"David Malouf's Ransom � an interview with David Malouf"
David Malouf's Ransom – an interview with David Malouf David Malouf's new novel Ransom enagages with enduring questions posed by the ancient Greeks, in particular Homer's Iliad and the story that involves King Priam and Achilles and Hector and Patroclus. Transcript This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers. Ramona Koval: David Malouf won a prize recently, it was the inaugural Asia Australia Literary Award and he got the $110,000 for his short story collection The Complete Stories. He's on another winner, if we can use a sporting term for such an eminent gentleman, with his new novel Ransom wherein he takes us by the hand towards the classics, not Ovid this time, that was his book An Imaginary Life, but to Homer's Iliad, a myriad of stories. But for David Malouf it's the one that involves King Priam and Achilles and Hector and Patroclus that he's particularly interested in exploring. And David Malouf is with me in the studio now. Welcome to The Book Show again, David. David Malouf: Thank you Ramona. Ramona Koval: Tell me about the relationship between David Malouf and Homer's Iliad because I believe it's a long one and it's taken various literary forms; poems, short stories and now this novel. So let's dig down and find out where it started. David Malouf: It started probably some time in 1943 when I was still at primary school, and on Thursday afternoons we used to have a PT period where we were taken out into the gravel yard... Ramona Koval: Physical training? David Malouf: Yes, and played tunnel ball. One day when it was raining our teacher, Miss Findlay, couldn't take us out so she decided to read us something. I was a big reader but for some reason I had never come across the Troy story, and she began to read that. Then of course the period came to an end and the story hadn't come to an end and I was very disappointed. I had been completely caught up in it and then suddenly I was left high and dry. Of course I discovered later that Homer's Iliad doesn't end either, that a lot of the things that people think of as being essential to that story, like the story of the Trojan Horse and the burning of Troy and the killing of Priam really don't happen in the Iliad at all. Where they do happen is in book two of Virgil's the Aeneid, and I actually read that in first year university. So going back to the first time I heard the story, here was a war which was suddenly left hanging, I didn't know what the ending was. We were living in the middle of a war which was also not yet over, and you kind of forget when you know how things end, you forget that while people are still involved in it at the moment, they don't know what the future is, they don't know how it's going to end, and so that war was still a very, very fearful reality in some ways. I lived in Brisbane so I felt very close to it because Brisbane was the staging point for the Pacific campaign, so we were surrounded by either American soldiers, sometimes almost as many as there were people in the city, who were waiting to be taken off to the war, or people we saw coming back. So the war was very real. 1 And out of that sense of that story, the Trojan war came to seem to me to be not only the first war which was ever reported to us, because Homer's Iliad stands at the very beginning of our long, long literary history, but also the archetype of all wars, and especially all wars in which an entire population is wiped out, because the whole of Troy was levelled to the ground and all its citizens were dispersed, all the men were killed, all the women and children went into exile and slavery. So that, I think, for all of us stands as the war, and that fallen city as the example of the fallen city. Some time, probably about 1970, all those things clicked in a poem for me, it's called Episode From an Early War and it begins with the vision of Hector being dragged up and down by Achilles as he is, but in the playground, with all the sort of bullies in the playground looking on shocked and surprised. And then it moves to the war that I saw, and to really an image of another shocking moment in that war which was very important to me, probably took place when I was about six, and that was the torpedoing of that ship called the City of Benares when some hundreds of children who were being evacuated from England to the US, the ship was torpedoed and most of those children drowned. I remember that moment very, very well, and it was the moment when I clearly understood that there were situations in which my parents couldn't save me. It was the first time when I understood that there might be a moment where I was utterly vulnerable. And so the end of that poem goes back to that idea of people being drowned and actually the kittens being drowned in a sack in our laundry, and the relationship between that and children who were killed in the Holocaust and the Trojan war. So that whole story of the Trojan war is really central to my notion in terms of feeling of what war is and what the vulnerability is of people, women or children, but also soldiers in war. So it's haunted me for a long time. Ramona Koval: Did your teacher read a children's version of Troy or was she reading from a translation? David Malouf: No, she certainly wasn't reading from a translation, it probably was a children's version, I can't remember that. But the thing is that the images there have such a power to shock that it matters very little whether it's a children's version or the Homeric version. Ramona Koval: So it wasn't the language, it was the story. David Malouf: It wasn't the language, it was the actual image, yes. Ramona Koval: When you are reading the Iliad what version do you like to read? Or is your ancient Greek or Latin that good that you're reading from the original? David Malouf: No, I don't read Greek. The version I've always read is the EV Rieu translation in Penguin which is, I think, the first Penguin classic that was ever put out, and I still think that's a wonderful version. I've recently looked at the Fagles version too which is very, very good, and there are previous things, there's the Fitzgerald version. But what is astonishing to me is that that book was written 27 centuries ago. It's the first book in the canon of kind of western literature, and in many ways it sets the standard. There are many great things. Shakespeare is great and Tolstoy is great and Balzac is great, but in a way for me that work has never been really surpassed. Astonishing that it should stand there right at the beginning as an example to everybody who's coming of what you can actually do with words, with storytelling, with entering into the lives of people as Homer does in such an intimate way, as well as working on a grand scale. 