Valerio Massimo Manfredi: “Heroes”

Heroes The Talisman of Troy

He walked away, and Telemachus scampered after him. ‘Tell me,’ the boy said, ‘have you seen him of late? What does he look like? What does my father look like?’
Diomedes stopped for a moment. ‘He looks like you imagine him. When you see him, you’ll recognize him.’

Novel
Original Title: Le Paludi di Hesperia
Alternate Title: The Talisman of Troy
Pages: 275
First Published: 1994 (in Italian), 2004 (in English)

Synopsis: A castaway tossed onto a deserted beach is the last survivor of a world that no longer exists. He has a terrible, fascinating story to tell – the true reason for which the Trojan War was fought … The protagonist of this tale is Diomedes, the last of the great ancient Greek Homeric heroes, who seeks to return to his beloved homeland after years of war against Troy. But destiny has other plans for him. Betrayed by his wife, who plots to murder him, and persecuted by hostile gods, he has no choice but to turn his sails west, towards Hesperia, the mysterious mist-shrouded land that will one day be called Italy. He ventures boldly into this new world, for he carries with him the magic Talisman of Troy, a mysterious, powerful idol that can make the nation that possesses it invincible …

‘A goddess once mounted my chariot and fought at my side,’ he said. ‘Do you believe me?’
The girl came closer. ‘If you believe it then I believe you,’ she said.
‘No, you don’t believe me,’ said Diomedes. ‘For the man you see before you is not the same, and this land is not the same and not even the sky is the same.’

Review: The above is a bit of an odd summary in that it ignores the novel’s entire second storyline. I feel I should at least let you know that Clytemnestra, Menelaus, Orestes and Pyrrhus have important roles in this book, and Helen and Aeneas also make decently sized appearances.

· First, my compliments to the translator, Christine Feddersen-Manfredi. The style of this book is solid and includes some really beautiful lines. If I hadn’t already known it was a translation, I don’t think I ever would have guessed.

· I can be really picky about dialogue, and when I first started this book I was a little irritated by how characters often said more at once than is realistic. It took me longer than it should have to realize that Manfredi, in these longer speeches, is imitating Homeric dialogue. And then I realized that he actually does it quite well! Again, the style of this book is pretty great.

· There’s a number of scenes near the beginning of the book that include strong supernatural elements, many of which are pretty creepy. It’s been a while since I read a Trojan War novel with such overt fantasy in it and I enjoyed these scenes. Unfortunately, they show up less and less as the story progresses – which would be fine, except for all the unanswered questions this leaves. One supernatural event that I thought was going to drive the plot was instead just abandoned without explanation.

· I really liked this book’s discussions of how the world around these characters is changing and how sharply their current way of life contrasts with the way they lived in the past. There’s a great scene where Diomedes is excited to run into a Trojan because he’s been longing to find someone who’ll follow the rules of the world he used to inhabit, the rules that make sense to him. As someone with an interest in culture shock, I found this fascinating. There are also hints here and there that, as the years pass, the characters begin to feel like nothing they did at Troy ever even happened. That was also really interesting.

· So Penelope is introduced with the line “her breasts were high and firm like all the women of Sparta.” Yes, unfortunately this is another book where female characters are rarely introduced without a description of their breasts. Anyway, if this ~all Spartan women have the same breast shape and placement~ thing is a part of the mythology of Sparta that I just haven’t heard of till now, I’m okay with ignoring it, but if this is Manfredi’s invention then I wonder why he picked a body part notorious for changing size and shape due to age, menstruation, pregnancy, nursing, exercise, clothing, and basically everything ever.

· This book begins with Aigialeia betraying Diomedes and Clytemnestra killing Agamemnon; they then team up and try to convince other queens to turn against their kings. I don’t have a problem with this storyline in theory but I’m not a fan of the way this book handles it. There’s no real exploration of these characters’ motivations, no real insight into their thoughts or actions. They’re little more than one-dimensional villains. This also sets up a bit of a dynamic where female characters who follow and obey male characters are portrayed as good and sympathetic and female characters who don’t are portrayed as evil. The only female character who does her own thing and isn’t vilified for it doesn’t even get a name. I would have appreciated a slightly more nuanced approach to the women in this novel.

· There are two revelations, both related to the aforementioned “true reason for which the Trojan War was fought,” that come near the end of the book. I could tell that the novel was leading up to them for a while and so I expected them to have a major impact on the plot. But … they didn’t. They were mentioned, accepted, and forgotten about and I’m not sure what the point of either of them was.

· I don’t want to be too hard on this book because I don’t think it’s that bad and I can see someone enjoying it. But it just really wasn’t my kind of book. It took me a long time to get interested in the story because so much of the first half featured Diomedes wandering around aimlessly, which is not a type of story that I really enjoy. I started to get into it in the second half, when more was happening and more characters were involved, but the closer I got to the end the more rushed everything became and the more unanswered questions I realized I was going to be left with. I suspect the final scene was supposed to be solemn and moving but I found myself laughing while reading it because it happened so quickly and, to be brutally honest, it made me wonder what the point of the novel was. Like, I’m not sure what the point of reading so many pages of aimless wandering was if that was going to be the conclusion. I didn’t hate this book but I didn’t love it, either. It was neither a joy nor a slog to read. I think in the end I just feel indifferent towards it.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Diomedes hid his face in his cloak. ‘Oh great Atreid!’ he murmured to himself. ‘Watch your back! We are no longer beside you, we are no longer … we are no longer.’

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One Comment to “Valerio Massimo Manfredi: “Heroes””

  1. I know exactly what end scene you’re referring to, and it struck me as ridiculous, too. I would have liked to spend more time with the women, but then, Manfredi doesn’t write very good female characters.

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