In which I review Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey

May 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

for PopMatters.

It starts like this:

Zachary Mason’s reimagining of The Odyssey in 44 vignettes is a fleet-footed and agile act of creation, much like wily Odysseus himself in Homer’s original epic. The premise of The Lost Books of the Odyssey hinges on this literary conceit: 44 variations of Homer’s The Odyssey have been found at an excavation site, written on “pre-Ptolemaic papyrus”. The result is this purported “lost books” of the Odyssey, translated and compiled into one book.

This mock-scholarly preface to the Lost Books already prefigures the sense of play that will imbue the narrative, but it’s a muted kind of play. If anything, Mason’s fragments subtly reveal what I found most affecting about Homer’s tale of Odysseus: the bleakness and loneliness that constantly shrouds this perpetual wanderer slash trickster. “I hope this translation reflects the haunted light of Homer’s older islands”, writes the unnamed writer of the preface, and the light that is cast on these fragments is indeed haunted by the unending play of memories.

And you can read it in full here if you want! Or not.

I started out feeling really ambivalent about the book. I dislike feeling ambivalent about a book. I know that sometimes ambivalence probably helps, in terms of writing an objective (as much as it can be) review, but the reading experience felt strangely… muted. And then somewhere in the middle it suddenly became an emotional experience, and then towards the end I cried a bit. I know. What on earth? you’re thinking. On the whole I admired Mason’s sense of structure and his ear for language. The bits that really got to me were the bits where Athena hovered about, wily and cunning like Odysseus, always looking out for him. I’m agnostic, I guess, but there is some residual Hindooism in me. My inner Hindoo likes to talk to Hanuman, thinking that he’s watching out for me. Hanuman, too, is a little bit wily, a little bit of a trickster. I felt something for the relationship between Odysseus and Athena – at least, in the way Mason portrayed it.

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