Shock and awe, playing out in ancient Greece

Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

A mighty army poised to invade the Middle East is delayed by unfavorable weather. Its commander in chief struggles to keep his allies from deserting him. Sports are used as a distraction; religious leaders and the media are enlisted to trumpet the justice of the invaders’ cause. The superiority of Western culture is cited. But something more, it seems, is needed -- something to shock and awe all onlookers....

Who knows if Barry Unsworth had the United States and Iraq in mind when he wrote his latest novel, “The Songs of the Kings,” but this retelling of the story of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia -- a story first told in Homer’s “The Iliad” and elaborated in dramas by Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Racine and Goethe -- is meant to strike a disturbingly modern note.

Unsworth (“After Hannibal,” “Losing Nelson”) presents the Homeric tale not as the beginning of a literary tradition but as the end of a long process of spin-doctoring. The “songs of the kings” are so called not just because they describe the doings of kings but because they have been shaped to serve the kings’ purposes, as official histories have done for rulers and conquerors ever since.

Unsworth doesn’t change the classic plot. Contrary winds bottle up the Greek fleet in the straits of Aulis. The Trojan War threatens never to get underway. Diviners suggest that the goddess Artemis -- or perhaps Zeus himself -- has sent the wind to indicate displeasure. To placate the gods and save the expedition, Agamemnon is resigned to having Iphigeneia’s throat cut on an altar, with all due ceremony. The wind relents; the rest of the long and gory adventure can proceed.


But this story, which has come down to us as grand tragedy -- the loving father obliged to slay his daughter for the greater good, the devoted daughter reconciling herself to her destiny -- becomes altogether different in Unsworth’s hands. Here it’s chilling realism and black comedy, in which truth is murdered as surely as the 14-year-old princess lured from her home in Mycenae by a promise of marriage to Achilles. Spoiled and naive, she is too flattered to sense any danger.

Unsworth’s Achilles is a narcissist and a pathological killer. The blind “singer” who makes up the Homeric story day by day is susceptible to bribes and threats. Odysseus, whose job is to persuade Iphigeneia to undergo the sacrifice willingly, is wily and resourceful indeed, but without kindness. Agamemnon suffers, but he wants no knowledge of Iphigeneia’s suffering to add to his own. He busies himself with the technology of the murder weapon, a silver-inlaid bronze knife, to forget its function.

As in his other historical novels, Unsworth carefully re-creates the sights, sounds and smells of a distant era, yet now and then a deliberate anachronism peeks out of the narrative: “peace process,” “collateral damage,” “five-star general.” Unsworth’s characters believe what ancient Greeks supposedly did, but like contemporary believers in God and Allah they are capable of adapting dreams, omens and other divine messages to cynical ends.

“Do you think this war is about Helen?” the diviner Calchas scornfully asks a boy who prefers the heroic version broadcast from headquarters. “People intent on war always need a story and the singers always provide one. What it is really about is gold and copper and cinnabar and jade and slaves and timber. Great wealth will fall into the hands of those who conquer Troy.... “

Calchas is one of the few who try to save Iphigeneia, but he is a timid foreigner, and when he finally speaks out it’s too late. Agamemnon doesn’t want to be told he has a choice after all and thus lose “the comfort of necessity.” A young officer who loves the princess is hobbled by ambition; he will take calculated risks but not suicidal ones. A slave girl who looks like Iphigeneia and offers to substitute for her at the sacrifice is frustrated by Odysseus’ arguments and Iphigeneia’s pride.

“The Songs of the Kings” is a smaller book than Unsworth’s monumental and heartbreaking novel of the 18th century slave trade, “Sacred Hunger,” which won the Booker Prize in 1992. It’s less suspenseful, because we know the outcome. Its characters, though vivid, are further removed from us. But it shares with “Sacred Hunger” an immensely sophisticated grasp of politics, economics and psychology, of how the world works. Then and now, the innocent and the honestly uncertain rarely prevail against people who push a simple, brutal idea relentlessly, much less against those who can dress up that idea in fine-sounding words.