War Music is art. Christopher Logue transformed the Iliad into a modern poem, and it’s all kinds of awesome. The story is the real deal: Heroes of old, clad in bronze, fighting for a city and for honour and most of all for an honourable way back home. And yet, it’s clearly written by somebody living in our age. Free-form poetry, modern comparisons – but all steeped in the awe of a gigantic, real, old story. I’m extremely into it. You might be too! This book might be more enjoyable when you can place all the names and comments (like “Dido might have become a grandmother / And Rome not had its day”), but it’s still a lot of fun when you’re just into the language and the story.
Of course, if you wanted to defend the choices made in creating this version of the Iliad, you could: Homer’s own work was recorded and spoken long after any (hypthentical) real Trojan war, and was similarly modernised in the retelling. Logue didn’t know Ancient Greek himself, but studied different translations and secondary literature, which seems to me nearly like a prerequisite to writing good translations – I don’t know any philologic translation that retains poetry instead of grammar.
Greek mythology – and the Iliad in particular – is steeped in pettiness, in snark, in jealousy and insults. Logue absolutely excels at these. Odysseus calling Achilles “Wondersulk” and the insults Menelaos and Achilles trade are hilarious – but things only really take off when the gods get involved. Just look at this scene where Aphrodite on the one side and Hera and Athene on the other plead with Zeus to side with them:
‘Stuff Greece,’ Love said.
‘Your blubber-bummed wife with her gobstopper nipples
Cannot stand Troy because Troy’s Paris put her last
When we stripped off for him.
As for the Ithacan boat-boy’s undercurved preceptatrix,
She hates Troy because my statue stands on its acropolis.’
Hera: ‘The cities’ whores were taxed to pay for it.’
Love (Dropping onto her knees before Himself):
‘Please … stop them harming Troy. The greatest city in the world.’
While Hera and Athene sang:
Queen of the Foaming Hole.
Mammoth or man or midge
She sucks from pole to pole.’
In many places, Logue keeps his lyrical expressions to a form that resonates with ancient works: “Briseis in their midst / Her breasts so lovely that they envy one another.” wouldn’t have been written by Homer, but I can see it in an Aristophanes comedy or a lewd Latin poem. Similarly, “And it was here that Thestor, Enop’s boy / Met that circumstance in nature / Gods call Fate, and on this day, men called Patroclus.” is just the right amount of wordplay and gravitas. And “O my Lord / Please do not fart. You are a powerful man / And perished sails blow out.” is pure Greek comedy.
And then there’s the spot-on characterisations that betray the modern grounding. What better to describe the mounting tension before a battle, than “The armies hum / As power-station outflow cables do.”. Hear “As many arrows on his posy shield / As microphones on politicians’ stands:”, and you know exactly what to picture. ‘Laid his trunk open from shoulder to hip – / Like a beauty-queen’s sash.’ is brutal, yes (the whole book shows that Logue knows how brutal and unappetising war is), and wonderfully evocative. And these modern comparisons mix very well with the epic nature of the book: Describing gods as “With faces like NO ENTRY signs they hurried through the clouds.” feels good. Or maybe my favourite example:
Picture a yacht
Canting at speed
Over ripple-ribbed sand.
Change its mast to a man,
Change its boom to a bow,
Change its sail to a shield:
And all that is hilarious and cool and fun – but don’t get me wrong: Logue also knows that he’s telling an epic history, and he does it well. An early commentary on Achilles is: “And he for whom / Fighting was breath, was bread / Remained beside his ships / And hurt his honour as he nursed his wrong.” – and when the gods decide to take an active part among humans, the poem – as it should – conveys honest awe. Logue understood the myth and produced a true translation – true in spirit, and I’m very sad it had to remain unfinished.