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,