Tag Archives: The Iliad

Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton 2018)

Pat Barker is one of the great war novelists. Mostly she has written about the wars of the 20th century, most notably in her Regeneration trilogy. The Silence of the Girls goes back to the first war story in western literature, and tackles the Trojan War. She’s not the first to do so: in recent years, David Malouf’s novel Ransom focuses on the episode where King Priam begs Achilles to hand over the corpse of his son, Hector, and Alice Oswald’s stunning book of poetry Memorial  excavates the Iliad, consisting mainly of translations of the death scenes. The Silence of the Girls tells Achilles’ part of the story, mostly from the point of view of his trophy slave Briseis.

Some readers have complained that though the book sets out to tell the story of the women, whose voices are unheard in the original text, the men’s stories are still central and much more interesting than the women’s. I don’t see it that way. I think the book sets out to tell the story of Achilles, bringing to bear Briseis’ perspective as a non-combatant who is generally regarded as a prize rather than as fully human. I don’t think Pat Barker sets out to subvert the tale of Achilles’ heroics and passions so much as to contextualise them and enrich our understanding of them.

There are a couple of pages in The Silence of the Girls¬†describing the deaths of individuals at Achilles’ hands that I would have assumed were Pat Barker’s invention if I hadn’t read Alice Oswald’s filleted translation (yes, I haven’t actually read the Iliad): the original makes the brutality of warfare viscerally explicit. What Barker does add is Briseis’ imaginings of how the slain men’s mothers must have seen them as children. The book asks, and sets out to answer, not so much the plaintive question, ‘What about the women?’ as the much more interesting ones, ‘Where were the women and what did they think about it all?’

The result is brilliant. I cried a lot.

Alice Oswald’s Memorial

Alice Oswald, Memorial: An excavation of the Iliad (Faber & Faber 2011)

0571274161Introducing his translation of The Divine Comedy, Clive James reminded us that it wasn’t just a story, but a poem. In creating her ‘excavation’ of the Iliad, Alice Oswald leaves the story out altogether. In a way, that makes the book a perfect companion to the Marvel comics Iliad (though I may be unfair in assuming that Marvel just tells the story: comics have come a long way since I was an avid reader of Classics Illustrated comics).

So what is left of Homer’s epic of the Trojan War if you take out the narrative? The short answer is: a powerful lament / memorial for the slain, interspersed with lyrical evocations of the natural world, Homer’s similes cut loose from the things they refer to. The whole poem is presented here, the author tells us in her introduction, as ‘a kind of oral cemetery’: where you would expect to find a table of contents there are eight pages of single names, in capital letters, one name to a page, so by the time you reach the first poem, which begins

The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus __Iton __Peteleus __Antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushing out clawing her face

it’s as if you’ve already been strolling among the tombs. What follows, page after page, is heartbreaking and beautiful, like the AIDS quilt. Every war should have its narrative stripped away like this.

Actually, that’s all I want to say.

Alice Oswald won the Warwick Prize for Memorial last year. She read the final section of the book at the award presentation. You can watch it here. You don’t have to worry about spoilers: everyone named in capital letters dies.