War, gods and lovers = The song of Achilles, Madeline Miller

 He lived and died, and lived again in memory.

The Trojan war, a tricky subject, because automatically your book will be compared to the Iliad, written by the greatest of Ancient Greek epic poets. Will your book match the all-time classic? Madeline Miller who studied both Latin and Ancient Greek at Brown University made an (almost) compelling attempt with her debut novel the Song of Achilles.

Greece in the age of heroes. The young prince Patroclus has been exiled to the court of King Peleus, father to the half god Achilles. The story revolves around the loving, and sexual relationship between the two princes. The sea goddess Thetis, Achilles’ mother disapproves of this relation. Achilles should concentrate on developing fighting skills, rather than making love. Thetis mainly worries about the reputation and fame of her talented son. But Achilles would not be Achilles if he needed time for such a thing as practicing, he already posesses the skills. He is the best Greek warrior who ever lived, Ariston Achaion. In the famous war against Troy both the killer weapon Achilles and the foster child Patroclus do not play an insignificant role.

Almost everyone knows, or has heard of, Achilles, a Greek hero. But does anyone know Patroclus? “Who the hell is he?” was the question that popped into my head when reading the first pages. I follow the subject ancient Greek at school and since I did not recognize Patroclus’ name, I concluded that he must be a fiction figure. We grammar-school kids are always very sure of ourselves and think we know everything. I have never heard of the guy, therefore he never existed. But for once, I was wrong.

Patroclus. It was the name my father had given me, hopefully but injudiciously, at my birth, and it tasted of bitterness on my tongue. ‘Honour of the father,’ it meant.

Homer, an author who flourished during the Classical Antiquity, has written, amongst other things, the Iliad. An epic in which he, likewise, tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus. However in his book, Patroclus is nothing more than Achilles’ nephew who joins him on the battlefield. There are no hints that can refer to any sexual contact between the two men. Instead, Achilles falls in love with Briseis, a slave girl. This is also the story that the well-known film Troy chose to tell (well-known of course, due to the extremely handsome Brad Pitt who plays Achilles).

Madeline Miller took another approach to the story of the famous hero. She stole her idea from Plato. Their theory seems very convincing to me. Because known is that, in a way, the Greeks were way ahead of us: homosexuality was fully accepted. All stories on Achilles tell us that (spoiler alert!) Patroclus was killed by Hector in the Trojan war. Also all stories tell us the reaction of Achilles on the death.

 “For me, the most compelling piece of evidence, aside from the depth of Achilles’ grief, is how he grieves: Achilles refuses to burn Patroclus’ body, insisting instead on keeping the corpse in his tent, where he constantly weeps and embraces itdespite the horrified reactions of those around him. That sense of physical devastation spoke deeply to me of a true and total intimacy between the two men.” Madeline Miller

The book was a real page turner. The plot, though not innovative, was fun and exciting. The story was told by Patroclus, something which was never done before and gave a new side to the classic epic. This gave a human side to the killer machine Achilles.

What stroke me as weird, was the unstructured use of past and present tense. Most was written in the past tense but occasionally and rather randomly the story was told in present tense.

Many agree with me when I say that there is a lack of literary depth in this book. Sentences are short and simple (like this one). Also the soft-porn touch to the book is a failed attempt to make it more exciting. The lovemaking is unconvincing, poorly written and therefore baffles the story.

Our mouths opened under each other, and the warmth of his sweetened throat poured into mine. I could not think, could not do anything but drink him in, each breath as it came, te soft movement of his lips. It was a miracle.

Because of these two reasons, multiple eyebrows have been raised by the fact that Madeline Miller won the orange book prize. How could a novel, with no significant literary value win a prize? Many questioned the modern interpretation of a good book. Does a good story weigh heavier against good literature?

A good book should of course contain both. It is the story that is fascinating and the literary depth which makes it fascinating. For me, the song of Achilles is not a good book, but neither is it bad, a book for a rainy day or a boring holiday. A book I would recommend anyone who does not love reading and just needs something accesible and fun, but I recommend the real diehards to study Ancient Greek and read the Iliad firsthand.

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