THE quest for Troy is more than a rake through ancient ruins for archaeological veracity. It’s about heroes, gods and omens, and beneath that it’s about seductive and dangerous narrative. Ackroyd’s anti-hero, Herr Obermann, is ultimately the victim of stories both ancient and his own. His determination to dig up Troy sees him buried in half-truths and fabrication to the point one seriously doubts he knows the difference.
Although Obermann’s story is heavily modelled on the story of Heinrich Schliemann, the self-proclaimed discoverer of Troy, Ackroyd, the master biographer, has given us a fiction, which permits him the licence to go further in depicting a man murderously intent on proving fiction as fact. Obermann is convinced The Iliad is an accurate historical record; he believes in it in the way others swear on the Bible; those who disagree with him or Homer’s epic are called “heretics” with no obvious trace of humour.
Obermann is fat, short, and bald, aggressive and overbearing – “a real Teuton” as he’s later branded. And despite a physique that could hardly be called classically Greek, he is in the process of marrying a beautiful Greek woman 30 years his junior. In search of someone who read Homer and could share his labours, he placed an ad in the papers, picked her from a photo and negotiated with her parents. Deal done, he sweeps her off to Hisarlik in Anatolia, to a site he’s convinced was Troy.
Obermann at first seems mainly guilty of the sin of credulousness. Otherwise, the locals respect him because he respects their beliefs. He dispenses some basic medicine when his workmen fall ill and encourages Sophie to work beside him, something she comes to relish. It soon becomes apparent however that Obermann is a fanatic who views archaeology not as an objective process but as a means for providing ballast for his classically derived theories.
“Are theories not sometimes beautiful?” he asks. “Not if they get in the way of facts,” answers an American rival come to check up on him. So convinced is Obermann, he resorts to the practice of “salting” – placing faked artefacts in the ground. “What is the truth?” Obermann blithely replies when his evidence is challenged. “The story is more important, Professor. Stories brought me to this place. What would happen if the world were without stories?” One might reply that the world would be a duller if happier place without narrative nagging us, a constant reminder of the untidy and inconclusive quality of our lives that books and films cannot or will not replicate.
We have in modern times seen the consequences of fanatics who wish to make literal the ideas contained within ancient texts. Ackroyd is far too subtle an author to flag up obvious contemporary resonances, but they’re there, waiting to be excavated. Troy, at least in the popular consciousness, saw the first major clash of East and West – although Obermann dismisses mounting evidence that the Trojans were an Asiatic people because he opines, in a Kilroy-esque moment, that they have contributed nothing to world culture.
Obermann, despite friendliness to the locals, is racist, and one can’t help noticing the homonymic similarity between Obermann and überman. Not far beneath his surface is a ranting Nietzschean. “We are gods in our ambitions. The will is god.” When a piece of pottery appears decorated with “sauvastika” – Sanskrit for swastika – it appears as a portent. In fact, Schliemmann’s discovery of a similar artefact ultimately led to the swastika’s popularisation in Europe in the early 20th century as a good luck charm. Schliemann downgraded evidence that the symbol was Hindu in origin to insist that the swastika was the invention of Aryan peoples, clearing the way for its adoption by the Nazis as their corporate logo.
Telescoping even further, one can see in Obermann’s personality the same manic energies that inspire “Islamists” to peel back modernity or Christian evangelicals to deny the fossil record and therefore evolution. The Fall Of Troy then is a marvellous, subtle read. How ironic that in digging into the past, both Obermann and his creator should discover in fact a map of the modern world.
... it's Peter Ackroyd, by the way.