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The Hour Before Dawn


We are in the pause before war, days of deceptive calm. The Greek ships, en route for Troy, are trapped in the harbor at Aulis by an unseasonable, inexplicable wind. Calchas is a diviner, at present in favor with King Agamemnon, the Greek commander in chief. As the futile hours pass, he seeks a chance to exercise his skill. For six days the wind combs the shrubs; pebbles rattle along the shore. The whole army waits for an omen, for some indication of why their enterprise is arrested. The English novelist Barry Unsworth directs his reader’s attention to liminal states, the hour just before sunrise, “a time disputed between Hecate and Helius”; times of fading light, when sticks are gathered for a divinatory fire, and a lamp burns in the mouth of a cave. We hear the distant howling of wolves, the snapping of the canvas of the tents; the army itself is a murmur on the wind, its discontents carrying, like the odors of the ill-sited latrines, to where the King reclines in his cushioned tent.

The army needs distractions, sideshows. Trivial disputes are blowing up into tribal quarrels, fought out by champions. Ajax the Larger and Ajax the Lesser are organizing games; too mean to give money prizes, they decide the victors will be crowned with leaves, a novel idea that attracts some derision. The men are betting on the outcome of the games, gambling on their future as looters. They have no currency but the promised spoils of Troy. They are not a reluctant army but have no solidarity. Each man is driven by individual greed. Agamemnon’s power is fragile. He is chief by temporary agreement, and if he is in charge he has to take the blame for what goes wrong—even if he can’t help it. A contrary wind can’t be simple coincidence; the Greeks don’t think like that. The fleet is trapped because someone has offended the gods. That “someone” must be at the top; if the expedition is blighted, it must be because of what Agamemnon has done, knowingly or otherwise. The gods are not interested in intention; they punish a person’s deeds or derelictions regardless of the motivation behind them.

The ostensible reason for war is Helen’s abduction by the Trojan Paris; but no one except her husband, Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother, believes she was taken away by force. Unsworth follows Euripides’ version; this is a story about war, not blighted love. In the Greek camp there is a blind Singer, who must rehearse every day the original offense, keep it fresh in the minds of the soldiers. For Chasimenos, the bureaucrat, there is a crude, plain agenda:

The conquest of Troy will give Mycenae, as the most powerful member of the alliance, rule over the shores of western Asia…. It will secure for us the trade in amber from the Baltic, in copper and tin from northern Anatolia and in the gold that comes down through Thrace. Control of the straits will fall into our hands, we will be able to levy dues on all the shipping that passes through into the Euxine Sea.

Odysseus, the cleverest member of the party, the one who best understands the power of words, has his own purpose: nation-building. What does it mean to be Greek? “This is a nation waiting to be born…. On the plains of Troy we shall fight under one banner.”

But now that the fleet has embarked, war has become its own justification. The original reasons for the enterprise come second to the leaders’ need to look good. Just for now, confined and quarreling, they are more in need of gaining approval from each other than from any external source. Menelaus—a nasty little blusterer, whose chief recreation is rape—gets his opinions from the gutter, explains them in gutter language. “Asians stink…. Their houses are like pigsties.”

Given time, he soaks up, like some barkeeper’s sponge, the richer lees of hypocrisy. When he is squeezed, out oozes a justification for his vicious purpose: the Greeks are going to fight the war to benefit the Trojans:

…We could bring light into their darkness. I mean, we are streets ahead of them, especially in metalwork and catapults. We have a duty towards these people. Once the territory has been occupied and the troublemakers rounded up—I don’t believe in leniency towards those responsible for the war, I have every intention of personally hanging Paris up by his balls—we could set about civilizing the population and changing their ways…. I see it as a mission.

Like Euripides, Unsworth shows men “as they are,” not “as they ought to be.” Like Euripides, he will show us a women’s world which is intimate, which has a psychological reality—whereas his men do not communicate, but rather make speeches at one another. It is as if communication has been hived off and made the province of Odysseus, the spin doctor.

Barry Unsworth is a veteran of the historical novel. Sacred Hunger, a novel about the slave trade, won the Booker Prize in 1992, and his recent successes have included an elegant murder story called Morality Play (1995), about a group of traveling players touring England at the end of the fourteenth century, and Losing Nelson (1999), an unsentimental reappraisal of England’s greatest naval hero. His version of the prologue to the Trojan War will not provide much comfort for those who agonize over the “appropriate” language for authors to use when they rework history and myth. With a swift irony, he reaches straight for our contemporary medium—the brutal coinages of military spokesmen and the slack formulations of public convincers. Perhaps truth is not quite the first casualty of war; long before the combatants sight each other, the meaning of common words is cut up and left bleeding.

