by David Malouf


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In his first novel in more than a decade, award-winning author David Malouf reimagines the pivotal narrative of Homer’s Iliad—one of the most famous passages in all of literature.
This is the story of the relationship between two grieving men at war: fierce Achilles, who has lost his beloved Patroclus in the siege of Troy; and woeful Priam, whose son Hector killed Patroclus and was in turn savaged by Achilles. A moving tale of suffering, sorrow, and redemption, Ransom is incandescent in its delicate and powerful lyricism and its unstated imperative that we imagine our lives in the glow of fellow feeling.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307475244
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/25/2011
Series: Vintage International Series
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 462,959
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

David Malouf—winner of the inaugural Australia–Asia Literary Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Prix Femina Étranger and the Los Angeles Times Book Award—is the author of, among other works, Remembering Babylon, An Imaginary Life and The Conversations at Curlow Creek. He lives in Australia.

Read an Excerpt


The sea has many voices. The voice this man is listening for is the voice of his mother. He lifts his head, turns his face to the chill air that moves in across the gulf, and tastes its sharp salt on his lip. The sea surface bellies and glistens, a lustrous silver-blue-a membrane stretched to a fine transparency where once, for nine changes of the moon, he had hung curled in a dream of pre-existence and was rocked and comforted. He hunkers down now on the shelving pebbles at its edge, bunches his cloak between his thighs. Chin down, shoulders hunched, attentive.

The gulf can be wild at times, its voices so loud in a man's head that it is like standing stilled in the midst of battle. But today in the dawn light it is pondlike. Small waves slither to his sandalled feet, then sluice away with a rattling sound as the smooth stones loosen and go rolling.

The man is a fighter, but when he is not fighting he is a farmer, earth is his element. One day, he knows, he will go back to it. All the grains that were miraculously called together at his birth to make just these hands, these feet, this corded forearm, will separate and go their own ways again. He is a child of earth. But for the whole of his life he has been drawn, in his other nature, to his mother's element. To what, in all its many forms, as ocean, pool, stream, is shifting and insubstantial. To what accepts, in a moment of stillness, the reflection of a face, a tree in leaf, but holds nothing, and itself cannot be held.

As a child he had his own names for the sea. He would repeat them over and over under his breath as a way of calling to her till the syllables shone and became her presence. In the brimming moonlight of his sleeping chamber, at midday in his father's garden, among oakwoods when summer gales bullied and the full swing of afternoon came crashing, he felt himself caught up and tenderly enfolded as her low voice whispered on his skin. Do you hear me, Achilles? It is me, I am still with you. For a time I can be with you when you call.

He was five then, six. She was his secret. He floated in the long soft swirlings of her hair.

But she had warned him from the beginning that she would not always be with him. She had given him up. That was the hard condition of his being and of all commerce between them. One day when he put his foot down on the earth he knew at once that something was different. A gift he had taken as natural to him, the play of a dual self that had allowed him, in a moment, to slip out of his hard boyish nature and become eel-like, fluid, weightless, without substance in his mother's arms, had been withdrawn. From now on she would be no more than a faint far-off echo to his senses, an underwater humming.

He had grieved. But silently, never permitting himself to betray to others what he felt.

Somewhere in the depths of sleep his spirit had made a crossing and not come back, or it had been snatched up and transformed. When he bent and chose a stone for his slingshot it had a new weight in his hand, and the sling had a different tension. He was his father's son and mortal. He had entered the rough world of men, where a man's acts follow him wherever he goes in the form of story. A world of pain, loss, dependency, bursts of violence and elation; of fatality and fatal contradictions, breathless leaps into the unknown; at last of death-a hero's death out there in full sunlight under the gaze of gods and men, for which the hardened self, the hardened body, had daily to be exercised and prepared.

A breeze touches his brow. Far out where the gulf deepens, small waves kick up, gather, then collapse, and new ones replace them; and this, even as he watches, repeats itself, and will do endlessly whether he is here or not to observe it: that is what he sees. In the long vista of time he might already be gone. It is time, not space, he is staring into.

