The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

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The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A collection of alternative versions of Homer's The Odyssey. Clever, innovative, beautifully written and interesting, particularly for lovers of the Classics.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224090223

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Zachary Mason suggests that Homer's Odyssey was merely one particular ordering of the events of Odysseus' return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. 'Echoes of other Odysseys', he suggests exist, including a forty four-episode variation in a 'pre-Ptolomeic papyrus excavated from the desiccated rubbish mounds of Oxyrhnchus' and this is what is 'translated' here. So we are presented with these forty four often very short stories that reconstruct elements of the Odyssey in a kind of alternate reality, asking 'what if it were slightly different', and what emerges is a non-linear, mosaic of stories. If Homer had decided to present his book in DVD format, these would be in the 'extras' of alternative 'takes' on things. The result is like a jazz riff on the original stories.

Even if you are not intimately acquainted with the original Odyssey of the worst commute home from work until the M25 was built, you will probably be familiar with some of the imagery and stories. There's Penelope waiting for her husband's return, the Cyclopes, the Sirens attracting sailors to their death on treacherous rocks. Well, they're all here but each tale is slightly altered or viewed from a different angle. I confess that my last encounter with the original was at school, which is now so long ago that Homer was viewed as an exciting young writer, and a detailed knowledge of the Odyssey is not absolutely necessary to appreciate this book, although I suspect the more you know, the more you will appreciate this book. Certainly some passing familiarity with the story would be advantageous.

Mason effectively and cleverly writes in a very similar style to the Homeric epic. It's episodic, poetic, often beautifully written but with an added dry humour. In the very first chapter I was completely charmed by Odysseus' return home after his twenty-year journey, noticing that a gate had been mended in his absence which struck me as particularly poignant. There are several such instances throughout the book. In the same chapter, he goes on to note that seeing Penelope without the eyes of a homecoming, only an echo of her beauty remains.

We are presented with several conflicting versions of events - in one story Odysseus marries Helen rather than her sister Penelope, and in several he returns home to find different scenarios. In one story, Homer himself makes an appearance.

I would not have been at all surprised to find that Mason was a Classical scholar, but remarkably he is a computer scientist and this is his first book.

However, for all its qualities, I found the short length of most of the pieces ultimately a little frustrating. I can understand the desire to replicate the episodic style of Homer, but it means that it lacks much to 'get your teeth into' and I began to weary of the clever riffs. And the use of footnotes is peculiar. There are not that many of them, but it seemed to me that it needed either more to illustrate the variations from the original story, or less to stand alone as a work that didn't need explanation. The result is neither one thing nor the other.

If you are fan of the Classics, then I have no doubt that you will be fascinated by this clever, book, and fans of innovative story-telling will find much to enjoy here. Although if you read on your journey home from work, it does put the odd train delay into context.

Our thanks to the good people at Jonathan Cape for inviting the Bookbag to review this book.

If this has put you in a Classical frame of mind, then I'm sure you would hugely enjoy David Malouf's Ransom which re-visits 'The Iliad' while there's more interference from Greek gods in John Banville's The Infinities which has a similar dry humour to it.

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