When we hear Unsworth’s jaunty, contemporary turns of phrase, we imagine that his portraits of the heroes will be deflating and scathingly satirical, like those of the servants and menials in Troilus and Cressida. It is true that his Greeks are brutes, egotists, and buffoons—Achilles a narcissistic killer, Nestor senile—but Unsworth doesn’t simply cut them down to size; he embeds them in a context of multi-generational desperation. His main characters are, after all, the inheritors of the curse on the House of Atreus. The founder of their line, Tantalus, invited the gods to a feast and served up his own son Pelops. For this the gods condemned him to perpetual hunger and thirst in Hades. They brought Pelops back to life, only to have him murder his future father-in-law, then dispose of the charioteer who had helped him with that murder; it is the charioteer, Myrtilus, who places a curse on the family. The two sons of Pelops quarrel, and history repeats itself.

One brother, Atreus, invites the other to a banquet and serves him his own sons. The distraught father lays a second curse on Atreus. The two sons of Atreus are Agamemnon and Menelaus. His granddaughter, child of Agamemnon, is Iphigeneia—who now moves to the heart of the narrative. She is fourteen years old, romantic and spoiled, but with little innocence in her character; how could she be innocent, with such a family history occupying her thoughts? Her slave girl, hearing her tell the story of the curse, remarks, “It’s always the children who suffer.” The trite sentiment seems just right for the family whose ultimate horror is a domestic one: the offspring chopped and spiced in the kitchen, the children baked in a pie.

But the House of Atreus, being a ruling house, doesn’t keep its quarrels confined between dining room and kitchen. Murder breeds murder. The bills for wars are not picked up just by the people who fight them but by the generations who come after. The story is, by definition, beyond any one storyteller, or any generation of auditors. But within the larger tale, Iphigeneia’s story is neat and contained. No wonder Euripides wanted to tell it, and Racine, and Gluck. We can watch afresh in every generation the child sleepwalking toward death, an unwitting prisoner of history.

Unsworth’s story finds her at home in Mycenae with her slave girl, Sisipyla, who was given to her when she was six years old. They have grown up together, look remarkably similar. The slave assists her mistress in performing the rites of Artemis. We are taken to a grove where

tall trees grew in a straggling circle round an inner group of four, marking the quarters of the moon, where the effigies of the Divine Child, Hyacinthos, nursling of Artemis, were hung at the time of the full moon. The children of past moons were never taken down and the trees were cluttered and lumpy with forms of straw. Birds had raided these to build their nests, and time and weather had taken much of the human likeness from them. Much, but not quite all; and this it was that disturbed Sisipyla and made her always glad to quit the place, the likeness still in the dangling, ruinous dolls.

It is a sinister, eloquent image: an image of miscarried or aborted fetuses, or of child figures on old tombstones and stone memorials, small faces eroded by time. These are the eyeless companions to the child Iphigeneia in her blighted life—her own unborn children, perhaps. The process of time and the process of retelling wipes away the individual features; history effaces itself, steps back into the shadow of myth. Like the straw dolls, its actors become generic, just shapes with a vaguely human design; they are anybody and nobody, very like us and very unlike us at the same time.

Iphigeneia knows about the family curse but misconstrues her own part in it. You notice, she tells her slave, that at each turning point, as the curse works itself, there is always a trick, and the trick is always followed by a murder. But she does not see it as a trick when the message comes from her father, Agamemnon, to say that Achilles—“quite the most eligible hero alive today”—wants her to go to Aulis and marry him, before the whole army. Her vanity is piqued. But so is her desire to save her family. She hopes that by marrying Achilles, such a favorite of the gods, she can lift the curse. She packs her wedding dress, and embarks toward her murderers.

Back in Aulis, Calchas is losing his influence. Though initially favored by Agamemnon, he is now being edged out of the councils of war, because he doesn’t tell the leaders what they want to hear. The initiative has been seized by Croton, the priest of Zeus. He alleges that as a priestess, Iphigeneia makes offerings to the “universal mother,” relegating the male god to a lower status. Agamemnon knows this and has done nothing. This is his offense. This is why the wind keeps the ships in harbor. How can he atone for this fault? By bringing his daughter to Aulis and sacrificing her to Zeus.

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