Review | The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason
Starcherone, 2008; Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010
Taking the wily Odysseus himself as his model, Zachary Mason proves a master of deception in his novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Mason not only makes his readers believe in his myriad versions of the myths of Homer, but keeps us wanting to be lied to over and over again. The Lost Books of the Odyssey is full of enough crafty half-truths to spread out over the wine-dark sea and back again, and showcases Mason’s remarkable understanding of the workings of Homer’s epic poem. Lost Books and the new voices Mason gives to the Homeric characters—even the monsters—may remind readers of John Gardner’s wry, funny, and sympathetic Grendel, John Barth’s antic excursions into Greek myth, and—perhaps less literarily but not less delightfully—the Coen brothers’ film O Brother Where Are Thou?
To call Mason’s satisfyingly weighty book a novel is actually a bit reductive . There is poetry, fiction and non-fiction sifted finely together in The Lost Books, making Mason’s work a more momentous event than the term “novel” usually suggests. The Starcherone Press edition of the book opens with an introduction that explains the overarching fictional premise that binds the collection of myths together and closes with an afterward that carries on this framework. The first of many deceptions, this premise is the idea that The Lost Books is a cunningly encoded text, one that has been revered and passed down from scholar to scholar, century to century:
This book had been a tantalizing mystery for millennia, and although in the modern consensus it was regarded as fraudulent, I thought it would be worthwhile to prove it once and for all. . . . The Lost Books, dating from classical Greece or earlier, is traditionally attributed to the Homerids, epic poets who claimed to be descended from Homer. Since antiquity the book has been known only in encrypted form, the code having resisted all attempts to crack it. . . . Herodotus wrote that the Lost Books contains a multiplicity of alternate histories of the Trojan War . . . . Arcesius wrote that it consists of short episodes from Odysseus’s life, the point of which is less to advance a plot than to take one image or theme and, paring away all that is inessential, present it with the greatest possible concision and clarity.
Fortunately for us, Mason, who styles himself “the John Shade Professor of Archeocryptology and Paleomathematics at Magdalen College, Oxford,” has “won some small fame in cryptographic circles.” Mason modestly mentions his first triumph in the field of cryptography—a page he discovered when going through the Louvre’s collection of Talleyrand’s papers: “a piece of stationery covered with clusters of what looked like random alphabetic scribblings, rather as though someone had been trying out a new pen.” This page, when decoded using what Mason would have us believe are his own special, mathematical decoding methods, turned out to be
a list of questions for Talleyrand, dictated by Napoleon himself, on the likely diplomatic aftermath of a successful invasion of England. The letter, once considered worthless, recently sold at Christy’s for US$ 262,144. No doubt others could have cracked the code as fast or faster, but no-one else had tried.
In case we’re still skeptical, Mason goes on to add to his tale of cryptographic success:
Most notably, I decoded letters showing that in 1933 the Germans had sent an agent to England with orders to seduce and subvert computer science pioneer Alan Turing. (“The agent was, in the event, unsuccessful”).
All this wealth of yarn spinning is a delightful way for Mason to convince us that now, for the first time, someone (himself) has finally been able to translate the long-awaited mysteries of the Lost Books.
Mason ends his introduction by refuting the ridiculous theory that he wrote the book, and espousing instead one that posits that “the Lost Books is not just some book, but an ideal book, whose text is woven into the very fabric of mathematical logic ”and that it is “a product of pure analysis rather than mere human artifice.” In other words, we are about to read the product not of man, but of some primordial force—a larger-than-life creative phenomenon. Having just asserted that his own writing is the product of a higher power, Mason ends by expressing great sadness that “the mystery [of this text], secure for ages, is gone for good, that after reading this book, I will never read another new word of Homer’s, and . . . neither will you.”
And this is all before Chapter 1.
The stories themselves richly fulfill Mason’s promise—exploring the infinite possibilities of Homer’s myths to the fullest. Book 3, “Guest Friend,”is created in order to be endless, and rendered in high Homeric style:
Alkinoos, King of the Phaeacia, and Odysseus, the wanderer, the eloquent, the silver-tongued, walked along wooded paths over high sea cliffs, affording glimpses of the harbor, the distant city and the shining white-capped waves, the sort of place where a man lost in mazy sea ways and the malice of petty gods might dream.
Such lovely imagining of the world of Homer could only be the song of the Muse, we let ourselves think. And what follows is indicative of the divine, as well—a maze of a chapter, the story moves back and forth between the conversation of Alkinoos and Odysseus. Alkinoos says, “Among the Phaeacians it is believed that each man lives out his life as a character in a story told by someone else. The family and city of each person’s story teller are unknown and perhaps unknowable.” Odysseus replies with characteristic evasiveness, and the story itself becomes a guessing game about the identity of the storyteller, taking its shape based on the questions and non-answers of both characters. The chapter ends with Alkinoos’s disappearance from the tale, and Odysseus’s voice merges with that of the still-unknown narrator: “Now I am leaving the orchard alone as night swallows the last of the sun and I tell this story to myself, very quietly.” The reader begins to understand that the whole of The Lost Books is the maze, winding back into itself, a never-ending spiral of possibility. And, if this work is to be understood as the emanation of a primal order, it stands to reason that it would, indeed, carry on eternally.
