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Gareth Twose

Cold Calls (War Music continued) by Christopher Logue. Faber and Faber, £8.99.

There comes a time as a reviewer when you just have to 'fess up to being a hopeless and star-struck Fan, the literary equivalent of a Trekkie. That's how it is with me and Christopher Logue. Logue's re-writing or adaptation (call it what you will) of Homer's Iliad - War Music - is, for me, one of the major landmarks of post-modern literature. It is a version of Homer that is both exciting and modern. And it's one that, because of the illegal invasion of Iraq and the so-called 'war on terror', is suddenly strikingly relevant. In terms of technique, War Music is profoundly cinematic: it's highly visual and, like a thriller, has a high-tempo narrative pace created by fast 'cutting' between frames. Reading it offers the same sort of high-octane adrenalin rush, the same sort of visceral experience that one associates with the best movies. This is especially true of the battle scenes, in which extreme violence is shown as both beautiful and horrifying.

The relevance becomes apparent when we remember the story concerns a ten-year war between the Greeks and the Trojans. The war, needless to say, has the silliest of ostensible 'causes': the world's most beautiful woman, Helen, leaves her husband, a Greek king, to run off with the son of the King of Troy. To satisfy some big male egos, a thousand Greek ships sail to Troy to get her back. The contemporary parallels are unnerving. For a start, there's the war's ten-year time frame. Only recently, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned that the Iraqi occupation could last exactly that long. Then there's the dubious 'cause'. In the Trojan War, the initial cause is quickly lost sight of (ring any bells?) and the war becomes self-perpetuating and more and more obviously futile. It becomes clear the war cannot be 'won' in any real sense. Too many people have suffered too much.

'Cold Calls' - the fifth and penultimate instalment of Logue's re-write of Homer's epic - shows the war at a point when it's going really badly for Greece. In fact, the Greeks are in danger of being driven out of Troy altogether by Prince Hector et al. In the poem, fast cutting between scenes and multiple storylines are used to evoke the multi-layered confusions and chaos of battle. At times, you are really not sure who is doing what to who. Nothing I've ever read captures the excitement and horror of battle, the arbitrary brutality and casual cruelty, in quite the same way. Violence is shown as horribly beautiful. In one passage from 'Cold Calls', the Greek hero Nyro is killed in circumstances that are, typically, almost accidental:

Nyro, of Simi - the handsomest of all the Greeks, save A.
The trouble was, he had no fight. He dashed from fight to fight,
Struck a quick blow, then dashed straight out again.
Save that this time he caught,
As Prince Aenéas caught his breath,
The Prince's eye; who blocked his dash,
And as lord Panda waved and walked away,
Took his head off his spine with a backhand slice -
Beautiful stuff ...straight from the blade...
Still, as it was a special head,
Mowgag, Aenéas' minder -
Bright as a box of rocks, but musical -
Spiked it, then hoisted it, and twizzling the pole
Beneath the blue, the miles of empty air,
Marched to the chingaling of its tinklers,

A majorette, towards the Greeks, the tower.

A roar of wind across the battlefield.

A pause.

And then

Scattering light,
The plain turned crystal where their glidepath stopped,
Queen Hera shrills: 'Typhoid for Troy!'
And through poor Nyro's wobbling mouth
Athena yells:

'Slew of assidious mediocrities!
Meek Greeks!
Hector will burn your ships to warm his soup!'

It is enough.

Centre-plain wide,
Lit everywhere by rays of glorious light,
They rushed their standards into Ilium,
Diomed (for once) swept forward;
Converting shame to exaltation with his cry:

'Never - to Helen's gold without her self!
Never - to Helen's self without her gold!'

Mowgag well slain.
Hewn through his teeth, his jaw slashed off,
And Nyro's head beside him the grass.

When Nyro's mother heard of this
She shaved her head; she tore her frock; she went outside
Ripping her fingernails through her cheeks:
Then down her neck; her chest; her breasts;

'I saw her running round.
I took the photograph.
It summed the situation up.
He was her son.
They put it out in colour. Right?
My picture went around the world.'