For nine years winter and summer they have been cooped up here on the beach, all the vast horde of them, Greeks of every clan and kingdom, from Argos and Sparta and Boeotia, from Euboea, Crete, Ithaca, Cos and the other islands, or like himself and his men, his Myrmidons, from Phthia. Days, years, season after season; an endless interim of keeping your weapons in good trim and your keener self taut as a bowstring through long stretches of idleness, of restless, patient waiting, and shameful quarrels and unmanly bragging and talk.

Such a life is death to the warrior spirit. Which if it is to endure at the high point needs action-the clash of arms that settles a quarrel quickly, then sends a man back, refreshed in spirit, to being a good farmer again.

War should be practised swiftly, decisively. Thirty days at most, in the weeks between new spring growth and harvest, when the corn is tinder-dry and ripe for the invader's brand, then back to the cattle pace of the farmer's life. To calendar days and what comes with them; to seedtime and ploughing and the garnering of grain. To tramping in your old sandals across sunstruck fields, all dry sticks and the smell of wild mint underfoot. To sitting about in the shade doling out the small change of gossip, and listening, while flies buzz and the sweat streams from your armpits, to interminable disputes-the administering of justice on home ground. To pruning olives, and watching, over months, the swelling of a broodmare's belly or the sprouting of the first pale blade among sods. To noting how far a son has grown since last year's notch on a doorjamb.

In these nine years his own son, Neoptolemus, away there in his grandfather's house, has been growing up without him. Days, weeks, season after season.

The sun is climbing now. He pushes to his feet. Stands for a last moment filled with his thoughts; his mind, even in its passive state, the most active part of him. Then, head down, his cloak drawn close about him, starts back along the sloping beach towards the camp.

There is a singing in the air, so high-pitched that it might be spirits. It comes from the rigging of the ships that swing at anchor, recent arrivals, or are drawn up in pinewood cradles along the strand. There are more than a thousand of them. Their spars, in silhouette against the pallid sky, are like a forest magically transported. After so many months ashore, their hulls are white as bone. They stretch in a line back to the camp, and on the sea side make one of its walls.

He moves quickly now, it is cold out of the sun. Walking awkwardly against the slope of the beach, he has a drunken gait. His sandals slip on the pebbles, some of which are as large and smooth as duck eggs. Between them, brown-gold bladder-wrack still damp from the tide.

When the last of the line of ships is behind him, he pauses and takes a long look out across the gulf. The sea, all fire, spreads flat to the horizon. So solid-looking and without depth, so enticing as a place to move to, that a man might be tempted to make a sharp turn right and try walking on it, and only when it opened and took him down discover he had been tricked by a freak of nature.

But the sea is not where it will end. It will end here on the beach in the treacherous shingle, or out there on the plain. That is fixed, inevitable. With the pious resignation of the old man he will never become, he has accepted this.

But in some other part of himself, the young man he is resists, and it is the buried rage of that resistance that drives him out each morning to tramp the shore. Not quite alone. With his ghosts.

Patroclus, his soulmate and companion since childhood.

Hector, implacable enemy.

Patroclus had simply appeared one afternoon in his father's court, a boy three years older than himself and nearly a head taller. Thin-jawed, intense, with the hands and feet, already disproportionately large, of the man he was growing into.

Achilles had been hunting in one of the ravines beyond the palace. He had killed a hare. Great whoops of triumph preceding him, he had come bounding up the steps into the courtyard to show his father what he had got.

Ten years old. Long-haired, wiry, burnt black by the Phthian sun. Still half-wild. His soul not yet settled in him.

Peleus was angry at the intrusion. He turned to reprove the boy, but gentled when he saw what it was. He gestured to Achilles to be still. Then, with a small helpless showing of his palms-You see what it is, I too am a fond parent-apologised to his guest, Menoetius, King of Opus, for this unintended discourtesy.

