Theodor Kallifatides: Reading against the grain

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on October 04, 2019

After bloodshed: Kallifatides highlights the grief undergirding war, the deep sadness of the epic’s characters after the fall of Troy   -  SATHEESH VELLINEZHI

The Swedish novel The Siege of Troy is a curious take on an epic that revels in violence. It stems from author Theodor Kallifatides’s firm belief that The Iliad is an anti-war poem

In a time when so much is delivered to us by algorithm, when we are guided towards the things we consume by lines of code on websites and in social media applications, there is a serendipitous freedom that comes with browsing in a bookshop. I couldn’t have found Theodor Kallifatides’s novel The Siege of Troy any other way than in a physical shop, fortuitously placed by a bookseller among the works of much better-known authors. I picked it up and in the last few days I have not put it down.

I had never heard of Kallifatides before, and I doubt many people in the English-speaking world will have come across him. He is a Greek writer born in 1938, who moved at the age of 26 to Sweden and has lived there ever since. He worked across his native Mediterranean tongue and his adopted Scandinavian language; he has spent decades translating omnivorously from Greek to Swedish and from Swedish to Greek. Only when I was halfway through The Siege of Troy — which dramatises a retelling of the ancient Greek epic The Iliad in the midst of the German occupation of Greece during World War II — did I realise that I was reading a book originally written in Swedish.

It is a fairly short novel, with the important virtue of being slim enough to hold in one hand as I jostle through my daily commute on the New York subway. The first-person narrator is a nameless 15-year-old boy who lives in a nameless village north of Athens. His father is missing, detained by German soldiers for no good reason, whereabouts and fate unknown. These Greek villagers are caught between a rock and a hard place; they live under the arbitrary and brutal rule of the Germans but they suffer from the devastation wrought by the equally arbitrary and brutal bombing by British warplanes (it’s 1945 and the Germans are about to lose the war). During these bombings, the narrator and his small class are whisked away by their beautiful young teacher to the safety of a cave. To distract her students, the teacher — who the students quietly call the “Witch” because the village dogs refuse to bark at her — decides to tell the story of The Iliad, the epic composed nearly 3,000 years ago by Homer in which the Greeks lay siege to the city of Troy and the bloodthirsty Greek hero Achilles kills Hector, the noble, doomed Trojan prince. The novel juxtaposes sections that plunge the reader into the gore of the ancient war with sequences in the 20th century Greek village, its almond trees blossoming, beleaguered German soldiers drinking in the town square, and children learning how to fall in love.

In the afterword, Kallifatides explains that he wanted to write this book because he felt that The Iliad wasn’t read any more, and that it was poorly understood. “The problem is that these days we do not stimulate, do not enable the demanding reading that The Iliad offers.” What is that demanding reading that Kallifatides wishes for all who encounter the epic? “In my eyes,” he writes, “it is the strongest anti-war poem ever written.”

On its face, that might be an odd interpretation of a story that seems to revel in violence and celebrate the warrior ethos. In his own telling, Kallifatides retains much of the grizzly detail of the original in describing combat (“He brought his spear down on the man’s head … the brains spilled out, as gray as ash”). As in the epic, superhuman warriors such as Achilles and Hector stride over the battlefield, mowing down lesser men. But Kallifatides highlights the grief undergirding war, the deep sadness and fatigue of the epic’s characters. He slips into the minds of the victims of war, the kidnapped women, the slaves, the terrified soldiers. His recasting of The Iliad ends like the original does, with Priam, the king of Troy, retrieving the body of Hector from Achilles. The father meets the murderer of his son and they share an overwhelming regret, the understanding “that war is a source of tears, and there can be no victors”.

Too often, ancient texts such as The Iliad or Beowulf or Gilgamesh or the Mahabharata are read in conservative ways, as literature that seeks to uphold the values of a particular noble class or warrior tradition. Those interpretations limit the possibilities of what people in the past can reveal to us. When we look at literature that has survived from an earlier age, it’s important to bring to bear the vision of a writer such as Kallifatides and read against the grain. We should see that beneath the epic’s foreignness to our present, its recounting of the feats of swaggering men and gods, there lies the abiding human reality of suffering, struggle, and survival. The narrator of The Siege of Troy picks his way home in war-torn Greece: “In the distance we could see the village, with the lamps being lit one by one,” he says. “Our mothers were waiting for us.”


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection o   -  BUSINESS LINE


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction Twitter: @kanishktharoor


Published on October 04, 2019

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor