THE SONG OF THE KINGS
Barry Unsworth, . . Doubleday/Talese, $26 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-385-50114-9
Provocative and subversive, Unsworth's new novel rewrites ancient history to show how a wily, ambitious and power-hungry man can distort the truth, convince the masses to support him and incite his country to wage war. It's an audacious blending of myth with sharp contemporary resonance. The setting is Aulis in 1260 B.C., where unfavorable winds are keeping the fleet of the Greek expeditionary force (actually a motley assemblage of hostile and predatory tribes loosely united under Agamemnon) from setting out to capture Troy. The pretext is revenge for the "rape" of Helen by Paris, but Agamemnon and such tribal leaders as Achilles and Odysseus are, in fact, lusting for the fabled treasures of Troy, spoils of war that each man, down to the most common soldier, yearns to possess. Unsworth (
Unsworth's narrative method is as daring as his message; his prose is a mixture of classic cadences and contemporary vernacular, animated by beautifully descriptive vignettes and bawdy humor. He uses a minor figure, Calchas the diviner, as the means through which the reader understands the political machinations that create the illusion of a just war. "People intent on war always need a story, and the singers always provide one.... What [this] is really about is gold and copper and cinnamon and jade and slaves and timber," Calchas says. "It is the stories told by the strong, the songs of kings, that are believed in the end."
Reviewed on: 02/17/2003