House of Names, by Colm Tóibín
If someone invites you to a party at the House of Atreus, don’t go. Nothing good can come of it. Their nibbles are substandard, the drinks warm, and you are likely to end up in the dungeons. And that’s the best case scenario. House of Names, Colm Tóibín’s new novel acts as nothing less than a catalogue of the woes that could befall an ancient Greek family back in the day, from human sacrifice to kidnap to murder. Tóibín’s new novel is a loose adaptation of Aeschylus’ Orestia, or at least two-thirds of it — oddly and perhaps sadly, a courtroom drama adjudicated by none less than Athena herself seemed not to have appealed to the author — beginning with Iphigenia’s sacrifice by Agamemnon to change the winds and speed his fleet towards Troy, and ending with the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus by Orestes, Iphigenia’s brother and Clytemnestra’s son.
(Can you really spoil a story that’s about two-and-a-half thousand years old? Especially when it’s a tragedy — a genre that only ever ends one way?)
Interpolated between the well-worn stories written by Aeschylus are new vignettes — what made Clytemnestra so enraged that she waited ten years to kill her husband? Where was Orestes where his father was killed? What is Electra’s part in all of this? The most effective of these is the one that kicks off the book: Agamemnon’s deception and Iphigenia’s sacrifice. The snapshot begins from the perspective of a mother beaming with pride — Clytemnestra believes herself to be sailing off to marry her daughter to Achilles, the most famed warrior in all Greece. But her pride fast turns to grief as she learns from none other than the husband-to-be that Iphigenia is not to be married, but to be killed, to guarantee a strong headwind for Agamemnon’s fleet. Grief turns to murderous rage as she is forced to watch her daughter’s throat cut, bound and gagged and helpless on an altar. It’s a startling and ferocious ten pages or so of high-flung virtuoso emotion, of the sparks that fly when something as close to universal as a mother’s love and pride and grief is cast against something as alien and inscrutable as the whims of the gods.
Tóibín’s major achievement with House of Names is in humanising the Orestia — a play cycle first performed over two thousand years ago in front of an audience of ancient Athenians in a ritualised drama competition devoted to Dionysius — without losing the crystal-sharp, hard-edged harshness of the original, set in a universe where justice is swift, and meted out with knives and relish. What Tóbín does is removes the gods from Aeschylus’ universe, makes justice something that humans are beginning to do to one another, rather than something which is meted out from above. As Electra says, “We live in a strange time … A time when the gods are fading. Some of us still see them but there are times when we don’t. Their power is waning. Soon, it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day. Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in that house it brushed you with its wings.”
Or, as someone else would very nearly put it, two millennia later, heaven is empty and all the devils are here.
Viking kindly furnished me with a review copy of House of Names.