Dragonflies by Grant Buday. Biblioasis; 165 pp; $19.95. Review: Michael Carbert
One of the curious things about The Iliad is how no attention is given to the actual fall of Troy or to the Trojan Horse, how it was conceived and why the Trojans fell for the ruse. Instead that part of the story is left to Virgil’s Aeneid written some 700 years later. But in re-imagining the fall of Troy in his intriguing new novel Dragonflies, author Grant Buday proves as interested in creating a compelling portrait of the character Odysseus, the book’s narrator, as he is in filling in the details Homer and Virgil left out. The novel’s chief success is its conjuring up a genuine human character from the mythological hero, an Odysseus as humane as he is heroic, as psychologically complex as any contemporary protagonist.
The story opens with Odysseus bitterly ruminating on the ten years lost to a quest that, thus far, has proved futile. He is often distracted by painful memories of the home and family he has left behind, and his reflections and insights, of himself as much as others, are strikingly contemporary in their psychological acumen. Amplifying the novel’s realism is Odysseus’s recording of physical details which undermine the classical ideals presented in the original. This is no impressive legion of perfect heroes in gleaming armour laying siege to Troy, but a confused horde of demoralized men, reduced to eating rats to stave off starvation. Desertions are commonplace and many of those who remain are wounded, disfigured, diminished. As Odysseus, himself hampered by a ruined knee, a bad back, and broken toes, tells us, “None of us stands, sits, or reaches for a cup of water without a groan.”
Adding to the novel’s sense of realism for contemporary readers is Odysseus’s sceptical attitude towards the gods. He remains unimpressed by his companions’ ability to read signs in thunderstorms or shooting stars.
“The origins of fire, the secrets of the stars, these are eminently intriguing topics – Hermes dashing about with messages – but I don’t believe that every light in the sky, every glow in the sea, every snake that crosses your path is a mystery or a portent. Sometimes things are only things, a rock a rock, a skull a bit of bone. And who knows, the gods but idle ghosts.”
But despite being regarded as something of a dangerous misfit for such eccentric, if not blasphemous, thoughts, Odysseus is the one chosen to devise an ending to this miserable siege. Inspired by memories of his beloved son and his enthusiasm for fishing, Odysseus decides the key to victory lies in offering the Trojans a prize they cannot resist.
“Fish are lured by worms. Horses by apples. A buzzard by carrion. Achaeans love their boats. The Trojans? In their hearts they’re people of the plains, with their backs to the sea and their faces to the steppe, toward Cappodoccia, Persia, India, and therefore it’s obvious that they prize nothing above the horse.”
Fast-paced and beautifully written, Dragonflies adds a welcome dimension of vivid realism to the original story. Buday even gives an erotic twist to the final scene of Troy’s destruction, something provocative and unexpected when Helen is “rescued” by the Greeks. Dragonflies, while being an admirable work in its own right, serves as an effective introduction for those who have yet to read The Iliad and The Odyssey, a satisfying appetizer for Homer’s sumptuous banquet. I admit to coming to the epics at a rather late stage of my education (Discovering Robert Fitzgerald’s excellent translations was the key.) and a book like Buday’s may have spurred me to read the epics much sooner than I did. Highly recommended.