BOOK REVIEW / The magical mythology tour: The marriage of Cadmus and harmony by Roberto Calasso trs Tim Parks, Cape pounds 19.99

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IN MANY religions the demiurge keeps a special treasure under his throne: not riches, powers or talents, but a box full of stories. A trickster may try to steal it, fail, and find himself turned into Anansi, the spider, protagonist of a web of stories that connects Africa with America, and North with South, in an ever-widening mesh.

Roberto Calasso's book is a box of stories, too, filled, like that of a conjuror, with an unfailing chain of coloured scarves and naked boys and girls, of blooms and wounds and plots and magic, all knotted together and displayed to the soft, cajoling sound of charms and spells. It's a more familiar box than Anansi's - here are Dionysus and Apollo paired and contrasted, here is Zeus raping yet another nymph or beauty, here are catamites and gods coupling happily - but in other ways Calasso has refashioned altogether the Greek legacy: there is no schoolmasterly fustian paraphrase here, or psychoanalytical dreamwork, but striking, mischievous tales told with enjoyment in 'the rapturous gliding' of intelligence (as Calasso himself writes of that other tale-teller supreme, Odysseus).

The book lies somewhere between fiction, diary jottings, philosophy and prose poetry, and Tim Parks's translation does it proud. The stories often feature snakes, oracular and sexual, and Calasso himself moves with a serpentine motion, sidling into thickets of related images to open up plots and characters hidden inside: the bull, the garland, the net (of Necessity), the clay mould, the phantom, the meal of sacrifice, the alphabet. Through a sequence of densely clustered chapters, he traces curves between one figure and another, between for instance Theseus, hero of the Golden Fleece, Nemesis, goddess of Revenge, and Helen of Troy, all the while insinuating significance and laying eggs of a gnomic, oracular, slightly sinister sort.

When Odysseus pretended to be mad by sowing salt instead of barley in a furrow because he wanted to avoid going to fight the Trojan war, Palamedes unmasked him; Odysseus did not forgive this, and callously framed him for treachery. This is the most shocking story in the book. The most edifying features the orphan girl Charila, who asked for food from a king at Delphi. He hit her in the face with his sandal, and she hanged herself. After this there was drought, until the oracle revealed her stiff body swinging still and reparation was made annually in gifts of food, etc. The most erotic story? Well, there are many, but perhaps Hippodameia, who leaves off casually sleeping with her father to marry Pelops, the stranger with the ivory shoulder, might be given the prize.

Calasso draws from many different sources little read today - his favourite is Nonnus, writing as late as the sixth century 48 books about Dionysus and another about Jesus Christ, apparently at the same time and with the same degree of engagement. Calasso disdains the need to believe - or to place one's faith exclusively. Nonnus enjoyed 'faith in redundancy as the way in which the cosmos makes itself visible'. This sounds like Derrida avant la lettre; he's there all right, in Calasso's mental underworld, but the figure who casts the longest shadow is Nietzsche.

In his syncretism, Calasso is a man of our time, even though he protests that he - and the rest of us - are still living in 'the realm of Zeus . . . that of the Greek stories'. Writers of myths and about myths often find their own images reflected in them; Calasso writes that 'the enemy of the aesthetic is meaning', and his elliptical, gliding enigmas certainly elude explanation. 'Myth is the realm of risk,' he writes, 'and myth is the enchantment we generate in ourselves at such moments . . . it is a spell the soul casts on itself.'

So where does it lead, this new Ovid's Metamorphoses or Lempriere's Dictionary? It isn't a genealogy of the gods (no index, even]) - any reader wanting clarity would do much better to buy the family tree of the Olympians on sale in the British Museum. Calasso doesn't want to explain the origin of things, or use myths to turn keys to mysteries. He rejects theories about their relationship to ritual, to social structures, to laws. He likes myths the way they are, muddled and multiple and mysterious. Novels are poor things by comparison, 'a narrative deprived of variants'; the visible world is insubstantial, 'a cascade of copies', desperately in need of the invisible prototype. Unlike some of the brilliant classicists at work today - Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet in France and Ruth Padel here - Calasso isn't interested in intelligibility, or in throwing light on the Greeks so that we may understand our world better. He's arbitrary, guru-like, often solemn and a little tricky in the oracles he pronounces ('the heroic gesture of a woman is betrayal'). And he doesn't appreciate at all the pungent satire against gurus, against mystification, against cults, mounted by that brilliant Swift of the ancient world, Lucian. Calasso feels close to Odysseus (he's hardly the first writer to do so) but, to do him justice, he is able to recognise in Odysseus the mountebank as well as the poet.

The book begins with Europa carried off by the bull, and comes full circle at the end when her brother Cadmus marries Harmony, the sister of Eros. With Cadmus, writing begins: he invents the alphabet. And with writing, historical record starts - and stories, ready to be dropped into the divine box and stored, waiting for a Calasso to pull them out with such dazzling feints and passes that we in the audience know something fantastic is happening in front of our eyes but cannot be sure quite what it is.

(Photograph omitted)