The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd

Dirty diggers on the trail of Helen's gold
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The Independent Culture

Historical accuracy is not important to Peter Ackroyd. For him, there is no boundary separating fact and fantasy, biography and fiction, only a broad highway along which, exuberantly, he gallops, conjuring up his exotic stories, whirling his broadsword and boldly decapitating any inconvenient truth - for "truth", as one of his characters opines, is "above all prejudice and wishful thinking".

In this, Ackroyd is very like Heinrich Schliemann, the notorious 19th-century showman/archaeologist who insisted that he had identified the site of Troy at Hissarlik in Turkish Anatolia, and who subsequently excavated the place with the single-mindedness of a terrier after a rabbit. With lofty disregard for any uncovered evidence of the site's different, previous or subsequent histories, he seems to have wantonly destroyed everything he considered unHomeric and cheerfully to have planted amongst the extensive ruins all kinds of bogus treasures and artefacts that he hoped might be cited in support of his own hypothesis.

In the novel, Schliemann becomes Heinrich Obermann, a bombastic, bullying man, in reverent thrall to the old Greek gods but genially unabashed, even fascinated, by public discussion of his bowels. As far as one can tell, Ackroyd's Obermann is a good 90 per cent Schliemann. Like the real chap, he is given a mysterious Russian ex(ish)-wife, a fortune made from dirty dealing in Californian gold dust and a young Greek bride called Sophia. He is a stupendous liar and deeply untrustworthy, and his only merit is his passionate conviction that he alone has found the very spot to which the beauteous Helen was abducted, the plain upon which Hector and Achilles fought to the death.

It is an odd book, written apparently at speed in an unconvincing demotic probably intended to dignify the dialogue with a period patina. The effect, unfortunately, is of uncomfortable actors doing their best with an awkward translation of Turgenev. In Ackroyd and Obermann's Troy, nobody says "isn't it?" if they can get away with "is it not?". And sometimes, the effect is comically bathetic: "When we have left this place," says Obermann encouragingly to his new bride "we will raise a fat and healthy family!" And "for some reason", the author remarks, "the prospect appalled her."

The novel is packed full to bursting with extreme and supernatural occurrences. Merely visiting a mysteriously doomed cave leads a strong man's face to turn inexplicably grey, before he withers and perishes, while another (and gorier) death is brought about by the powerful hooves of the trampling Pegasus: these events lead to a couple of Shelley-ish ad hoc cremations. Meanwhile, earthquakes, thunder, fire and flood come roaring down with apocalyptic force, obliterating and destroying everything in their path.

In among all this lurid and generally entertaining drama there are only two disappointments: the passionate romance that might have been at the heart of the story is a pallid, flaccid and unmemorable affair - and the ancient volcano atop Mount Ida fails, most vexingly, to erupt.

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