The Lost Books of the Odyssey – Zachary Mason
In terms of originality, I think that The Lost Books of the Odyssey is the best example I’ve read so far this year. Obviously, that’s with the caveat that the actual story is about three millennia away from being original. The premise is that the due to the Oral nature of Homer’s epics, the version of the Odyssey that has survived is not necessarily the only version that has survived. This links into a number of ideas I’m particularly fond of, so I was quite excited about the book.
That said, I’m always a little sceptical of books that claim to be translations of recently discovered ancient texts, something that The Lost Books of the Odyssey is guilty of. However, unlike Wilbur Smith and Dan Brown, I don’t think that Mason is intending anything other than underlining a point with this statement, because it becomes abundantly clear that not all of them could have fit in with rest of the story. We have, for example, a character appearing to be Odysseus suffering in a hospital while a war rages on around him, appearing more reminiscent of World War One than the Trojan War. Another story that features Odysseus, Nestor, and Palamades being sent by an insane Agamemnon sending them out from his gargantuan underground mirror-image of Troy on an aeons long quest for the meaning of life that evokes Arabian or Hindu legend, rather than Hellenic. So while the conceit is maintained, it works in the context of the story and doesn’t pretend to add anything new to the truth, rather to tell new stories.
Despite claiming to belong to the Odyssey, a fair proportion of the vignettes are taken from the period of the Iliad, particularly focusing on Achilles and less frequently Agamemnon. However, all of them share the fact that Odysseus is central to all of them, For instance, it is Odysseus that solves Agamemnon’s demand in the story mentioned above, and it is Odysseus that, in an effort to teach Achilles some humility, locks him in a cave for a week, driving him insane. There were even a few that went beyond that, dating to Odysseus’ youth, or his courtship with Penelope (or in one instance, Helen). One of the better ones was also the earliest, which was more connected with the myth of Theseus and Ariadne, tying this into the Odyssey in a really emotional way.
There were a lot of common themes between the vignettes, but all of them were presented well. For example, there were quite a few variations where Odysseus, for various reasons, decided not to return to Ithaca, stopping at various points during the familiar journey. Similarly, we have Odysseus returning home to find that Penelope was less faithful to him than he had imagined she would. The best, I felt, were the ones where Odysseus forgot or forsook his identity. A particularly good example was the story that had Odysseus travelling east to make a living as an anonymous poet, rather than returning home, using his own reputation as a basis for series of imaginative stories.
There were a few oddities in regards to word choice or spelling throughout. Though unfortunately I can’t remember any off the top of my head, it was along the lines of using S instead of Z, or similar letter substitutions. They were so egregious that it’s hard to imagine they were unintentional, but quite what Mason was trying to evoke through his use of them, I don’t know.
If you’ve ever read the Odyssey or any Hellenic Mythology, and are interested in unconventional literature, then I’d definitely recommend giving The Lost Books of the Odyssey a read. It’s reinvigorated my interest in the topic, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for Zachary Mason’s future works. If they’re half as creative as this, they’ll be brilliant.