Achilles, still panting from his long run in across the fields, set himself to be patient. Idly at first, with no intimation of what all this would one day mean to him, assuming still that the centre of the occasion was the hare trailing gouts of blood where it hung from his wrist, he stood shifting from foot to foot, waiting for the visitor's business to be done and his father's attention to be his.

The story Menoetius had to tell was a shocking one.

The boy with the big hands and feet was his son, Patroclus. Ten days ago, in a quarrel over a game of knucklebones, he had struck and killed one of his companions, the ten-year-old son of Amphidamas, a high official of the royal court. Menoetius was bringing the boy to Phthia as an outcast seeking asylum.

In a voice still hollow with wonder at how, in an instant, so many lives could be flung about and broken, the unhappy man led them back to the fatal morning.

Two players, fiercely engaged in the rivalries of the game, squatting in the shade of a colonnade and laughing. Taunting one another as young boys will. Eyes raised to follow the knucklebones as they climb, with nothing untoward in view.

For a long moment the taws hang there at the top of their flight; as if, in the father's grave retelling of these events, he were allowing for a gap to be opened where this time round some higher agency might step in and, with the high-handed indifference of those who have infinite power over the world of conjunction and accident, reverse what is about to occur. The silence is screwed up a notch. Even the cicadas have shut off mid-shriek.

The boy whose fate is suspended here stands with parted lips, though no breath passes between them; lost, as they all are, in a story he might be hearing for the first time and which has not yet found its end.

Achilles, too, stands spellbound. Like a sleeper who has stumbled in on another's dream, he sees what is about to happen but can neither move nor cry out to prevent it. His right arm is so heavy (he has forgotten the hare) that he may never lift it again. The blow is about to come.

The boy Patroclus tilts his chin, thin brows drawn in expectation, a little moisture lighting the down on his upper lip, and for the first time Achilles meets his gaze. Patroclus looks at him. The blow connects, bone on bone. And the boy, his clear eyes still fixed on Achilles, takes it. With just a slight jerk of the shoulders, an almost imperceptible intake of breath.

Achilles is as stunned as if the blow was to himself. He turns quickly to his father, on whose word so much depends.

But there is no need to add his own small weight of entreaty. Peleus too is moved by the spectacle of this boy with the mark of the outcast upon him, the brand of the killer, who stands waiting in a kind of no-man's-land to be readmitted to the companionship of men.

So it was settled. Patroclus was to be his adoptive brother, and the world, for Achilles, reassembled itself around a new centre. His true spirit leapt forth and declared itself. It was as if he had all along needed this other before he could become fully himself. From this moment on he could conceive of nothing in the life he must live that Patroclus would not share in and approve.

But things did not always go smoothly between them. There were times when Patroclus was difficult to approach, too touchily aware that, for all Achilles' brotherly affection, he himself was a courtier, a dependant here. He would draw back, all pride and a hurt that could not easily be assuaged. What Achilles saw then on the clouded brow was what he had been so struck by in the first glance that had passed between them-the daunted look that had captured his soul before he even knew that he had one-and he would hear again, as if the memory were his own, what Patroclus was hearing: the knock of bone on bone as two lives collided and were irrevocably changed.

No, Achilles told himself, not two lives, three. Because when Patroclus relived the moment now, he too was there. Breath held, too dazed, too spirit-bound to move, he looked on dreamlike as that other-the small son of Amphidamas, whose face he had never seen-was casually struck aside to make way for him.

He thought often of that boy. They were mated. But darkly, flesh to ghost. As in a different way, but through the same agency and in the same moment, he had been mated with Patroclus.

The end when it came was abrupt, though not entirely accidental.

After weeks of truce, the war had resumed with a new ferocity, at first in isolated skirmishes, then, when it emerged that there was division among the Greeks and that Achilles, the most formidable of them, had withdrawn his forces, in a general assault. Hector, slaughtering on all sides, had stormed the walls of the encampment and fought his way to the Greek ships. The Greek cause had become desperate.