Mason continues to exploit his idea of multiple “translations,” by giving us many possible identities of Homer’s epic characters. In Book 13, “Epiphany,” Mason draws a new portrait of Odysseus’s patroness Athena as a would-be suitor—the goddess herself proposes marriage and immortality, and Odysseus turns her down flat. Mason gives the ancient warrior goddess a startling vulnerability as she reveals her passion to Odysseus, her beloved:
Usually she was armed, holding her spear with a soldier’s ease, but this time she had no weapon and no armor. She had on a plain white dress and, disconcertingly, wore her hair down—she looked almost girlish. I had seen her brighter but never so warm. I was ashamed to find myself desiring her and violently quashed the impulse. . . . I will not repeat what she said, though it will always echo in my daydreams. . . . I felt like a child watching his father, incorruptible and immovable, beyond all weak human passion, dissolve into tears.
Mason places Athena’s proposal at the end of the Trojan War, just before Odysseus sets off for home, and it is Odysseus’s rejection of the goddess, rather than, as Homer has it, the enmity of Poseidon, that causes all the misery of the long journey back to Ithaca, and once again, it’s such a fitting explanation that we wonder why Homer didn’t think of it.
The most insightful moments of The Lost Books of the Odyssey are ones like these , where Mason suggests that the characters and myths that we thought were so heroically larger-than-life can be, at the same time, vulnerable, less grand in dimension. Achilles, the ideal of the hero, provides a particularly compelling example of Mason’s “uncovering” of the possibilities. Mason devotes several chapters to portraits of this god-man, divesting him of his imperviousness to pain and fear. The most suggestive of these appears in Book 15, “The Myrmidon Golem.” In it, Odysseus is, as in Homer’s poem, sent to recruit Achilles to join Agamemnon’s quest to sack Troy; however, when Odysseus arrives, he learns “that Achilles . . . had died, bitten on the heel by an adder.” Pressured by Agamemnon’s war schedule, Odysseus, whom Mason conveniently makes a sorcerer in this tale, creates a clay-man to come with them to Troy, and passes him off to all the armies as the real thing:
Achilles was intelligent enough to cook, mend, and polish, tireless, and endlessly biddable. . . . Achilles’ s eloquence in battle made up for his muteness and the ruse went undiscovered. . . . In the confusion of battle, with friend and foe besmirched with white earth and blood, he sometimes killed at random, ignoring the Greeks’ terrified, indignant cries, and so became feared by Greek and Trojan alike.
Odysseus approvingly surveyed the stacks of Greek and Trojan dead piled up by his creation—the Trojans were a lawful enemy and mere foreigners besides, and as for the Greeks they were fools serving a fool of a king.
Mason provides many glimpses of this darker side to Homer’s deep truths—in Book 18, “The Iliad of Odysseus,” we see the master schemer as a petty, effeminate coward, feigning epilepsy to escape going to war, hiding behind Achilles in battle, and finally enticing a slave girl to murder Helen; then he becomes a bard, who recites the tales of the great Odysseus:
I rearranged the events of Troy’s downfall, eliding my betrayals and the woman-killing, and making a good tale out of it. . . . I got some second-hand fame as a patron of bards. I was most generous with those who had my songs word-perfect.
We see a similar, though opposite reversal in Book 26, “Blindness,” in which the cyclops becomes a sympathetic character, who loves solitude and cultivates it in his island cave, keeping his peaceful sheep and goats until Odysseus, as Nobody, comes and basely tricks him: “a strange moniker, I thought at the time, but it would have been unseemly to comment.” The effect is one of unexpected compassion, and the thought that, if even monsters have a sympathetic tale to tell, the boundaries between good and evil are also the product of the storyteller, always shifting and never absolute.
Chapter 45, “Last Islands,” sends Odysseus, by now long at home and at peace in his old age, out to sea again in search of the “real” Troy: “I had told the stories of the cyclops, the sirens and the battle with Ajax so many times that I no longer remembered the actual events.”After revisiting the sites of his former woes and triumphs on the way, Odysseus and his men arrive at Ilium [Troy] “in the hour just before sunset when the light falls in warm sheets and makes every face beautiful and every banality poignant.” This false poignancy is indicative of the state of Troy itself—it has become a tourist trap, a Disneyland of ancient heroes:
Actors worked the crowd aping famous Greeks and Trojans. I counted four Achilleses, three Hectors, one Patroclus and two each of Priam and Agamemnon. All of them were better looking than their originals, except for the Achilleses, which I imagined could not be helped.
We see in this, one of Mason’s final chapters, a cheapened, though somehow touching depiction of Homer’s great characters. This diminishing of such statuesque figures might have been disappointing, but as the reader has worked through the story arc, from the outset of Odysseus’s first journey to Troy, his adventures there, and his long way home, these very human illustrations are the most reassuring. After all, if Achilles can be stripped of bravery; the cyclops divested of his monstrousness, and Odysseus is become merely a wandering, tale-telling fraud, then perhaps there is enough scope to believe in some of the more heroic aspects of ourselves. Perhaps Mason is saying that there are enough possibilities inherent in these ancient myths to encompass the lives of every reader, and that, as a result, all our lives can be a kind of epic tale, which we create as we go along; an endless, unknowable story, full of both the quotidian and the heroic.