Greek glory turned to madness

The Baltimore Sun

The Fall of Troy

By Peter Ackroyd

Nan A. Talese / Doubleday / 224 pages / $23

Did Troy resemble Homer's description in the Iliad? Heinrich Obermann says, "Yes." His youthful wife, Sophia, isn't so sure. Then two scholars investigate Obermann's archaeological findings. From there, the plot of Peter Ackroyd's The Fall of Troy takes several unexpected twists.

Known for his innovative writing style, Ackroyd is a prolific British author who's received numerous awards - including the Whitbread Biography Award, the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize for Fiction (shortlist).

Looking at the nature of time, coincidence, history and art, his work is a pastiche. It fuses fact and invention as well as present and past while mixing in snippets of fiction and poetry.

So it's no surprise that Ackroyd would do almost all of the above in his latest, which, however, is set in Turkey, not London. The story features Obermann, a showy archaeologist, in a thinly disguised retelling of Heinrich Schliemann's 19th-century excavations at what he considered to be the site of the Trojan War. Focusing on Schliemann's work at Hissarlik, Ackroyd unites stories told in Homer's Iliad with actual events occurring during the 1870s as he portrays a man who goes from obsession to insanity.

According to biographers and his own diaries, Schliemann was passionate about proving the historical accuracy of Homer's account of the Trojan War but didn't take his passion quite to the point of insanity. Obermann does reach that point, especially when Homer's historical accuracy is questioned: "If Homer is wrong," Obermann insists, "then I am wrong. This is wrong. Troy is wrong. Everything is wrong. Everything is desolate and gone."

A veritable bull in a china shop, Obermann shovels 30 or more feet below the surface digging for evidence of Priam's castle, Athene's temple, and The Great Tower, as well as the houses and streets of the ancient city of Troy. Meanwhile he inadvertently destroys layers of earlier civilizations that may contain actual Trojan artifacts by piling dirt into mounds that are washed away in the rain.

Ackroyd tells the story mostly from Sophia's point of view, although readers never quite get inside her head, as she frets about her husband's mental state as well as his thinning hair and middle-aged spread. A dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, she is in her 20s when she marries the wealthy, eccentric Obermann, who is in his 50s and can pay a large dowry.

She finds him gauche and too outspoken, especially about personal concerns like bowel habits. Even though she helps him with his archaeological work, she doesn't enjoy the primitive circumstances - the mud, the dust, the bedbugs and the snakes.

More importantly, she catches him in several lies and begins to wonder about the veracity of his statements. Did Obermann's deceased father actually teach him a love for Homer - as Obermann says - or did a stranger who frequented a grocery store where Obermann worked inspire that love - as Obermann also says?

The big question concerns Obermann's first marriage, which Sophia discovers accidentally.

When she meets Maria Skopeli, a close friend of Obermann's and a woman gifted with possible supernatural powers who is given to fits of insanity and blood-curdling screams, Sophia's discontent mounts. Soon she suspects that Maria is Obermann's first wife, who he says committed suicide after he divorced her.

Meanwhile, Sophia observes Obermann as his judgment becomes increasingly suspect. When evidence of cannibalism shows up, he insists that it must be incorrect since it doesn't gel with his beliefs about the grandeur of Homeric heroes. He incorrectly ascribes the writing on clay tablets to Homer's Troy rather than to Egypt and Assyria. When Obermann insists that the story is more important than the fact (one can almost hear Ackroyd making the same statement), he initiates a conflict, which ultimately calls down divine revenge on those who have committed wrongs.

Obermann also faces many mundane difficulties including thievery by Turkish workers, who steal artifacts; interference from the Turkish authorities to prevent Obermann from taking their national treasures; superstitious villagers, who think Obermann is defiling sacred territory; and meddling by American and British scholars, who contend that Obermann is falsifying his findings to make them consistent with Homer's account. Bad weather - storms, floods, earthquakes, and Olympian-size thunderbolts - add to Obermann's problems as does Sophia's flirtation with two visiting scholars.

Ackroyd weaves these elements together with allusions to Jane Eyre as well as A Midsummer Night's Dream. There are several not-too-subtle references to Charlotte Bronte's Mrs. Rochester vis-a-vis Obermann's Russian wife. There are also references to Titania, another dark beauty, whose husband, Oberon, fairy king in A Midsummer Night's Dream, deceives her with the help of a servant boy, as does Obermann. It's also hard not to note the similarity between the names Oberon and Obermann. Part of the fun of reading Ackroyd is deciphering allusions and determining what's real and what's imagined.

Although the characterization at times is as skimpy as the plot is busy, since Ackroyd crams so much action into 200-plus pages, this adventure-packed novel brings history - both real and imagined - to life. As the book casts its inexorable spell, Hissarlik gradually becomes a place, like (Ackroyd's) London, where gods and men, supernatural and natural, meet, however briefly.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University.

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