“I wonder how many remember that The Iliad was a poem about a coalition-led Mediterranean regime-change operation?” (Jonathan Powles, Twitter, 20 March 2011)
First published in 2009, David Malouf’s Ransom received glowing reviews in Australia and overseas. It was nominated for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award and was the winner of the Adelaide Festival Award for Literature and the ALS Gold Medal Award. Malouf’s revisiting of an episode from Homer’s The Iliad has been praised for the way it brings to life the characters of Achilles and Priam, familiar figures from the epic tale, and introduces the figure of Somax, a simple carter who accompanies Priam on his journey to retrieve the body of his slain son, Hector.
Ransom is Malouf’s ninth novel. He has also published four collections of short stories (as well as a fifth volume, The Collected Stories), eight books of poetry, four works of non-fiction and one play. He is one of Australia’s most acclaimed novelists.
Ransom re-enters the world of The Iliad to examine the minute particulars of human experience, especially as these are visible in extreme situations. Taken on a strictly allegorical level, the story of King Priam seeking to ransom the body of his son from the implacable fury of Achilles, must be read as the assertion of our fundamental nature, the aspects of the human condition that transcend war and dramatise the unity of human suffering. One of the remarkable achievements of Malouf’s version of The Iliad is that he allows the reader to view the common humanity that unites both Priam and Achilles in the moment of their greatest abjection. As the narrative reaches its dramatic conclusion this becomes quite clearly a story about fathers and sons, Priam and Hector, Achilles and Peleus, and Achilles and Neoptelemus. In Ransom Malouf asserts the enduring importance of story, of the necessary consciousness of a narrative understanding of the world amidst events that might otherwise appear to be beyond human comprehension. In this, Malouf returns to the fundamental character of the original Homeric poem, which established the act of story-telling as an inescapably human response to the world. The universality of The Iliad lies not simply in its subject matter as an epic chronicle of war, but in the manner in which the story of this war becomes symbolic of far larger questions of experience and the ways in which individuals seek to understand them. Homer’s legacy and the clear recognition of this in a novel such as Ransom, is that the cognitive function of narrative is one of our most essential human traits.