So too had Patroclus. Held back from the fight because of Achilles' quarrel with the generals, he was going earnestly from place to place about the camp hearing news of the death of this man, the wounding to near death of another, all dear companions. He said nothing, but his pure heart was torn, Achilles saw, between their old deep affection for one another, which till now had been beyond question, and a kind of doubt, of shame even. He sees my indifference to the fate of these Greeks as a stain to my honour, Achilles told himself and to his own.

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Ransom 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
jwhenderson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
David Malouf begins his retelling of the story with Achilles mourning the death of Patroclus during the Trojan War. Achilles, enraged at his friend's death, slays Hector, Patroclus' killer, and drags Hector's corpse behind a chariot around the walls of Troy. Rage as he does in Homer's original, Achilles terrifying aspect is amplified in comparison. Malouf tries to explain the psychology of Achilles, asking how a man capable of anything takes out his frustration. The narrative then shifts towards Priam, Hector's father and the King of Troy. Priam cannot stand the abuse of his beloved son's body. Malouf explores this parallel of loss between Priam and Achilles that Homer, in the original Iliad, left unsaid. Unlike the version told by Baricco a goddess intervenes and Priam then explains to Troy that he will make his way to the Greek camp with ransom treasure for Achilles. He hopes to stop his mistreatment of Hector¿s body which Queen Hecuba points out is a suicide mission. Priam goes on the journey, despite warnings from his wife. He eventually meets Achilles at his tent, where the exchange is made. Priam appeals to Achilles' conscience, reminding him of his own father, in trying to persuade him to return Hector to Troy for a proper burial. With the addition of Somax, the most successfully developed character in the entire narrative, Malouf makes certain changes to the original. Malouf takes liberties with the personalities of Priam and Achilles that are not entirely in consonant with their depictions in the Iliad. However, with Somax, Malouf manages to create a perfect character foil for Priam. Like many a royal figure before and after Priam has lived in a cocoon of safety for his entire life and is now forced to exit it to bury his son. Somax, who has by no means lived any life of luxury, unintentionally teaches Priam about the world outside of the palace: he is both ordinary and he is not the type of person that normally would have anything to do with the royal family, yet he is enthused with the opportunity. A delight to read as always, despite differences to the original, Malouf is successful in creating his own characters.
jasonlf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This slender novel retells and reimagines portions of The Iliad in spare, lean, very poetic prose. It briefly covers the story of Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector -- including hints of the backstory. But the focus of the book, as featured in its title, is King Priam traveling to Achilles' camp to beg for the body of his son Hector in exchange for a generous ransom.David Malouf inhabits and expands on the psychology of Priam as he experiences grief, exerts his independence in a way he never had as king, bonds with a "simple carter" named Somax, pleads with Achilles and returns with the body. The passages on not knowing his sons -- he believes there are fifty princes who are his sons but is not sure -- contrasted with his pain at Hector's death are very moving.Ransom was one of the best novels to make barely if any "Best of 2010" lists. Even better in that category is The Lost Books of Odyssey by Zachary Mason.
tandah on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Oh I love this book - and it's made me want to pick up The Iliad again. Told largely over a 24-hour period, it is a piece of the puzzle, left unexplained by Homer, when Priam makes the journey to claim Hector's body from Achilles. Against the guidance of his wife, family and advisers, Priam's motivation for this quest is not only the need to provide his son with a burial, but to create a legacy which he believes nothing in his previous life has to date provided. The journey and the meeting is touching, but unsentimental and David Malouf provides us with enough backstory and forward view to make the story complete. I totally recommend this short, wonderful story.
