8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Monody of the Kings,
This review is from: The Songs of the Kings: A Novel (Unsworth, Barry) (Hardcover)
Songs of the Kings begins by making the reader experience a bit of weather -- the wind stranding the Greek fleet at Aulis -- as a source of existential terror. Not only is the wind felt as a breath of divine disfavor, but as a kind of projection of the deadly thugocracy of the Greek leadership. Through the consciousness of the alien priest Calchas, an earnest mystic whose life depends on the kings' favor, readers experience the Homeric heroes as a kind of Stalinist rogues' gallery who will kill anyone who crosses them. It's quite an imaginative accomplishment, sustained through many scenes, such as Odysseus' intimidation of the army's minstrel, to whom he offers a deal he can't refuse: embed our propaganda in your story or...else. (Unsworth has a gift for portraying the arrogant, self-righteous evil of men in power throughout the centuries. His murderous Venetian oligarch in Stone Virgin and vindictive slave merchant in Sacred Hunger would fit right in with the Greek leadership in Songs of the Kings.)
That said, the all-too-plausible recasting of the Greek kings as a band of vain, selfish, cold-blooded killers also strikes many false notes as it's pushed toward contemporary caricature and allegory. The kings' pious justification for 'collateral damage,' for example, breaks the illusion that we're in the grip of real thugs, as does the repetitive swearing, bickering and utter idiocy of the two Ajaxes. What rings true throughout is the priest Calchas' failed struggle to reconcile his mystic intuitions with his terror of crossing his master Agamemnon and the kings and counselors who compete to influence and manipulate the high king.
The other side of this story -- the relationship between Agamemnon's daughter Iphigeneia and her twin-like slave Sisipyla -- mirrors the strengths and weaknesses of the army scenes. The crux arises from the two teen girls' competing responses to Iphigeneia's 'duty' to go willingly to her own sacrifice (Odysseus has staged false omens to convince Agamemnon that only this sacrifice will remove the gods' disfavor and lift the wind pinning them in Aulis). Sisipyla's consciousness, like Calchas', is fully realized. A slave trained from earliest childhood to want nothing for herself and live only for and through her mistress, she comes through the crucible of the crisis to an epiphany that pierces Odysseus' self-serving propaganda. Iphigeneia, on the other hand, like the Greek kings, devolves into caricature at the crux, becoming simply another ruler who disappears into the myth of her own divinely-ordained destiny.
Song of the Kings imagines slaves and servants with vibrant sympathy but reduces its ruling class characters to two-dimensional tyrants. It's a powerful, but ultimately monocular, parable of power.