Chatto & Windus: London
Peter Ackroyd’s Fall of Troy is a fascinating and beautifully written novel that is almost impressionistic in its depiction of a man moving from obsession to madness in his quest to prove the accuracy Homer’s The Iliad. The novel takes as its point of reality the real life adventures of Heinrich Schliemann, and his quest for Troy and the gold of Priam in the 1870s.
Like the real-life Schliemann, the novel opens with the protagonist, entrepreneur and self-styled archaeologist Heinrich Obermann, marrying a young Greek woman, Sophia Chrysanthis (Schliemann’s Greek bride was Sophia Engastromenos) and much of the story is told from her viewpoint.
Obermann passion is to prove that the Troy of The Iliad is to be found on the western plains of Turkey at Hissarlik—virtually overlooking the Aegean Sea. He not only is driven to prove every archaeological detail included inThe Iliad, but he desperately needs to prove that the defenders of Troy were part of the Western tradition of civilization—not the (as he sees it) barbaric traditions of the East. To this end, Obermann, like a tragic figure in Homer, moves to and beyond the brink of madness. His selective interpretations of discoveries at Hissarlik and his unwillingness to consider alternative analyses begin to frighten those around him—especially Sophia, who in the process of living out a loveless existence becomes an accomplished excavator, resigns herself to her fate.
When Harvard professor William Brand visits the site for an extended period and with increasing frequency questions Obermann’s conclusions, he is one day found dead—under somewhat suspicious circumstances—in a nearby cave thought to be either enchanted or cursed, according to the indigenous people of the area. Following a near-pagan funeral to assuage the fears and superstitions of the local population, Obermann Commits Brand’s ashes to the Aegean and observes chillingly, “He was a charming man, but his archaeology was not perfect.”
Not long after the Brand interlude, the site is again visited by an outside expert, this time British Museum epigrapher, Alexander Thornton. Thornton not only begins to take a more than platonic interest in Sophia, but he discovers clay tablets with an early form of writing etched on them that seems much closer to Egyptian or Assyrian scripts. This does not square with Obermann’s need to believe the Trojans were proto-Greeks. To make matters far worse for Obermann’s increasingly fragile grip on reality is the discovery—again by Thornton—of a child’s skeletal remains which clearly show signs of cannibalism. When the remains turn to dust with exposure to sun and open air, Obermann denies the skeleton ever existed. Sophia and Thornton realize that the fate of Brand could be theirs as Obermann’s break with sanity becomes ever more clear.
This elegant little novel—it’s only 215 pages in length—is rich is description, psychological insight and masterfully understated plotting. It has not as yet been published in the United States, but will be soon, one hopes. In the meantime it is available through Amazon (UK). The Fall of Troy easily deserves four trowels!