Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Toro Reviews Dragonflies

The fall of Troy is a story that will be encountered by even moderately literate people any number of times over a healthy lifetime. You know the set-up (or I hope you do): Helen is snatched up by Paris, and her beautiful visage sends a thousand ships to the city of Troy. A war is fought for years, until Odysseus hatches a plan involving a wooden horse secretly stuffed with Greek soldiers. That’s the gist of it (with a lot in between), covering Homer’s Iliad and some time after, before the great warriors set off on the long voyage home to Ithaca.

Grant Buday’s kind of modern adaptation, Dragonflies, tells the story of the Trojan Horse, its inspiration and execution, through the eyes of Odysseus, but it’s really through eyes you may only think you recognize. Whereas Homer’s poems are told through action more than characterization – if the characters have depth (that is, flaws) it is secondary to the flow of history and the grand heroics of Greek tragedy – Buday’s adaptation includes ruminations on doubt, both personal and cosmological. Here, nothing is guaranteed, even for the mightiest warrior. The Gods are not characters, but wisps of wind and symbols of fate, which both favours and destroys us.

Odysseus, Ajax, and others are described more as soldiers than warriors. They are not the literal descendants of gods who are birthed to fight, but men conscripted by Agamemnon and battered by years of war. They put up with injuries and with homesickness. They fart and spit and bleed. When Dragonflies begins, the camp along the beach is filled with men who have grown old in battle and whores with children who do not know anything else. Buday’s fall of Troy closely resembles modern sieges, instead of seeming ancient or mythic – the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad, for example.

In this style, Buday succeeds where many have failed in adaptations of ancient stories. He imagines the war as it would have been documented by a writer of the late 20th century. He does not implant our customs but twists the narrative into something accessible. As a character, Odysseus is admirable and clever but not infallible. His Trojan Horse plan is examined from realistic angles. It is, as Buday and his characters admit, a rather far-fetched plan, which succeeds in part thanks to the Trojans' carelessness rather than merely being a triumphant, fiendish plot.

At a lean 164 pages, Dragonflies does not waste words. It's a tale well told – an updating of myth that avoids grandeur and favours subtlety. Buday is a gifted writer, and what comes across in his novel is a love for storytelling, a keen sense of history, and an ability to make even the most tired of tales worth hearing again.

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