Elspeth Barker

Stitcher of Songs

The Lost Books of the Odyssey


Jonathan Cape 228pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

These ‘lost books’ of the Odyssey are not lost books at all; they are a conceit, a play on existing books which Mason breaks up and rearranges, altering settings, incidents, characters, and moving them back and forth through time. Thus Paris of Troy becomes Death; he abducts Helen, leaving the wine he had drunk spilled on the floor, the meat he had eaten untasted. Odysseus seeks out Helen in Death’s city, begs her to leave with him and end the war, but she will not attend and he cuts her throat. In another version she runs off to spend ten years (perhaps) with Odysseus in a humble hut. In another she is married to Odysseus and lives with him on Ithaca while Penelope (true wife of Odysseus) has married Menelaus (Helen’s husband). Or again, she is scalped by a chambermaid in Troy. Yes! And of course such versions once might have existed among many others, all so long forgotten that no one could know anyhow. Bardic alterations, even improvisations, were in the tradition of the rhapsode, the stitcher of songs, centuries before the Iliad and Odyssey’s texts were formalised in writing around 150 BC. Homer’s Odysseus may say ‘it is hateful to me to tell a story over again, when it has been well told,’ but everyone still wants to hear it. And Odysseus does tell his own story over and again; often he tells other stories, takes on other identities or disguises. Back and forth goes the rhapsode, gathering material, repeating hearsay, moving in and out of time.

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