gregorymose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It takes some guts to rework material that is already a few thousand years old. David Malouf's creative retelling of a section of the Iliad is curious not simply in having been undertaken in the first place, but also in the utter naturalness in which it is done. Malouf's tone is so matter-of-fact that at times you forget that the old man you're following is Priam, King of Troy, or that the angry soldier is none other than Achilles. Malouf succeeds in humanizing the work in an utterly unostentatious way which, because it is so understated, is easy to miss. He has taken an ancient epic and inventively distilled it to a moment between a guilt-ridden friend and a bereaved father. The simplicity of it, set among the grandest of stories, makes this a beautiful book.
GCPLreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A beautiful re-imagining of the final act of Homer's The Iliad. Priam, King of Troy, must ransom his son, Hector's, body from the enraged warrior Achilles. Written in the most intimate, moving prose, Ransom is a must read for lovers of Greek mythology (or even fans of Hollywood's underrated Troy). just loved this
Judith_Starkston on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Ransom focuses on the moment in the Iliad when King Priam retrieves his son Hector¿s body from Achilles. In twenty years of teaching that part of the epic, I never survived a class without having to wipe away tears. For me, it is the single most revealing moment in literature about what it means to be human. Nothing tops it. To choose that moment for a book¿s primary subject! ¿audacious and, it turns out, wise. As far as plot or story goes, it¿s as simple a book as could be. A grieving father ignores the legitimate concerns of his aged wife and remaining sons and insists on going on a mad journey into the heart of the Greek camp to beseech the killer of his many sons, and most particularly his dearest son Hector, to give back Hector¿s body, even though Achilles has shown nothing but a burning desire to wreak his continuing revenge on the corpse by dragging it daily behind his chariot. Hector, after all, had killed his friend Patroclus, the man who was as necessary to Achilles¿s well-being as breath or water. In a moment of transformation, Achilles agrees, and Priam returns with the body. That¿s the story, unchanged from Homer. But that¿s not the book, or not more than the structure upon which he suspends the essentials; the insights and epiphanies of his telling rise like the smell of fresh bread coming from the oven: earthy, embracing, bracing, and beautiful. Malouf captures both physical place and inner worlds with extraordinary precision and grace¿sometimes all in the same group of spare words. For example, in the opening pages Malouf portrays the complex being that is Achilles, part mortal, part son of the sea goddess Thetis:¿As a child he had his own names for the sea. He would repeat them over and over under his breath as a way of calling to her till the syllables shone and became her presence. In the brimming moonlight of his sleeping chamber, at midday in his father¿s garden, among oakwoods when summer gales bullied and the full swing of afternoon came crashing, he felt himself caught up and tenderly enfolded as her low voice whispered on his skin.¿¿When summer gales bullied¿¿that sort of word choice, unexpected and perfect, is a reflection that Malouf is not only an award winning novelist, but also a first rate poet. It is to Priam that Malouf brings the most startling understandings. In building his version of Priam, he borrows from a mythological tradition outside Homer about Priam¿s early life¿a near miss with slavery¿and he gives Priam a most unlikely companion on his crazy journey, a rough workman, a carter who sits in the marketplace each day with his mules and wagon for hire. He portrays Priam struggling to understand what being a father, a husband, a man means. Malouf¿s Priam tugs off the restraining mantel of kingship to discover the simple joys of being human, partly with the help of his humble companion. This is fascinating to me since it is from Priam¿s visit that Achilles finds his way back to the human race. I had never imagined a Priam who, for different reasons than Achilles, is also struggling to find his humanity. Malouf has often written about what the inner world of being a man is, and this book continues that theme. The subtlety of his findings on this subject are hard to analyze¿the atmospheric, osmotic understanding has to grow into you from Malouf¿s words. I¿m not sure how this book would feel to someone who has never read the Iliad. I honestly can¿t say if it would be as rich an experience, though I¿d love to hear from anyone who reads Ransom but hasn¿t experienced the ancient epic. Given the depth of Malouf¿s ideas about male feelings, I think it¿d be a great read. But for all you lovers of Homer, I am certain this is a book you¿ll savor.
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