.

The boy Patroclus tilts his chin, thin brows drawn in expectation, a little moisture lighting the down on his upper lip, and for the first time Achilles meets his gaze. Patroclus looks at him. The blow connects, bone on bone. And the boy, his clear eyes still fixed on Achilles, takes it. With just a slight jerk of the shoulders, an almost imperceptible intake of breath.

Achilles is as stunned as if the blow was to himself. He turns quickly to his father, on whose word so much depends.

But there is no need to add his own small weight of entreaty. Peleus too is moved by the spectacle of this boy with the mark of the outcast upon him, the brand of the killer, who stands waiting in a kind of no-man's-land to be readmitted to the companionship of men.

So it was settled. Patroclus was to be his adoptive brother, and the world, for Achilles, reassembled itself around a new centre. His true spirit leapt forth and declared itself. It was as if he had all along needed this other before he could become fully himself. From this moment on he could conceive of nothing in the life he must live that Patroclus would not share in and approve.

But things did not always go smoothly between them. There were times when Patroclus was difficult to approach, too touchily aware that, for all Achilles' brotherly affection, he himself was a courtier, a dependant here. He would draw back, all pride and a hurt that could not easily be assuaged. What Achilles saw then on the clouded brow was what he had been so struck by in the first glance that had passed between them-the daunted look that had captured his soul before he even knew that he had one-and he would hear again, as if the memory were his own, what Patroclus was hearing: the knock of bone on bone as two lives collided and were irrevocably changed.

No, Achilles told himself, not two lives, three. Because when Patroclus relived the moment now, he too was there. Breath held, too dazed, too spirit-bound to move, he looked on dreamlike as that other-the small son of Amphidamas, whose face he had never seen-was casually struck aside to make way for him.

He thought often of that boy. They were mated. But darkly, flesh to ghost. As in a different way, but through the same agency and in the same moment, he had been mated with Patroclus.

The end when it came was abrupt, though not entirely accidental.

After weeks of truce, the war had resumed with a new ferocity, at first in isolated skirmishes, then, when it emerged that there was division among the Greeks and that Achilles, the most formidable of them, had withdrawn his forces, in a general assault. Hector, slaughtering on all sides, had stormed the walls of the encampment and fought his way to the Greek ships. The Greek cause had become desperate.

So too had Patroclus. Held back from the fight because of Achilles' quarrel with the generals, he was going earnestly from place to place about the camp hearing news of the death of this man, the wounding to near death of another, all dear companions. He said nothing, but his pure heart was torn, Achilles saw, between their old deep affection for one another, which till now had been beyond question, and a kind of doubt, of shame even. He sees my indifference to the fate of these Greeks as a stain to my honour, Achilles told himself and to his own. 

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