THE OPENING paragraph of Colm Tóibín’s new novel House Of Names is a surprise: “I have been acquainted with the smell of death...So much has slipped away, but the smell of death lingers. Maybe the smell has entered my body and been welcomed there like an old friend come to visit. The smell of fear and panic."
A few paragraphs later we read: “They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. My daughter had her hands tied tight behind her back, the skin on her wrists raw with ropes, and her ankles bound. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father."
These short excerpts set the tone of what can only be described as an extraordinary novel where violent death and murder, betrayal and treachery, rape and kidnapping, are the order of the day, all driven by an insane hunger for power and glory. As the opening paragraph suggests, the narrative is dominated by the smell of death.
The speed of the narrative suggests this is simply a horror page turner with blood spattered on every page. It revolves around the Greek tragic story of Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra, and their children Iphigenia, Orestes, and Electra. To appease the gods and get them to change the winds so he can sail his ships and rout his enemies, Agamemnon has Iphigenia slaughtered as a sacrifice on her wedding day.
This brutal and bloody act unleashes a trail of revenge and murder that destroys both the family and Agamemnon’s reign. There follows an even more brutal regime and the cycle would seem set to repeat itself ad nauseam. However from early on in the narrative, there is evidence of a seismic change and the suggestion the gods were indifferent:
“It struck me for a second that this is what the gods did with us – they distracted us with mock conflicts, with the shout of life they distracted us also with images of harmony, beauty, love, as they watched distantly, dispassionately, waiting for the moment when it ended, when exhaustion set in. They stood back, as we stood back. And when it ended, they shrugged. They no longer cared."
As the narrative continues and the lower strata of the classical society begin to flex its muscle, the power and benevolence of the gods is questioned to the point where their power is seen to wane and they are no longer of relevance.
House Of Names is not for the faint hearted. Neither is it a one dimensional novel simply relating a bloody and brutal tale of Ancient Greece, there is also an exploration of an evolutionary society inching its way towards a modicum of civilisation. It is a painful, excruciating process, but one that adds depth and power to the book. It makes for a fascinating and rewarding read.
Colm Tóibín will join RTÉ Washington Corresdpondent Catríona Perry for A Powerful Effect, a Galway International Arts Festival First Thought Talk in the O'Donoghue Theatre, NUI Galway on Sunday July 23 at 2.30pm. Tickets are €10. See www.giaf.ie #GIAF17