Here we see Logue's narrative technique in action. There are all sorts of rapid shifts in perspective. The story of Nyro's death is followed by a 'cut' to: a bird's-eye view of the battlefield. Then a different storyline: two goddesses acting as cheer-leaders for the Greeks, and using Nyro's head as an amplifier. A reaction shot, focussing on a Greek hero, Diomed, and his spoken encouragement to his comrades. Cut to: an image of Mowgag, the man who'd been waving Nyro's head on a stick, now dead. A flash forward to the reaction of Nyro's mother to her son's death. The narrative then switches to a first-person account in free direct speech. Anachronistically, a photographer tells how his/her photo of Nyro's mother becomes the iconic and defining image of the war. (Shades of the picture of the girl fleeing from a napalmed village in Vietnam.) As narrative, then, this is fast on its feet.

But the narrative complexity also in some ways heightens and reflects the moral complexity. In the poem, moral ambiguity abounds, the action is always double-edged: heroism always has a flip side in the form of heartbreak. The 'truth', as it were, is in the suffering. The action also comes complete with an ironic frame narrative: the battle is all the time being shaped and controlled by the gods and goddesses of Olympia, as exemplified here by Hera and Athena. In Logue's portrayal, the Olympians are as bitchy and backstabbing a bunch of narcissists as you're ever likely to meet. Sometimes they intervene decisively, to save someone, sometimes a hero dies just because they can't be arsed. They're only interested in humankind in as much as it impacts upon themselves and their own petty family politics. This gives rise to the ultimate irony of the poem - something entirely missing in the no-brainer Brad Pitt movie Troy - that all the macho posturing and testosterone-fuelled heroism on display in the Trojan War is just one big puppet show. The killing fields of Troy are merely the playgrounds of the super rich and powerful.

Compared to that in Homer's Iliad (as rendered in more conventional translations), the narrative in Logue's 'War Music' is much more non-linear and compressed. The chronological reporting of events is abandoned in favour of a narrative that seems to emphasize simultaneity, events taking place at one and the same time. Also, the tempo of the narrative seems faster: this is a sense created by the lack of transition between scenes, the lack of linkage, the fast cutting. And instead of the strict Homeric alternation between pure narrative and long sections of direct speech, the authorial narrator's voice and the characters' voices in Logue are much more closely interwoven. Presentation of speech is more unmediated and the narrator's voice is much more chatty in style and devastatingly economical. The effect is greater immediacy, a new directness.

The language and imagery in Logue's poem is also distinctively modern. In the above passage, for example, the simile letting the reader know that Mowgag is not too bright is given a modern, ironic twist: 'as bright as a box of rocks'. The witty use of the verb 'twizzling'. The enactive internal rhyme between the invented verb 'chingal' and 'tinkle'. The eerie image of 'backhand slice', evoking professional pride in a job well done. The killer views his handiwork with the detachment of a tennis player executing a perfect cross-court passing shot. The horror-movie image of the goddess using Nyro's decapitated head as a voice box. I feel that in Logue's Iliad, too, the satire is foregrounded; that all the action has a more explicit satirical inflection. This is seen clearly in the presentation of the Greek hero Achilles in 'Cold Calls' as The Incredible Sulk, someone who makes Gordon Brown and John McCririck look like amateurs.

Logue's 'Cold Calls', then, is modern in the very best sense: it is new in a way that shows sharp historical awareness. It is a poem that ought to be compulsory reading for Bush and Blair in the wake of the London bombings. As Simone Weil said, the Iliad is a hymn to the use of brute force, the power to turn persons into things. Troy is a doomed city, a city doomed to go down in fire and slaughter under the assault of a people whose own cities are far away. If Bush and Blair ever read War Music, it should be with grave disquiet.

Copyright © Gareth Twose, 2005