The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
31 December, 2012
A single fragment is all that survives of the forty-fifth book of the Odyssey:
Odysseus, finding that his reputation for trickery preceded him, started inventing histories for himself and disseminating them wherever he went. This had the intended effect of clouding perceptions and distorting expectation, making it easier for him to work as he was wont, and the unexpected effect that one of his lies became, with minor variations, the Odyssey of Homer.
I’ve read some stonkingly good books this year, a good number of which were to do with the Greek myths, and I wasn’t really expecting to come across anything else that would astound me. A number of you had recommended I read The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason in the comments (thank you!) and I’d put it on my wishlist thinking I’d get to it at some point. Serendipitously, I found it at my local library and decided to have a quick look one bath time. And I couldn’t stop reading it. For a debut, it’s exceptionally accomplished and it read just like the Canongate Myth series. I had to keep closing the book just to check it wasn’t by Atwood or Winterson, it was that smooth.
Mason takes the idea that the Odyssey is in fact a compilation of stories taken from a far larger collection, many of them now lost. And so he gives us 42 short tales about Odysseus; the straight, the fantastic and the improbable, often borrowing ideas from the generic short story tradition and yet creating something completely new. Differing in length, some only a few pages long, they provide a complex, playful and often contrasting view of the wily warrior, Athena’s favourite.
If I had to choose, my two favourite tales are A Night in the Woods which injects a hint of lycanthropy into Odysseus’ romance with Penelope which was a nice, sweet twist and provided a believable provenance to their famous marriage bed.
And the other is Epiphany about Odysseus’ complex and bittersweet relationship with Athena.
She spoke to me often, manifesting as a brother warrior, or in the cry of a seagull, or in the crash of waves, or very rarely as herself, a tall severe woman with a long thin face whose skin was so pale it seemed to glow. Our discussions were mostly concrete – she would tell me not to leave my tent that night, or to seek aout a certain Trojan in the fray, or what lie to tell or inanity to feign to survive the next few hours.
I just love the idea that Athena appears to Odysseus in such different guises and not just in her physcial form.
It’s a very clever collection, beautifully written and I strongly recommend it to anyone who has even a slight interest in the Greek myths. Especially if you’ve watched the crappy film Troy. Together with Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, it’ll be a great palate cleanser.
And here’s an interesting article on Mason.