cover image An Iliad

An Iliad

Alessandro Baricco, , trans. from italian by Ann Goldstein. . Knopf, $21 (158pp) ISBN 978-0-307-26355-1

Baricco made his name internationally with his debut, Silk (1997), and has since released three more well-received novels, most recently the war-themed Without Blood (2004). This prose retelling of the Iliad is sure to top them all. Baricco eliminates the appearances of the gods, adds an ending chapter (borrowed from the Odyssey ) that recounts the famous incident of the wooden horse and the sack of Troy and—an ingenious touch—tells the story from the first-person viewpoint of various participants: Odysseus, Thersites, Nestor, Achilles. The famed physicality and violence of the poem are here ("the bronze tip... cut the tongue cleanly at the base, came out through the neck"), and Baricco doesn't sentimentalize the story—easy to do, especially with Helen.

The larger plot remains: Agamemnon insults Achilles, the best warrior on the Achaean (Greek) side, who then refuses to further serve, which allows the Trojans to rally under their greatest warrior, King Priam's son, Hector. Achilles' best friend, Patroclus, receives Achilles' permission to help the Greeks, but is killed in battle. Achilles returns to the battlefield, succeeds in isolating Hector underneath the walls of Troy and strikes him down. Finally, Priam goes to Achilles' tent and begs for the body of his son, and Achilles grants his return.

Medieval versions of the Iliad story conceived it in chivalrous terms, but Baricco conveys the real story, an epic of harsh dealings, small treacheries and large vanities. He adds only a few modern reflections to the character's thoughts: old Nestor, for instance, plays with the paradox that the young have an "old idea of war," which entails honor, beauty and glory, while the old take up new ways to fight simply in order to win. In an afterword, Baricco states that "this is not an ordinary time to read the Iliad," and his book is more than a pasteurized version of a great poem. It is a variation, and a very moving one, on timeless Homeric themes. (Aug.)