In Love, at War, with Homer: Theodor Kallifatides’ “The Siege of Troy,” Translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy

By Kirk Ormand

9781590519714Few works have been translated as often, or as with as many different poetic and political programs, as Homer’s Iliad. Kallifatides’ brief version, written originally in Swedish, is his attempt to bring the daunting epic to a new generation of readers (“Afterword,” 203). He accomplishes this by telling the story of a retelling of the Iliad, as heard by a fifteen-year old Greek boy, set during the last year of World War II. So we have here a multivocal work: Homer’s epic, as told by a young woman in 1945 to a young Greek boy and his classmates, as written in Swedish (by a Greek author who emigrated to Sweden), now translated into English. As is fitting, Kallifatides plays with the idea of translation as cultural transposition. Delargy’s spare, direct prose captures the primary narrator’s innocence and self-reserve nicely, and allows the reader to fill in the emotional gaps as both narratives progress to an inevitable tragic end.

“I was fifteen years old and in love with my teacher” (1). We learn that the narrator has developed a crush on the new teacher in the village, a slight young woman who dresses in the all-black of mourning until the very end of the novel. The students refer to her simply as “Miss,” behind which speakers of modern Greek will hear δεσποινίς. Early in the narrative, the class must seek refuge in a cave while the village is bombed – not, as they expect, by the Germans, but by the British who are trying to liberate Greece from German occupation. While they return to the cave for successive days, Miss tells them the story of the Iliad in a sparse 150 pages, from memory. The class is enthralled, and soon their lessons seem to consist only of the Iliad, re-told.

The situation in the village is politically complex, though the reader pieces this together only gradually. The Germans have occupied the village, but live in a state of uneasy peace with the villagers; they play soccer against one another, and eventually we learn that Miss is in love with one of the German pilots who lives in the village. Her position, then, is one of dangerous alliances, which makes her something of a Helen-figure. One of the narrative tricks of the novel is that, for the most part, we can only see what the narrator does – and he is blinded by his youth, his passion for Miss, and an imperfect understanding of the internal politics of occupation.

As the story develops, the events of the Iliad begin to uncomfortably mirror the events in the village. This comes out most forcefully when Achilles, on a rampage to avenge his dead friend Patroclus, captures and eventually slaughters twelve nameless Trojan youths as a sacrifice. In the village, it is learned that an unknown “partisan” has killed a German soldier, and until she (it turns out to be a woman) is identified to the Germans, three villagers a day will be selected and killed. Our narrator is among the twelve eligible (only men, old enough, but not too old, and not useful to the Germans), but is not selected the first day, or the second. The narrator makes the connection for us: “I thought about all the innocent young men whom Achilles had murdered, showing no mercy. More than three thousand years had passed since then, and death had not become any less cruel” (163).

If these politics seem confusing, they should: in the analogy drawn by this situation, the German occupiers are the Iliadic Greeks, and the (Greek) villagers are the Trojans. That makes a kind of sense. As Redfield argued thirty-five years ago, it is the Trojan warriors who have families, wives and children, and a community to protect. And when Hector is killed by the ravaging Achilles, he is the one whose human emotions, whose selfless bravery in the face of certain death, inspires our sympathy.[1] In this extended conceit, we also see in Miss – with her personal alliances with the German pilot – an analogue to Briseis, the Trojan “spear prize” captured by Achilles. In the Iliad, Achilles’ affection for Briseis is an afterthought to the insult that he feels when Agamemnon takes her from him. But Miss’ version of the narrative plays up their mutual affection. Like her own version of  Briseis, Miss is in love with the enemy, but still belongs to the community that is under occupation.

Most of the novel consists of Miss’ retelling of the Iliad, and that deserves some comment. It is, in many ways, believable as a telling from memory, centered on the emotional high points with occasional modern interpolations. Either Miss or Kallifatides has entirely removed the divine machinery from the epic, however; there are no intervening gods in Miss’ version. This has interesting effects. In the final battle between Achilles and Hector, as students of the Iliad know all too well, Athena cheats in Achilles’ favor. Achilles throws his spear first, and misses; Hector throws his spear, but is unable to penetrate Achilles’ shield; then Hector draws his sword and swoops like an eagle against Achilles. But unseen by Hector, Athena has returned Achilles’ spear to him, and he uses the projectile to cut down Hector, effectively unarmed and unsuspecting. In Miss’ version, Achilles simply throws a second spear, without explanation. Does it matter? Perhaps not; Achilles was always going to win anyway. But we lose something of the unfairness of the fight when Athena’s unseen help is edited out.

In other places, readers who know the Iliad well will see more deliberate alternations. When Achilles chases Hector around the walls of Troy, the Iliad captures Hector’s terror by trivializing the battle as a footrace:

So there they ran about, the one fleeing and the other pursuing from behind,
and a noble man fled in front, but behind a much better man pursued,
swiftly, since they did not strive for a sacrificial animal, nor an ox-hide,
which are prizes for races run by men,
but they ran for the life of Hector, tamer of horses.
Thus when single-foot horses that bear away prizes run very lightly
around the turning-posts; and a big prize is at stake,
a tripod, or a woman, when a man has died,
thus three times the two whirled around the city of Priam
with swift feet.[2]

In Miss’ version this striking image is put in the mouth of Helen, and to my thinking comes out somewhat flat: “Andromache couldn’t bear it. Her little son asked ‘Why is Daddy running?’ She had no answer; but Helen cheerfully told him, ‘They’re just having a race to see who’s fastest.’” (154). The move to replace the original pathos of the scene with the uncomprehending query of Astyanax is, to my eyes, not entirely successful.

Now and then Miss will repeat a striking image from Homer, or re-tell one of the famous Homeric similes: so a warrior’s head droops like a poppy in spring rain (51-52). But much of the most expressive language in the novel belongs to the present-tense narrative: “Our eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, we could see one another, and above all we could see Miss, standing before us in her black short-sleeved dress, her lovely white arms moving like gulls” (5). At a later, critical point, Miss smiles at her pilot, Wolfgang: “Miss lowered her head to hide a little smile, a newborn baby of a smile, you could say” (166). The fact that the narrator’s image says more than he knows is a nice touch.

The main force of the novel is brought about through minimalism. Despite the fact that the main narrative is a love story, we hear little of the narrator’s emotional responses. We see them, at times strikingly. But Miss’ death arrives suddenly, without explanation in the aftermath of events both in the present and in the inset narrative (the class has just heard the end of the Iliad): “Miss Marina was shot as she ran to the wreckage of the plane to help Wolfgang out. They died in the flames together. That was the last day of the great war” (201). As Kallifatides explains, he sees the Iliad as an anti-war poem (“Afterword,” 203). Here, as often, the brutality of war is expressed by the meaningless abruptness of death, expressed without qualification or reaction.

Delargy’s translation of this multivocal transposition reads well. She has succeeded in rendering minimalist Swedish into spare English, and she captures the different voices of Miss (as she recounts Homer), the narrator, and the occasional interlocutor with deft and skillful touches. Kallifatides’ Homer is not my Homer, and much is lost in his forceful displacements. But some touching moments are gained as well, and readers will enjoy his compressed expressions and the careful play of interconnected narratives.

Kallifatides, Theodor. The Siege of Troy, Translated from by Marlaine Delargy. New York: Other Press, 2019.

Kirk Ormand is the Nathan A. Greenberg Professor of Classics at Oberlin College. 

[1] Redfield, James. Nature and Culture in the Iliad: the Tragedy of Hector. University of Chicago Press, 1975.

[2] Homer. Iliad, 22.157-166. Translation is my own.



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