Trojan War dusted off, polished well

By David J. Jacobs
Times Union
September 3, 1989

Troy by Richard Matturro
Walker & Co., 1989

“Boy, that’s deep stuff,” says my friend, spotting a copy of The Iliad next to my word processor. ” “It just seems deep,” I say, “because we don’t connect with the way things were so long ago. Actually, it’s a socko story, a ‘Rambo’ with class. You know, an epic, like ‘Casey at the Bat.’ ”

I admit that’s a kind of wild pitch, but I’m trying hard here for a breakthrough. Getting people these days to enjoy an epic about Achilles and his team is like it would be to get an ancient Greek or Roman to dig an epic about the mighty Casey.

Yet my pitch was not all that wild. Sure, the substance, the language, the metrics are worlds and ages apart, yet the ancient story of the Trojan War and “Casey at the Bat” share unexepcted similarities: Each is meant to be read aloud; each is a good yarn people like to hear over and over, the way children never tire of the same nursery rhymes; each, with its own poetic diction and baggage of fact and myth peculiar to its own time and own mores, is about an epic conflict with a hero larger than life who, after all the alarums and excursions, strikes out.

Those who’ve never developed a tasted for Greek and Roman classics, and even those who have, will find Troy, by Richard Matturro of Stephentown, a good read. A scholar and teacher of Shakespeare and the Greeks and Romans, he makes the ancient story of the Trojan War nearly as accessible to the contemporary consciousness as “Casey at the Bat.”

He clearly knows Homer’s and Virgil’s greatness lies in how their words sing and reveal meanings; how, for all their celebrations of heroes, they have no illusions about how high the price of glory, and how their sensitivity to the earthly condition never lets the clouds stand in the way of a good story. Their gods, for all their divinity, are as consistent and capricious as any earthling, including heroes who seem to approach divinity. Achilles, epical warrior and epical sulker, is a hotshot one day, a heel the next. And for all their loftiness, these epics are troves of worldly detail – how meat is roasted, battles fought, games played, and the dead buried.

Troy, the first novel by Matturro, director of library services for The Times Union, is the issue of a happy marriage between this ancient voice and present-day narrative. Yet despite its tight structure, its movie-like graphicness, and other differences between its concise modern prose and the expansive, heroic poetry, it keeps faith with the spirit and substance of its classic sources.

(My Penguin translation of “The Iliad” runs 459 pages, covering just one episode in the ninth year of the 10-year war – Achilles’ petulant refusal to fight and his return to battle. Matturro’s Troy, in just 247 pages, covers the whole saga from the abduction of Helen by Paris to the Greeks’ sack of Troy.)

With such epics as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid mined over the centuries for poems, operas, and plays, their personae have along the way grown larger than life and less than human. Matturro, by investing these marble statues with flesh and blood, and bringing them down to earth, elevates our interest in them and their story.

Helen of Troy, for instance, has become fixed in our collective memory as the mythical embodiment of ideal beauty with a face that launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium. Matturro’s Helen still is a great beauty, but a very human one, “just a girl from Sparta.” His towers of Ilium are impressive, but hardly topless; His ships are “the largest assemblage of seagoing vessels since shipbuilding had been practiced…” but “there were not a thousand ships, as the poets have said, nor even half that many…” And, while they were launched in the name of Helen’s rescue, it also was true that Troy, at the sea boundary between Europe and Asia, was a great economic and strategic prize.

This is not simple myth-bashing. It’s cutting the fatty hyperbole down to specific truths sizable enough to be epical and believable at the same time.

This is exemplified in Matturro’s treatment of the Iphigenia lengend, over the stuff of major works about how ambition, fear, and vanity can drive men to extremes. Euripides in the 4th Century B.C. rendered it into a blisteringly realistic play, and 2,000 years later, Gluck, fusing drama and music in his “Iphigenie en Aulide,” transformed the nature of operatic style. Matturro simply integrates the story into his novel as an essential episode in its development.

It is played out at the port of Aulis where armies from states all over Greece assemble on their way to Troy to rescue Helen, seduced and abuducted by Paris, son of Trojan King Priam. Helen is the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta and younger brother of Agamemnon, king of the most powerful state, Mycenae, and leader of the Greek forces. The armada is pinned down by unfavorable winds the prophet, Calchas, says are sent by Artemis, goddess of the moon and protector of animals. He tells Agamemnon that Artemis is furious with him for killing a stag, her most sacred beast, and will allow no favorable wind to blow until he pays her back by killing the person nearest and dearest to him, his daughter, Iphigenia.

Even though Matturro compresses the legend to just seven pages, it still comes across as a story of transcendent horror. But it also advances the larger narrative, sets tone, establishes character, and with bits of unobtrusive expositon clarifies the nature of that time and place to help our modern minds understand how and why these ancient people acted as they did.

And then there’s the great climax. Even with today’s cultural poverty, who doesn’t know the story of the hollow horse that enabled the Greeks to sack Troy? As far as I know, this is always told, as in the second book of Virgin’s Aeneid, from the point of view of those outside the horse. Matturro does that, too, but at the same adds a fresh touch to the old story by taking us inside the Trojan Horse.

We see and feel what it must have been like for the 10 Greeks crammed into that nearly airless and unbearably hot little space from where the slightest sound could have brought down on them the wrath of Troy. It’s like a scene from one of those movie submarine classics about men trapped in the depths beneath enemy ships.

“You know,” I told my friend, “a book that can call to mind not only ‘Rambo,’ ‘Casey at the Bat’ and ‘Das Boot,’ to boot, can’t be all that deep.”