Wednesday, February 20, 2008

‘The Fall of Troy’ by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd’s novel concerns the marriage of German archaeologist, Heinrich Obermann, to Greek bride, Sophia Chrysanthis, whose knowledge of the works of Homer is an attractive asset in the quest to excavate the city of Hissarlik, which he thinks is Ancient Troy.

Their union makes for a robust relationship. She is young and beautiful. He is initially endearing as he waxes eloquently about his passion for the art (‘not the science’) of archaeology. His performance on the wedding reception floor leaves his new bride thinking, “How can I love a man who dances so badly?” (p14)

Analyzing the glue that binds a couple together is one of the themes of this novel. Sophia reconciles herself to him on her wedding day by thinking, “At least I shall not be bored with you.” (p12). She comes to understand him as one who is mysterious, restless, impatient, emphatic, overbearing and aggressive. Despite this, their relationship is nurtured through their common love of Homer and forged in the excavation trenches. As Sophia later sifts through the layers of their relationship, she discovers he has flaws, skeletons that he has been burying and ethical issues concerning what this celebrated archaeologist does with the treasures. She concludes that she does not love her husband but she admires him.

“Welcome to Troy,” was the form of Heinrich’s greeting to his bride when they arrived together in Hissarlik, and so begins their manner of thinking as if they are immortals, living not in the nineteenth century but the Bronze Age of Troy.

Ackroyd provides a compelling and suspense-filled storyline. Through the course of their digging with scores of local excavators, they call up the dead and invoke Zeus and a lineup of Greek deities who appear to respond with thunderclaps and weird happenings. Herr Obermann and Sophia are joined by different characters such as a Harvard professor of antiquities and a British paleographer, all of whom are enchanted with Sophia but they find her husband, rich in conviction but questionable in his historic conclusions.

With his visitors Obermann likes to parade his knowledge and hypotheses, recalling what Odysseus did in the same situation, pointing out the actual spot where the Wooden Horse was placed and even staging a running race on the same circuit that Hector and Achilles competed against one other.

In classical Greek style the visitors join the drama and contribute to the representation of contrasting and at times clashing values. The book focuses on the relationship between art and science, reason and revelation, hunch and history and the love of person versus the passion forged through work.

In contrast to some of his visitors who carefully draw their conclusions from the evidence, Obermann is inventive, given to flights of fantasy and full of wishful thinking. He does not let the truth get in the way of a good story and he goes to all lengths to let his theories stand.

This book is a comedy with amusing insights and cameos. Obermann’s colour and bravado is amusingly displayed when he exorcises a house by chanting with great solemnity a poem by Virgil. But this book is ultimately a sad and tragic story, as implied in Ackroyd’s title.

Peter Ackroyd, The Fall of Troy (London: Vintage Books, 2007). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 56.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Fall of Troy.