The Fall of Troy, by Peter Ackroyd

Art of a tomb raider
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Fall of Troy is, above all, a love story, and like the best love stories it deals in obsession, deception, madness and death. The object of such passion is Homer. Many have worked to reveal his secrets. But the love of Homer may also inspire an almost religious devotion; a belief that historical and geographical truth lies within the Iliad and the Odyssey. Peter Ackroyd's protagonist, the monstrous but irresistible Obermann, is such a man.

This is a novel. But Ackroyd's delight in blurring literary boundaries is well established. There are "real" characters here: Henry Rawlinson, who deciphered cuneiform script, is offstage in Cricklade, Wiltshire. A Cyrus Redding appears as the American ambassador to Constantinople. The "real" Cyrus Redding was a critic, traveller, acquaintance of Byron and, interestingly, a literary fraudster. Ackroyd's Redding is more plausible than the original; the author is playing games from the start.

The reader who identifies Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius Obermann, excavator at Ithaca, Tiryns and Troy, as Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius Schliemann is being lured into assumptions based on Schliemann mythology. The alluring but elusive connection is what Ackroyd is exploring, and celebrating, in this appropriately stratified novel.

Obermann is driven by his certainty that the site he is excavating at Hissarlik, in Turkey, is Troy. Obermann's is an exuberant, transcendent vision, but one of the elements it transcends is evidence. The puzzling absence of weaponry, if this is Troy, is resolved when an old gold sword emerges on site following Obermann's trip to a museum in Constantinople. When a child's skeleton is discovered, apparently sacrificed and cannibalised, Obermann refuses to accept that the heroic inhabitants of Troy could have followed such practices. Clay tablets, which might point to a Semitic, not Greek, origin for the language in the area, are not very mysteriously destroyed.

Obermann has a similarly cavalier attitude to the inconveniences of his own personal history. He is an insistent rather than a consistent liar. He reveals the existence of an earlier marriage almost without noticing; Sophia, his carefully selected young Greek second wife, appears to be another well-placed artefact.

The Fall of Troy is set in the second half of the 19th century, when the tradition of the amateur gentleman archaeologist was being overtaken by the academic specialist. Obermann's supporters include Lineau, a blind assistant who analyses artefacts by touch, and a young Russian, Leonid, whom he calls Telemachus after the faithful son of Odysseus. The representatives of the changing order are the rationalist William Brand, a professor from the New World, and Alexander Thornton, of the "entirely new" department of "Proto-historical Scripts" at the British Museum. If Schliemann is the direct inspiration for Obermann, there is also a nod to Sir Arthur Evans, who imposed his controversial version of a Minoan past on Knossos in Crete and unearthed tablets incised in the then unknown Linear B script.

This is a novel of constant oppositions. The most interesting is between the open and closed mind. But which is which? Obermann's manic, inspiring and deranged joy in a Homeric Troy is matched by Thornton's excitement as the inscriptions that may disprove Obermann's dream come together. Sophia, trained to be an obedient wife, finds her real love is for the light, the earth and the textures of excavation.

It is Sophia Schliemann whose face, in a surviving photograph, is more familiar to us than her husband's. Colluding in his infamous acquisition of excavated treasures, she is darkly beautiful under an ancient gold headdress. Her image, and that of Helen of Troy, inevitably come to mind when Sophia Obermann is courted by a handsome suitor. But questions about possession and determination, about the manipulation of truth and evidence, cultural confrontation and the re-writing of Middle Eastern history, resonate for our time. Obermann invokes the gods to avenge any who "have broken the divine laws" but he, like those who follow him, has forgotten that the gods have a mind of their own when it comes to the affairs of men.

Elizabeth Speller's memoir 'The Sunlight on the Garden' is published by Granta