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The Songs of the Kings: A Novel

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This description may be from another edition of this product. A brilliant retelling of an ancient myth, The Songs of the Kings offers up a different narrative of the Trojan War, one devoid of honor, wherein the mission to rescue Helen is a pretext for plundering...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

Hooray for Barry Unsworth

In 'The Songs of the Kings' Barry Unsworth proves that sometimes the best way to make social commentary and really get people to listen is to disguise it. Coming out of his amazing story you find yourself pondering questions that are quite relevant in today's world (especially in the political arena). How far are we willing to go? Who is, ultimately, capable of deciding between what is right and what is wrong? Who should be responsible for decisions like that when the outcome will effect countless numbers of people? Regardless of where you fall in the political spectrum these questions are crucial to the world today, and Barry Unsworth does an excellent job of steering you toward them without trying to answer them for you. Through the re-telling of Greek myth Unsworth has crafted a relevant, thoughtful piece of literature which will remain with you long after you turn the last page.

A rousing and thought-provoking success

A modern retelling of a crucial episode in the Trojan War saga seems an exercise in extreme audacity, even for so accomplished and honored an author as Barry Unsworth. Yet Mr. Unsworth plows this ground with well-honed verbal and cerebral tools. Iphigenia and her story have never been so well-served. Odysseus has never been so well-skewered. The novel begins with the Greek troop ships wind-deprived and stalled in harbor. Primarily through the perspective of an insecure seer, Calchas, we see the cynical machinations that Odysseus, Achilles, and others employ to control both the troops and their own supposed leaders. The parallels to current events are inevitable, but never strained. As the fate of Iphigenia emerges, the author skillfully interweaves convincing portraits of characters both familiar and of his own imaginative creation. Unsworth's infusion of modern language strikes exactly the right tone, providing judicious reminders of the timelessness of the human themes embedded in the age-old story. Simultaneously, he punctures the heroic conceits that always accompany war and are used to justify it. Like sausages and laws, the making of war cannot often withstand scrutiny, and scrutiny (and entertainment) of the best and most creative kind is what this novel provides.

Should be required reading for today's madness

As previous reviewers have noted, Unsworth is particularly reliant on Euripedes' Iphigenia at Aulis as inspiration for his retellling of the events prior to the "Greek" army sailing for Troy. Like Euripedes, Unsworth shares a cynicism toward men in power, and toward the making of history. In this novel, the cynicism and revisionism is deeper than in Euripedes' version, closer to what Euripedes does in Iphigenia at Tauris or in Helen, where he presents the causes for the calamities of the Oresteia and the Trojan War as tricks of the gods: in the first, Iphigenia is spirited away and a goat sacrificed in her stead (Unsworth cannily includes a historically-materialist foundation for this myth at the end; in the latter, Menelaus, washed ashore in Egypt on his return from the war, discovers Helen residing there, safe and chaste -- a cloud in her form went to Troy with Paris -- 10 years of madness, the founding myth of Greece (and Europe?), fought for an illusion. I am reminded of "The Songs of the Kings" and of Euripedes everyday in news from Iraq.Unsworth's depiction of political infighting is first rate; even better is his depiction of the priest Calchas' struggle with his two nemeses, Croton, the patriarchal anti-"Asian" priest of Zeus, and the unnamed Singer, whose "songs of the kings" )that will become the Iliad and Odyssey) are influenced by bribes, threats, and motives known only to himself. Here we see the age-old conflict over the proper way to "tell the truth" about history. Calchas, a surprising choice for a tragic hero, seems the moral center of the story for the most part, even as he is trodden under the heels of history. But his fight with the Singer, the fight of "objective" history against the "lies" of fiction and poetry, remain in the heads of all responsible journalists, historians, novelists, poets and other "singers" to this day.The multiple catastrophes that will follow the sacrifice of Iphigenia and the destruction of Troy come about as a combination of petulance (Menelaus), first class realpolitik in the service of personal promotion (Odysseus), religious zealotry and misogyny (Croton), bureaucratic timeservers, and, finally, the adolescent narcissism of Iphigenia herself. As with Arendt's portrait of Eichmann, petty personal vices add up to political evil.Also important is Unsworth's granting, in post-modern/Brechtian/Benjaminian/whatever fashion, of granting voice to the voiceless of the age of myth. Perhaps his most important creation is the character none of the previous reviewers have seen fit to mention -- Sisipyla, Iphigenia's servant and confidante, a teen-aged outsider who is as good at the mental chess of politics and public relations ("Has there ever been a difference?" is an implicit question of the novel) as Odysseus. It is finally here, the voice completely excluded from the classic tales, that Unsworth allows a glimpse of hope for humanity, even if it's only the cussedness to try to preserve oneself in the midst

No Wine-dark Sea here

Bound by unfavorable winds, the Greek fleet lies at Aulis waiting to sail for Troy. Mad King Agamemnon, wily and treacherous Ulysses, preening Achilles, priapic Menelaus, corruptible Homer - they are all there, ready to plunder and loot Troy (forget about beautiful Helen). The winds are the fault of Agamemnon; he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia.And so, throughout the book, they sit at Aulis, getting restless, producing major intrigues and nasty happenings. Croton, the fundamentalist soothsayer, wins out over Calchas, the diviner. The military are about to mutiny. Everybody gambles with the riches they are certain to obtain at Troy.You could read the book as a supreme satire on modern times, replacing the Greek scoundrels with those now on the scene in Washington, DC. A roman a clef, so to speak.. Taken from that angle it is great joy, devastating and so well written.But read as a modern rendition of the story of Iphigeneias on Aulis , putting a temporary slant on Euripides, it lacks greatness of spirit of the original. If a new tale of the Odyssey is asked for, there is the incredible "Modern Odyssey" by NIkos Kazantzakis.

Bold Triumph

Barry Unsworth's imagination has carried him successfully in many directions, as disparate as a Renaissance Italian sculptor's workshop, the deck of Lord Nelson's battleship, the hold of an English slave ship, and the rented villas of contemporary Umbria, but his new setting comes as a surprise.Traversing the plot laid out in Euripides' late masterpiece "Iphigeneia in Aulis," he sets his scene on the vast beach where the Greek armies are prevented from setting sail for the conquest of Troy by a mysterious wind, which apparently can be deflected only by the sacrifice of the daughter of Commander-in-Chief King Agamemnon. Unsworth brilliantly does two things simultaneously. On the one hand, he makes us feel as if we are coming to know people long familiar to us better than ever: now at last we see Menelaus, whose wife Helen has run off with the Trojan Paris, as short, bandy-legged, vulgar, and racist; we see Homer as the man who can shape reputations and is therefore unduly powerful, and perhaps willing to trade on that power, and we see him at a time when he is just falling into his legendary blindness. On the other hand, he turns the fable into a satire on present-day political life with strikingly relevant implications for the second Gulf war. Much of the power, and the humor, derives from the fidelity of Unsworth's details to his historical and literary sources. The wily Odysseus, for instance, inciting another character to one of his schemes, will urge, "Strike while the bronze is hot!" The Songs of the Kings is brilliant and delightful; it should put its author in line for a second Booker Prize.
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