Monday, December 08, 2008

Praise for Buday's Dragonflies

Horse of a Different Colour

A review by Philip Marchand in The National Post

At the start of Dragonflies, Grant Buday's novel about Odysseus and his invention of the Trojan Horse, it has been 10 years since the Greeks began their siege of Troy. No end is in sight. Nature itself seems ill-disposed to the besiegers. "It's spring, the time of dragonflies," Odysseus reflects. "They're admirable hunters, patrolling the meadows, hovering, darting, killing. It's a dangerous season for men as well, for the jackals and wolves are on the move, and when we venture inland we wrap our ankles in leather against snakes. The days grow hot, the mosquito breeds and the season of fever is near."

This crisp, summary style is characteristic of the novel's first-person narrative, in which not a detail or metaphor is superfluous, the narrative pace never lags and the prevailing tone is gloomy. Buday even manages to create a certain suspense, although we all know the outcome of this story -- in revisiting the figure of Odysseus, Buday is tapping into the wellsprings of Western literature, vivifying a motif that Pound and Joyce, among others, exploited in the 20th century. Three years ago, in her novel The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood adopted the point of view of Odysseus's wife -- confirming once again that the meaning of this story is inexhaustible.

Atwood, it is needless to say, took a distinctly unheroic approach to her material, and so does Buday -- his Odysseus is crafty and a liar, which is not far removed from Homer's conception of the character. Neither Atwood nor Buday, in fact, can be accused of gratuitous debunking. Even the ancient Greeks probably thought there was something ridiculous about the idea of 10 years of brutal warfare because a Trojan stole somebody's wife, and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is only the best known of satirical treatments of such Homeric blowhards as Agamemnon, Achilles and Ajax. Buday also owes something to the cynical tone of another historical novelist, Gore Vidal. Like Vidal, Buday avoids subtle or deeply rounded characterization in favour of stark, dramatic portraits of male combatants in a highly political world.

Two main themes inform Buday's tale. The first is the theme of "reputation," an unceasing imperative in the world of these Greek warriors. For all his wiliness, Odysseus ends up sacrificing his wife and son and 10 years of his life to the bubble reputation, realizing too late that even a fool like Menelaus, Helen's injured husband, can defy reputation if he has sufficient determination.

The second theme is the nature of the "gods." Odysseus is accused by his enemies of disbelieving in their very existence. This is not quite true. When Penelope gives birth to their son, Telemachus, Odysseus smears his house with pitch against evil spirits. In general, however, it is true that Odysseus prefers practical schemes to propitiating the favour of the gods or divining omens.

It's not as if Odysseus invents the scientific method in this novel, but he does display an observant, relatively detached attitude toward his environment -- at one point he finds himself "reading the exposed strata of rock and soil in all its variety" -- that heralds the onset of what we think of as Western man.

Buday manages this development convincingly, without setting up some facile conflict in the narrative between modern-minded Odysseus and a bunch of superstitious morons. "Let's face it," he muses at one point. "All men are fools for Signs." We all want the cosmos to communicate with us in some fashion, mostly through omens or "Signs." The Trojans let that desire get the better of them by viewing the Trojan Horse as a "Sign," instead of using their heads. But Odysseus is not sneering or patronizing in this observation. He knows we're all caught between a rock and a hard place. Reflecting on his misfortunes, Odysseus asks himself, "Is this the work of cruel gods, blind fate or simply chaos?"

Buday, who lives in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia and has authored half a dozen novels and short-story collections, lays on this theme a bit thick, but then 10 years of futile siege warfare would make anybody turn philosophical. The only consolations in Odysseus's world are narcotics ("poppy water"), wine, memories of his wife and child and their pastoral life back home in Ithaka, a bit of song and storytelling. The last is particularly important. Odysseus "rates no prize higher than a good story."

Stories make irony bearable. But Buday's deftly constructed and convincing tale has a final irony, fat and juicy, in store for its hero. It crops up in the last sentence of the novel, after Troy has been sacked and the war is over. "Soon, very soon, in a month at most, I will be at home," Odysseus thinks, ignorant that the Odyssey is coming down the pike, and more years of wandering. Clever Odysseus's wrestling match with cruel gods, blind fate and chaos is just beginning.

-- reviewed by Philip Marchand

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