A joyous romp with a megalomaniac: The Fall of Troy, by Peter Ackroyd

December 11, 2007 at 2:44 pm (books, History)

troy.jpg peter-ackroyd-1.jpg I have two words for this novel: What Fun!! In The Fall of Troy, Peter Ackroyd has imaginatively re-created Heinrich Schliemann’s famous archaeological expedition in search of Troy. In the process, the author gives us a joyous romp with a megalomaniac. By the time you finish this novel, you’ll be more afraid of the wrath of Schliemann/Obermann than of the celebrated wrath of Achilles!

The year is 1869. Heinrich Obermann, a man in his mid-forties, has just married seventeen-year-old Sophia Chrysanthis and is preparing to travel with her to the dig in progress at the mound known as Hissarlik, in Turkey. Once there, it becomes immediately apparent to Sophia – and to the reader – that Obermann will not be second-guessed on any aspect of the project. Every find made at the site must either ratify his preconceptions – or be thrown out (sometimes quite literally!). He is imperious, arrogant, narrowminded and controlling, and if you cross him or dispute his conclusions (many of which are arrived at a priori), he’ll erupt like a volcano. Still, believe it or not, he can also be irresistible. For one thing, his enthusiasm is boundless, and he is an incorrigible optimist. He is capable of tremendous generosity and affection toward his wife and his colleagues. But mostly, you cannot help but admire – almost envy – his passion for the gods and heroes of The Iliad.

When the Obermanns arrive at Hissarlik, workers are already busy at the dig. Also present is Leonid Pluyshin, Heinrich’s Russian assistant; Lineau, a French professor who is blind; and Kadri Bey, the Turkish overseer. There are also various gofers – and several spies. At first, things go supremely well, with one impressive find following another. Then trouble comes to this paradise of archaeological discovery in the form of visiting scholars. The first, William Brand, is an American. Brand is neutralized in a very strange way. The second visitor, Britisher Alexander Thornton, is not so easily disposed of. In addition to the threat posed by these two men to Obermann and his undertaking, other tensions are percolating to the surface at the site.

And how does Mrs. Obermann fare in all this? When she finds out that she’s going to be living in a crude hut located on the actual site of the dig, she sits down, has a good cry – then rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. At first, Sophia endeavors to match Heinrich’s ardor. As is the way with men like Obermann, he blithely takes her loyalty for granted, assuming that nothing could impinge upon it as long as his personal magnetism holds sway. But though young, Sophia is no fool, and Heinrich has been keeping a secret from her…

There are some vivid, poetic set pieces in this novel. My favorite is the description of a journey undertaken on horseback by Heinrich, Sophia, Thornton, and the Reverend Decimus Harding, an occasional visitor at Hissarlik. They are traveling to Mount Ida:

“The sun was now setting, and the clear atmosphere presaged a cold night. He [Harding] had not expected their journey to last so long, and did not greatly welcome a night in the Turkish countryside. Sophia, however, had been taken up by Obermann’s spirit of adventure and relished every moment on the mountain. Thornton pointed out to her the waning sunlight shining upon the rock face, so that it seemed like some furnace glowing in the heart of the mountain.

‘Now,’ said Obermann, ‘we may visit the three goddesses.’ They retraced their path a little way, then took a narrow track leading down through the rocks and gorse bushed into the trees. It was darker and more sombre here, away from the vista of the mountain range and the sound of the rushing water. The travellers were quiet. Then they came out into a small clearing, where three tall alder trees rose close together. ‘Holy ground,’ Obermann said.

They dismounted and tethered their horses to oak trees on the periphery of the clearing. ‘The trees grow where the goddesses once stood. The alder trees love water. They love the Scamander, as the goddesses did.’

To Harding’s amazement, Obermann then went down upon his knees and bent his head in prayer.”

He was, as you can see, a true believer.

In the chapter on King Arthur in his book Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Peter Ackroyd describes what can happen when you immerse yourself in the Arthurian legends: “It is a very rich, not to say heady, brew. Any attempt to drink it will inevitably lead to numbness and disorientation.” In The Fall of Troy, he shows how the same mysterious forces can overpower the imagination of one who immerses himself (or herself) in the Homeric legends. I can testify to this effect in my own small way. I just finished listening to Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Iliad, read by George Guidall*. Upon hearing the final words – “And so they buried Hector, tamer of horses” – I felt as though I were re-entering the world after spending time submerged in another medium. That’s it – that’s all? I kept asking myself. It seemed an abrupt ending; I was reluctant to bid farewell to that strange enchanted place.

*(Yes, by the way, that is the same George Guidall who is the delight of so many fans of recorded books – the very one who reads, among other things, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries. Is the guy versatile or what?!)

I leave you with this amazing picture of Sophia Schliemann, decked out in the “jewels of Helen,” part of a cache of valuables purportedly found at Hissarlik and called by Schliemann “Priam’s Treasure.”

sophia_schliemann_treasure.jpg

2 Comments

  1. BooksPlease said,

    Peter Ackroyd is a great story teller and I love all his books, but I haven’t read this one – yet. Thanks Roberta for the review. How’s the weather your way?
    Margaret

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of Marvels – Barry Unsworth The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate The Fall of Troy and The Lambs of London – Peter Ackroyd Arthur & George – Julian Barnes Wolf Hall – […]

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