REVIEW: The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason is exactly what it sounds like, plus a little extra. Mason’s premise is that he is translating a newly discovered “pre-Ptolemaic papyrus” that contains early, fragmentary versions of the stories that would eventually coalesce into Homer’s Odyssey. Each of the 44 brief chapters is a “primitive” riff on a particular scene from the Iliad, the Odyssey, or occasionally a related legend, like that of Theseus or Alexander the Great. (That’s the extra part—Mason doesn’t limit his stories to Odysseus’ journey home.)

Each chapter is based on an intellectual what-if. What if Achilles was really a golem that Odysseus created? What if Odysseus was really a coward who fled the Trojan War and became a bard, embellishing his own legend? What if the Trojan War was being repeated on an endless loop? Mason simultaneously sketches these situations and brings them to life with a writing style that is compact, authoritative, and visually evocative. He has a startling knack for mimicking the incantatory, naturalistic language of Homer’s texts, and for giving his characters’ actions symbolic weight.

One night a black cloud of grief descended on Agamemnon and he fell to brooding on the apparent perfection of his ignorance, exemplified by his failure to capture a single city in years of siege though he had ten times as many men as his enemy and god-like heroes ran to do his bidding. The failure of his knowledge, he reflected, extended beyond military strategy and encompassed all the world, even unto the names of his servants, the topography of his palace and the history of the blade hanging at his side. He called together his wisest men, Nestor, Palamedes and wily Odysseus, and commissioned them to write for him a book that clearly and explicitly explained everything under the sun, even unto all the mysteries hidden within the earth, the true names of every living thing, the number of grains of sand on the Troad, the secret histories of the gods and the tumultuous futures of the stars, and to be writ fair in no more and no less than a thousand pages.

That’s from “Agamemnon and the Word,” in which Agamemnon grows increasingly frustrated by Odysseus’ failure to summarize all world knowledge. He eventually tells Odysseus to reduce the entire world to a single word, which Odysseus engraves on a ring. As Odysseus slips the ring on the old king’s finger, Agamemnon dies. It’s unclear, in Mason’s telling, whether he dies because the word (which we never learn) is satisfactory, or because the ring was secretly poisoned.

Mason’s alternate takes on Homer’s epics are a powerful reminder of the multiplicity of storytelling—all of these contradictory stories might as well be true. And although his vocabulary and his source material are rooted in the past, his book makes a cunning exploration of contemporary questions about free will, memory, and the nature of knowledge. Homer’s classic material is fresh again.


One comment

Leave a Reply