2 The other thing which astonishes me reading that is a chapter there about knight encounters, and the way that moves is exactly like a film. You know, the way it moves from one group of characters to the other in long-shot and close-up, and you really feel that if reading is somehow inherent in humans long before print or even writing was invented, cinema must also be absolutely inherent in our makeup. Ramona Koval: Well, we dream in pictures, don't we. David Malouf: We dream in pictures, yes. Ramona Koval: Just before I get you to read the first part of this book, just remind us about the world of the Iliad. What's going on? David Malouf: I'm interested in one particular moment which is the great moment, it seems to me, from the poem, which is when Priam and Achilles meet. They're meeting because Achilles has killed Priam's son Hector who was merely the champion of Troy, and he has done that because Hector has killed his friend Patroclus. Achilles feels deeply involved in that, not only because he loves Patroclus and he's utterly grief-stricken by his death, but he feels guilty about it because he's allowed Patroclus to go into battle wearing his armour because he did not want to go himself, and the reason he didn't want to go was because he had had a falling out with the leader of the Greeks and he had refused any longer to fight the Greek cause. Ramona Koval: The grander picture is the big war between Greece and Troy. David Malouf: The big war between Greece and Troy we know almost nothing about in terms of what it was really about. Essentially they're fighting over Helen who has been kidnapped. She's the wife of one of the Greek kings... Ramona Koval: She seems to have gone of her own accord. David Malouf: Gone of her own free will perhaps or was kidnapped, and so they're fighting about that. But clearly this is a fight between two related peoples, one of whom is still in a rather savage state (that's the Greeks), and the other which is in a highly refined state, it is a city in the highest sense of what a city might mean, and the Greeks are rather scattered clans who have not yet created something. So it is the new people coming and the people who've really reached their peak and are in decline, and it is really an attempt on the part of the Greeks to wipe out forever their rivals perhaps. So it's a war that's not only a total war, it is a war of genocide really, and one of the first places in literature where we have that notion, expect that there are a few examples of it in the Old Testament as well. So that's a very interesting thing in itself. My business, really, if those two people were going to come together at the climax of the book, is that the reader must know as much about those two people as possible, as much about Achilles as possible, and Achilles is a very divided hero. What makes him so interesting is he's like the hero of the later Greek drama, he's a character who is divided against himself. He is the most heroic and noblest of the Greeks but he also has fatal flaws which make him also the most...I mean, he does terrible things. Ramona Koval: And his mother's a goddess, his father's not, he's from a mixed marriage. David Malouf: Yes, and his father is...he clearly makes him an earth creature, but his mother in fact is a water nymph, and so he has that kind of softness and intuitive and we think feminine qualities, which in some ways undermine his capacity to be a straightforward hero. 3 Ramona Koval: Let's hear from the beginning. This is David Malouf reading from his book Ransom. David Malouf: This is the opening and it's about Achilles. [reading from The seas has many voices... to ...to be exercised and prepared.] Ramona Koval: There's a great sense through this of the need of Achilles to be remembered, the need for characters to be remembered. In fact you've even got Priam also wanting to perform an act that only an old man can perform and be remembered for it. What do you take from that sense of needing to be remembered? David Malouf: I think for those Greeks they're concerned already, as it says in that passage, with their life as story. What story gets told about them after they're gone is the only way of having an existence in the world and in the minds of men. Achilles knows perfectly well because his mother has told him, that he can either stay in Troy but that means he will be killed but his story will be a great one and men for the rest of time will know it, or he can go home and have a happy, settled life. And of course he chooses to stay and die, so he knows that what is coming is death and he's chosen that. Priam is slightly different, Priam knows really that the city of Troy will fall, the marauding army will come through it, will kill all the men, take all the women off as prizes of war. The last thing that will happen to him is his body will be dragged out into the streets naked and he will be torn to pieces by dogs. He doesn't want that to be the end of the story as far as his story is told. He wants something to replace that last terrible moment as the thing