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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

There's a sequel to the Odyssey. Seriously.

written by the Judge
I wouldn’t like to presume, but my guess is that you didn’t know. I first came across Nikos Kazantzakis’ book at the beginning of my first year of university, as I explored what seemed to me like an enormous library and marvelled at its rare and unusual books. I was especially interested in the sections on international literature, and I found a volume bearing the extraordinary title of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel on the shelves of modern Greek literature.

I was initially bewildered: how could there be a sequel to the Odyssey – and, just as shockingly, how could I have known nothing about it? How could I have never even heard of it? The concept struck me as immediately gripping and intriguing, but the book was huge – larger than the original by a good margin – and back then, as I was already struggling to keep up with the reading assignments of a university freshman, I decided it was not the right time to engage with something so hefty. So I made a mental note to return to it at some later stage, and went back to reading Sidney and Marlowe.

I never saw that particular copy of the book again. I returned to the same shelf, but for some reason couldn’t find it (at this point the story is taking the traits of one of those ‘forgotten tome’ treasure quests, to the point that you may think I’m making it up, but I’m serious). I forgot the name of the author, but I never forgot the concept of the book, so much so that I asked a few of my fellows and tutors at university whether they knew about it. None ever did.

It took almost ten years before I came across it again, and it was in New York (the story gets even more romantic!). I was there for work, but a friend of mine took me to the enormous Strand Bookstore on Broadway, where I intended to pick up some American poetry, and there it was – in a beautiful hardback edition – for a risible seven dollars. The Odyssey by Nikos Kazantzakis.

Having finished the book only a few days ago, it’s a good time to spread the word about it to everybody else, in part because after having spent more than a year plodding through it I’m going to die if I don’t show off a little, but mostly because I have the impression that for such an important work of literature – and even within the canon of Kazantzakis’ work, who otherwise has a considerable reputation in English-speaking circles – it’s surprisingly obscure. Originally written in modern Greek, it has only been translated into English and German. I’ve never met someone who knew about it, though there may well be a few such people among the bookworms that read this blog.

And yet the book is a Great Classic in capital letters, of the kind that nobody wants to read and everybody wants to have read (Mark Twain docet). Popular literary culture is usually (comically) anglocentric, which is why the title of Great Classic, among 20th Century books, tends to be reserved almost exclusively for Joyce’s Ulysses – itself a Homeric sequel of a kind. But pretty much every major language has its own infernally long and unreadable classic from the past century (Proust, Musil, Solzhenytsin, Pynchon, off the top of my head, and more recently Bolaño), and that’s most certainly the category to which Kazantzakis’ Odyssey belongs. Unlike the original, the Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (OAMS) is not an easy read. It is three times the length of its predecessor, for an exact total of 33,333 lines (the guy must have been insane), divided in twenty-four books, one for every letter of the Greek alphabet. It is also a dense, complex philosophical work, written in a style that is fascinating but not all that accessible.

What is the book like? I’m not going to attempt a proper essay on the text, because it’s one of those massively layered things you could comfortably write a doctoral thesis about, but I’ll state a couple of my personal impressions – and I’ll make sure not to add any spoilers in here, in case you want to dive into this new adventure yourself. The story concerns, as you might expect, the journeys of Odysseus after his return to Ithaca. It’s an exotic, far-ranging tale. I liked the first half quite a bit, mainly because it’s an adventure story not completely removed in spirit from the original. The second half is decidedly slower, as the book becomes more purely philosophical and quite episodic. The narrative becomes something like that of Dante, with several characters appearing and standing in for other figures or ideals, and frankly it reaches such a point of dullness that towards Book XVII I seriously considered abandoning the book. I might have gone through with the decision had I not already been so far into it (fortunately it gets a bit better from Book XX or so, and the last part proceeds more smoothly). In truth, this may not be a completely fair criticism as the original epic also reaches the end of the journeys more or less half-way through, and the narrative of the events in Ithaca seems a little drawn-out by comparison!

It would be unrealistic to expect such a sequel not to modernise the story in several ways. Of course the mind-set of the characters is no longer that of a Bronze Age culture. Kazantzakis, like virtually every modern writer who has reformatted the Classics and told them from a modern perspective (I think of Anouilh, Sartre or Baricco), has opted to do away with the Olympian gods, which barely earn a mention here, never mind make an appearance. In their stead, we find references to a strange single god that rather comes across as a metaphor or an allegory for other things that Kazantzakis wants to talk about (this would be consistent with his tendency to personify – and in detail – abstract concepts such as death). Furthermore the character of Odysseus is, at least to me, virtually unrecognizable. His motivations and his actions are generally difficult to identify or reconcile with the original character. Some of the things he does seem in direct contradiction with those of the old version of himself, in particular the fact that he is now openly, constantly, deliberately blasphemous and derisive of god / the gods (compare this to his submissive relation to Athena, or the episode with the cattle of the sun in the Homeric text).

Something that is much more difficult to overlook than the modernisation of the text (and which, in fact, is especially unforgivable on its grounds) is the book’s androcentric register. It’s clear that Kazantzakis was aiming for a mythical atmosphere in which larger than life characters only act and respond according to primal impulses (not unlike Milton in Paradise Lost – a text that is even more criminally sexist). Even so, all of the characters who are interested in adventure, spirituality, ethics, honour, war and investment are men, while very few of the numerous female characters show an interest in anything other than procreation (and this they pursue with the single-minded intensity of an existential purpose, as though losing their virginity and having a child were their sole reason of thinking and being). This is a really annoying aspect of the text and I wouldn’t blame many people if they were put off by this problem alone.

The style has its moments. One defining characteristic of OAMS is that it uses adjectives all over the place – sometimes more than one feels is necessary. There are times when this is overbearing: you can’t really go on reading for very long sessions when each sentence demands that you visualise so much. But there are also some beautiful metaphors in there, all based on the natural world and on imagery of the countryside or the sea; the description of a tree that is bent down to the ground by a woodcutter and is likened to the falling emerald tail of a peacock is going to be with me for a long time.

Though this must be lost to us in translation, it’s also worth spending a word on the lexicon of over 2,000 terms collected and employed by Kazantzakis which come from the peasant / sailor vernacular, and which puzzled Greek intellectuals and academics of the time as they were terms they had never heard before. The effects that this work must have had on the Greek language are, I expect, unquantifiable.

Ok, I get it, Judge. It’s a book that means business. But is it worth reading? As I mentioned, it’s no easy story. The text is very dense, and it deters casual reading (big as it is, it’s even hard to carry around!). Like all Great Classics, it has certain passages that are very rewarding. But like all Great Classics, the way you approach it depends on you. You can ignore it, you can dip into it, you can read it front to back, you can plough through it taking notes, you can just let the story flow through you. If you’re expecting a honest sequel to that book you’ve known since forever, you’ll probably be disappointed – this is a modern parable through and through, only loosely connected to the original, that grows more and more distant from that tale as the story progresses. For my own part, I am finished with it and all I need now is some time to let my mind rest before I decide to take on another Great Classic (there’s always one waiting…). Back to the comic books.

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