The Odyssey Lost and Found

Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is something of a miracle. With effortless grace, it seems, the author plunges back into the source of the Homeric tales, adopting a style mannered enough to evoke the classic English translations, but with touches of contemporary diction that allow the stories to speak to us directly. The first sentences cast an irresistible charm:

DSCN6553Odysseus comes back to Ithaca in a small boat on a clear day. The familiarity of the east face of the island seems absurd — bemused, he runs a tricky rip current he has not thought about in fifteen years and lands by the mouth of a creek where he swam as a boy. All his impatience leaves him and he sits under an oak he remembers whose branches overhang the water, good for diving. Twenty years have gone by, he reflects, what are a few more minutes. An hour passes in silence and it occurs to him that he is tired and might as well go home….

This moment of arrival is of course only the beginning, though the notion of any clear start or finish is quickly dispatched as these 44 “lost books” proceed to weave in and out of the Iliad and the Odyssey, boldly interpolating the classics with strikingly imaginative episodes plotted on familiar timelines but scattered at random like playing cards. The topic here is the Trojan war and its aftermath, but in good metafictional style it is also storytelling itself: tall tales, often contradictory but equally compelling, dreams and prophecies, legends retreaded, and lies, lies, lies. The shortest of the book’s chapters, two sentences long, pulls off a metafictional stunt almost worthy of Borges:

Odysseus, finding that his reputation for trickery preceded him, started inventing histories for himself and disseminating them wherever he went. This had the intended effect of clouding perception and distorting expectation, making it easier for him to work as he was wont, and the unexpected effect that one of his lies became, with minor variations, the Odyssey of Homer (71).

Mason’s Odysseus is not only cunning and crafty, but also by his own admission — or one of them — a “coward” (86) with a “a mind full of rapine” (21). As in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, the hero is somewhat deflated and, shall we say, demystified?

There are, as far as I have seen, and I have seen much, no gods, no spirits and no such thing as witches, but I seem to be the only one who knows it — the best I can say for the powers of the night is that they make good stories (102).

This arrogant admission may seem if not out of character at least somewhat anachronistic. And yet Mason’s protagonist confirms the analysis of the Odyssey in Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, where, in his encounter with the Sirens, crafty and ruthless Odysseus is seen as the harbinger of instrumental reason, the control of nature and the passage “from mythology to logistics” (29). Indeed, Mason’s own Odysseus, plotting safe passage by the Sirens, pointedly says “It seemed that my curiosity could be safely indulged through simple logistics” (81). Mason’s Odyssey would seem to confirm the Marxists’ interpretation of the encounter with the Sirens: safely lashed to the mast, his underlings’ ears stopped up with wax, the hero not only trumps the monsters but leaves them behind, and in so doing banishes the past itself; “the primeval world is left behind,” and in its place stands the prosaic, demystified hero, Odysseus, “the prototype of the bourgeois individual” (35). As Horkheimer and Adorno say,

In the eyes of the man who has thus come of age, the plain untruth of the myths, the fact that the sea and earth are not actually populated by demons but are a magic delusion … becomes something merely “aberrant” in contrast to his unambiguous purpose of self-preservation, of returning to his homeland and fixed property (38).

But this is a lesson learned not once and for all but over and over. Mason’s Odysseus manages to outwit the Sirens, and yet he is compelled to go back and brave them all over again. They don’t give up their secrets so easily. Mason’s description of the scene is marvelously fresh and the Sirens as real and bewitching as ever they were:

Abruptly, the song ended and I sagged forward, the ropes digging into my chest as the men took the ship out. I cried out for the sirens to continue, that I was close to an answer, but they watched me depart with their chins propped on their hands (84).

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