Sunday, December 14, 2008

Odysseus as We've Never Seen Him Before

Another rave of a review for Grant Buday's Dragonflies, this one from The Vancouver Sun.

As a broad description, "a novel about the Trojan War" suggests two distinct possibilities. It could be a page-turning cast-of-thousands romantic epic, like Colleen McCullough's 500-page The Song of Troy. Equally possible is an economical and sly revisiting, one similar in spirit to that undertaken by Margaret Atwood in The Penelopiad.

At 165 pages, Grant Buday's Dragonflies, an unfailingly attractive character study of one Odysseus of Ithaca, forgoes pages of historical detail, fierce battle scenes and intricate plotting in favour of a spare but pithy meditation on one of literature's archetypal heroes.

As though in answer to Atwood's hard-done-by Penelope, this sympathetic portrait figuratively strips off the hero's imposing armour and reveals the complex workings of the flesh-and-blood man beneath.

Buday does present readers with an invigorating account of the creation of the fabled wooden horse that ended the infamous war, but it's his characterization of Odysseus and his ethical demons that's so completely gripping.

Having written novels about a renowned explorer's tangled relationship with a Mongol emperor (The Venetian), a miserable shift worker in a commercial bakery (White Lung), a floundering pot farmer (Rootbound) and a perplexed boy beginning elementary school (A Sack of Teeth), Mayne Islander Buday has clearly spent time pondering males caught in a bind.

And his Odysseus is exceptionally bound. Coerced into service a decade before to protect his family and subsisting on the losing side of a ridiculous war ever since, he is embittered, lonely, fearful, resentful and exhausted.

What's worse, his miserable circumstance is compounded by life-threatening politicking. Already tense and volatile, Odysseus's allegiance to Agamemnon is further complicated by the king's murderous and scheming generals and by a soothsayer who uses poisonous words to undermine his credibility. Besieged by mosquitoes, snakes and jackals, Odysseus can't help but admire the dragonflies at the encampment. "Admirable hunters," their single-mindedness and success inspire envy.

With little in the present day except misery, bad meals (seaweed and meat scraps) and ceaseless political intrigue, Odysseus is sombre and thoughtful, anxious that he's repeating his father Laertes's wandering ways and failing as both father and husband. His single hope for a comfortable retirement with his family is tethered to the war's completion, and as the novel opens there's no armistice in sight.

The hero's mind also drifts, with bittersweet emotions, to Helen, whose otherworldly beauty is the root cause of the entire conflict.

Throughout Dragonflies, Buday endows Odysseus with a captivating eloquence. Whether he's making observations ("Palamedes was shark-smiling. He enjoyed seeing me squirm. He had a narrow skull, a crow's nose, eyes close-set and small, a short damp black beard that made me think of pubic hair") or being introspective ("And yet such thoughts make me nostalgic, and with nostalgia comes regret, an enervating indulgence to which I'm growing all too prone, another reason I admire cats, they seem impervious to self-doubt"), the self-described "bow-legged runt" of a storyteller is wonderful company.

Because he's so eloquent and lyrical (not to mention gifted with a sharp tongue), pensive Odysseus's personal account renders literary themes -- love, war, fate, retribution -- immediate, heartfelt and real.

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