that people will remember. So he wants to do something which will be worth remembering, and that has to be something absolutely heroic and absolutely new, both of those things difficult for a very, very old man. And so he chooses to make his heroic act a moral one rather than a physical one, and the new thing that he is going to do is to strip himself of all his dignities and all his regalia and to go to Achilles simply as man-to-man and beg him as a father (they're both fathers), and as a son (and Achilles is a son to the father that he half worships, Peleus), and simply speak to him, as I say, man-to-man in terms of the vulnerability of all humans, and to appeal to that commonness of humanity and say to him, 'Give me back the body of my son.' He's taking a treasure but the treasure in some ways is irrelevant, and he hopes that what that will do will ransom him, Priam, from the ignominy of that death being the one thing that is told about him and at the same time he half believes that he will bring something to Achilles as well which is the possibility of Achilles escaping from the obsessive madness of grief that he's now caught in. Ramona Koval: Because his friend Patroclus has been killed and Achilles just goes mad and hauls the body of Hector around and around the city... David Malouf: Yes, Achilles has done something terrible. At the moment of when they're about to fight, Hector offers him the terms which all such people involved in noble combat would offer, that is, look, if you are killed I will see that your body is given back and it will have all the proper rites of burial. And Achilles says, 'I don't accept that.' And so when he kills Hector he ties Hector's body to the back of his chariot and he drags him around the walls of the city in front of his mother and father and all the watchers. And then because he is still maddened, he takes the body out each morning for 11 mornings and does the same thing, ties it up and drags it behind his chariot. Ramona Koval: Interestingly the gods are protecting this body and it's not decomposing. 4 David Malouf: No. The thing is that Achilles is further maddened by the fact that the gods are defying him by each morning restoring Hector to perfect purity. Ramona Koval: It's very gory, isn't it, it's all terribly gory. David Malouf: Yes. The one thing that you get out of the Iliad is that there is, on Homer's part, absolutely no shying away for the terrible humiliating forms that physical death can take. People are wounded in the most terrible ways. He does not cover that up at all. Ramona Koval: He describes the way that Achilles will cut Hector's tendons (in fact, Achilles tendons!) and strap him up to the chariot. David Malouf: Yes, all of that is very, very physically described. And I think my business in writing too was to make this world which we're writing about which we kind of know nothing about, which is a world so different from our own, and also it's so easy to romanticise the classical world. What I wanted to do was to make that world as imaginatively accessible to us in all the most detailed ways so that we understand what it was like to be alive in that world, both the physical world of nature and of animals and birds and midges, but also in the physical business of how you go about your life, what it is you do each day, what happens, for example, after you're dead. And, you know, you don't get this anywhere else that I know. One of the things Achilles sees which he's not meant to see, he goes to see the body of Hector prepared to be given back to Priam, and he sees that the people who are doing that are women, the women are washing the body and wrapping it. That's a world that the hero doesn't necessarily ever imagine, that's not part of his heroic view of things, that you go through the hands of women really to the grave. I wanted to recreate all of that because that's not always what we imagine about that classical world either. Ramona Koval: So how much did you have to imagine? Obviously a lot, but from Homer's imagination to your imagination...were you working within his imagination? David Malouf: Yes, but I wanted to deal with different aspects of stories from the ones that Homer deals with. One of the long stories I tell is the story of Priam as a child. Now, that's not in Homer at all, although it is in other material, and that story is that as a five or six-year-old child...Troy was destroyed once before and the whole of the city was burned and nearly all the adults were killed, and certainly Priam's father and all his brothers were killed. The one person who is left alive is his sister Hesione, and she's left alive because the person who did all of this, Hector, wants to give her away as a prize of war to his friend, and he promises her a gift... Ramona Koval: Hercules? David Malouf: Hercules promises Hesione a gift of her own and she can have whatever she wants. He expects her, because she's a silly little girl, to choose a necklace or a comb for her hair or something, and she takes him down to where all the children have been taken out of the city and are waiting to be taken off to be slaves, and she choses one of those children and says, 'I want him, it's my brother Podarkes.' And he's the last surviving male child. Hercules doesn't necessarily believe that this is Podarkes, but she says he's Podarkes, and this is in fact the young Priam. And so he says, 'Okay, you want the brat, he's yours, but I'm going to rechristen him and I'm going to call him The Price Paid because I've paid the price to you of the gift or ransom,' which is what that is, and so he called the child Podarkes, now Priam. 