Cuckoo for the Greeks

Staying In

A sweeping history, a classic and a modern fiction 

Book review
Bríd Conroy

From philosophy to politics, medicine to engineering, mathematics to astronomy, architecture to the arts, Greek civilisation has contributed enormously to the world. We can even thank them for marathons, maps, umbrellas and alarm clocks.
A new book, ‘The Greeks: A Global History’, by Roderick Beaton (published by Faber & Faber) tells the fascinating story of the Greek people, spanning a vast period of 3,500 years.
Greek determination was initially defined by language. A person who spoke the Greek language was determined to be Greek, and those that didn’t were named ‘Barbarians’. They formed city states around 1,500BC and went on to colonise the north Mediterranean, Spain, France, Italy and the Black Sea, Alexandria and Anatolia. They were traders and seafaring people. Today, their shipping companies are amongst the biggest in the world.
Beaton estimates that it was around the period 1,180BC to 720BC that Homer’s world emerged. Not much is known about the man – or even if he was one man. What we do know is that ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’, his most famous works, were first circulated in written form around about 700BC. Along with the early Hebrew scriptures, these works are the oldest narratives continuously read and copied to this day.

Story of Odysseus
I was struck therefore by the enormous privilege I was being granted in finally getting to read the 2,700-year-old story that is ‘The Odyssey’, on our post-Christmas break from the shop. I had braced myself for excruciatingly brilliant lines that would possibly make a liar of me when I said it was genius and I had actually read it all. But how wrong was I.
The translation by Robert Fagles, published by Penguin Classics, is a just a joy. It is a 12,109 line poem in the hexameter format, which in lay persons terms, means that the story is broken up into small beautiful paragraphs that somehow wash over the reader like a song. It tells the story of King Odysseus, a Greek hero from the Trojan War who is finding his way home to the island of Ithaca in western Greece.
I was lost to a world where Immortals and Mortals co-exist and where a respect for what is known and unknown brings a certainty and beauty to life. Many verses begin with ‘When young Dawn with rose-red fingers shone once more’. The story has got it all; a myriad of gods and goddesses, intrigue, travel, adventure, history and many morals lessons.
Gripping epic
Not long before that, I had finished Anthony Doerr’s latest book, ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’. It is based on an imaginary utopian land that supposedly first appeared in a novel by Antonius Diogenes in Greece in the 2nd century BC.
One part of the story is set in Constantinople in 1453 at the time when the city fell to the Ottoman Turks and the Greek classics, such as ‘The Odyssey’, first arrived in Italy. This book is Doerr’s own imagined story of how those texts journeyed to Italy.
But he doesn’t leave it at that. There is a present day story involving a translation of Greek classics. There is a future story involving a 592- year journey to a distant planet. And running through it all is the text of the original story of Cloud Cuckoo Land, the story of Aethon who longs to be a bird so he can visit this utopian land in the sky. There is a lot going on in this book – some reviews called it five novels in one – but it is epic and so worth it.
Today, Greece is a nation with almost 11 million people within its borders today and a diaspora (a Greek word) that’s another 7 million strong. The Greeks gave us Homer and the alphabet, not to mention democracy. And so much more. Immerse yourself in their history and storytelling, and feel yourself enriched.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.