Homer’s epic The Iliad has long been a source of inspiration for writers and artists since ancient times. The huge cast of characters and the dramatic events of the bloody Trojan War fired the imagination of everyone from the ancient Greek dramatists to Greek writers of the diaspora in the present day including Theodor Kallifatides who makes his home in Sweden.
The Siege of Troy: A Novel, Kallifatides’ excellent retelling of perhaps the world’s first anti-war story offers impressive insights into Homer’s work and also into Greece during the World War II German occupation. The author weaves together a moving and thoughtful epic of his own, going back and forth between WWII Greece and a teacher’s recounting of Homer’s Iliad to her students. The result is poignant, beautiful, and powerful, highlighting the humanity of the mortal heroes as the teacher distracts her students from the bombs dropping on their village while also vividly bringing to life the characters and their experience of life in an occupied village in wartime.
The Iliad’s timeless themes, the senselessness of war and the constancy of human nature are clear in Kallifatides’ novel. The gods are not quite as central to Kallifatides’ retelling as they are in Homer’s epic which gives greater psychological depth to the characters battling each other for Troy.
Autobiographical elements offer a level of realism to the sections of the story set during WWII that only an eyewitness to the violence and brutality could capture. It may also surprise readers that the original novel was written in Swedish. Now available in a wonderful English translation by Marlaine Delargy, The Siege of Troy is a must read for fans of Homer’s Iliad and for those who have never ventured into reading the ancient epic, as well as fans of historical fiction and great writing in general.
As Kallifatides writes in the book’s Afterword, “ever since high school, The Iliad has touched my imagination and aroused my admiration. In my eyes, it is the strongest anti-war poem ever written.”
Of his retelling of the epic, he writes, “I had absolutely no intention of trying to replace Homer. I just wanted more people to get to know him.”
Kallifatides has published more than forty works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that have been translated around the world. He was born in the village of Molaoi, in Laconia, Greece, in 1938 to Dimitrios Kallifatides, a teacher originally from Pontus, and Antonia Kyriazakou from Molaoi. In 1946, the family moved to Athens where the young Kallifatides completed high school and then studied at the Karolos Koun Art Theatre Drama School. Kallifatides immigrated in 1964 to Sweden, studying philosophy at Stockholm University where he also lectured. He began his literary career in 1969, publishing a book of poetry, though he is perhaps best known for his novels. As a translator, he has brought August Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman to Greek readers, and Giannis Ritsos and Mikis Theodorakis to Swedish ones. In 1994, he began writing in Greek as well and continues to be one of the most celebrated contemporary authors in Sweden. He has received numerous awards for his work in both Greece and Sweden.
Kallifatides’ previous book, published last year in an English translation also by Delargy, Another Life: On Memory, Language, Love, and the Passage of Time, is a thoughtful essay on the writing life and an author’s place in a changing world.