5 Priam tells that story to Hecuba, his wife, but he tells it in a very different way and he tells it as not a story with a happy ending at all, but the story of somebody who was in the middle of that event and in a way that event for him has never ended because he feels there's another part of him that did go away and become a slave and he is haunted by the other life of that person. That's something we now discover about the man who is going to Achilles, something it seems to me to be relevant to that because part of what makes it possible for him to do what he's now doing is that he too is a person who is divided, and he spent his whole life as a revered king, simply symbolic, and he now has to go out and be simply a man. Part of the central part of the book...because he chooses to go out with a cart rather than with his usual entourage of horses, and he chooses...he's always spent all his life with a herald who spoke for him called Idaeus, and he chooses this time a simple carter who is called Somax, rechristens him Idaeus, and goes out with him. All the central part of the book is about their journey to the Greek camp and in some ways Priam's education into the world of ordinary men that he has now chosen to present himself as, an ordinary man. Ramona Koval: So this whole idea of splitting and different names and...is that where all the tensions come from? David Malouf: Yes, that's all about the kind of ways in which, in my story anyway, people are concerned with their identity because they have names which are going to become the central names of stories but they themselves are very much divided about what those names indicate. There's a kind of comic way in which Somax, when he is given his new name, doesn't like the idea much. He's a very simple carter, and he says, 'What will the gods think? I've spent all my life under this name Somax and I'm quite happy with that. What will the gods think if I suddenly present myself as Idaeus? Won't they think I'm getting a bit above myself?' So there's a kind of playfulness about all of that, and that whole chapter is playful. Ramona Koval: This idea also of leaving things to the gods or the concept of chance is something that Priam thinks about quite a lot. David Malouf: That idea of chance, the idea that chance is not already fixed, that is a way in which suddenly the idea of reality opens up and offers you the chance to seize the opportunity... Ramona Koval: Is that something that Homer played with? David Malouf: No. Ramona Koval: It's a very modern concept. David Malouf: It's a very unclassical idea. But it seems to me if you've got a character like Priam who is intent now on doing something that has never been done but also has never been thought, that one of the things he might think is to leap forward several centuries out of the whole thinking mode of the classical world into something that we recognise as belonging to our world, and it gives us too a way of rereading that world in our terms. Ramona Koval: Except of course there are lots of gods that appear and take part in conversations in the original, and the Greeks were obviously as beset by gods as the Romans were. Do they ever visit you, David, these gods? David Malouf: Look, I think Greek gods, in a very sophisticated way, were simply the embodiments of what they recognised as either elements in nature, whether that's earthquakes or 6 floods or bushfires or whatever, or they were the irrational elements in human nature. They simply objectified those things and gave them names so that people could see them more clearly but also talk about them. We talk about those things in different ways, we talk about them in psychological terms... Ramona Koval: About drives or inspirations... David Malouf: Yes. So for almost any quality of human nature or any quality of the irrational in nature itself, we have descriptions—earthquakes, tsunami, whatever it is—but for the Greeks that was objectified. So our minds are dealing with the same phenomena and dealing with the same confusing and contradictory conditions in which we find ourselves as human, but we're talking about it in different ways, we're giving different names to things. Ramona Koval: Alberto Manguel says today in the Australian Literary Review review of your book, which he's very admiring of, he says that for Homer stories were woven from their conclusion backwards. Do you know what he means? David Malouf: I think that what that means is you look at the phenomenon you've got and then you try to create a story which will explain the phenomenon. I think that's what he means by that. And that's the way, in fact, mythologies are created to account for everyday happenings, and the Greeks were very skilled at that. And we've inherited all of those myths too. We don't believe in them, we think of them as being very elegant literary creations, that's not our way of thinking, but because we belong to a very complex inherited culture we're capable of responding to things we don't believe in with something like the spirit of suspended disbelief, as Coleridge called it, that makes them also real to us at another level than science. Ramona Koval: So you feel a big connection with these people in this story. David Malouf: This still seems to me to be a story which is about things that matter to all of us. How we embody that story...I mean, there are many possible ways of doing that, and this is one of the ones that allows us to let our minds play in a way that achieves what I think all storytelling does, it enlarges us in some kind of way but it also liberates us in some kind of way. I was very interested recently reading an interview with Umberto Eco where he says that we are narrative creatures, we're creatures for whom narrative is essential to our way of apprehending the world and understanding the world, so that storytelling is absolutely basic to us, and that what we get from storytelling is something we can't do without. Ramona Koval: It's a fantastic book, I really enjoyed reading this, David Malouf, it's been a pleasure reading it and a pleasure speaking to you today. David Malouf: Thank you Ramona. Ramona Koval: The book we've been talking about is called Ransom, it's published by Vintage. 7