Saturday, April 13, 2024

Ferdia Lennon’s ‘Glorious Exploits’ is heartbreaking and fun


A man has lost his child. His wife, overcome by sorrow, has abandoned him. So he does what any reasonable person might do to cope with the onslaught of unbearable emotion: wrangles some of the many starving, brutalized Athenians trapped in a quarry outside his Sicilian hometown to perform a full production of Euripides’s “Medea.”

That’s the premise of the Irish writer Ferdia Lennon’s thrilling and heartbreaking debut novel, “Glorious Exploits,” which is set in 412 B.C. during the intra-Greek Peloponnesian War and written in contemporary Irish vernacular. Syracuse, allied with Sparta, has pulled off a highly improbable victory over the invading Athenian forces; authorities, stuck with several thousand prisoners of war, have decided to confine them to local quarries to slowly die of exposure, illness and starvation. Gelon, the grieving father and theater lover, hatches a plan to keep a small group of the imprisoned Athenians fed in return for art. Narrated by Lampo, Gelon’s crass, goofy and deeply loving best friend, the novel is a stunning (and stunningly fun) meditation on companionship, humanity and the role of performance in keeping us all afloat.

The idea (unexplained in the novel) of an ancient Syracusan speaking like a contemporary Dubliner may sound bizarre, but the fresh edge that this linguistic choice lends to Lennon’s prose makes the dusty conflict on which he focuses feel achingly current. When Paches, the Athenian cast as Jason, the male lead in “Medea,” begins to cry at the prospect of a month’s worth of proper meals as payment for his participation, Lampo comments, “It’s fierce strange seeing water flow from a source so dry.”

Fierce strange: There could be no words better paired to encapsulate the savage experience of watching a fellow human starve. It’s a characteristic observation by Lampo, whose voice is the most glorious of the many joys in “Glorious Exploits.” Gelon is the great artistic dreamer of the pair, the one who “would’ve been almost happy for the Athenians to have won if it meant Euripides would’ve popped over and put on some plays.” But Lampo is the storyteller, with a preternatural ability to convert tragedy into humor and back again. Lennon has given him such power that it is forgivable to feel a shock of battle mania — to smell the sea, sweat and gore — when Lampo remembers his one brief foray into the war, stabbing rowers through the oar holes on the Athenian ships.

“It was a good buzz but weird,” he recalls. “You couldn’t see who you’d gotten, only feel the javelin sink into their meat and watch the great oar twitch and slow, the life behind it ebbing away.”

Lampo is particularly well positioned to understand, in his own casually acute way, how deeply his society needs performance to function, especially after finding itself in an unexpected place of military dominance. Made a bit of an outsider by the limp with which he was born — a minor one, but enough for him to see the action with the eye of a critical observer as well as a participant — he reads character quickly and deftly. When a group of aristocratic teens burst into Lampo’s preferred seaside watering hole for an evening among the plebeians, he immediately understands that their grand words about democracy and brotherhood are nothing more than a posture: They want to feel they know the common people, without having to experience any of the common people’s suffering. So, in return for a hearty portion of their expensive wine, he invents a yarn about a heroic act in war that led to his impaired gait. By the end of the night, between the tall tales and the wine, he nearly believes himself.

Most everyone in “Glorious Exploits” is eternally trying on new personas and attuning them to the audience at hand. In time, that jovial creativity yields an underlying darkness; there can be morbid consequences when we step outside of ourselves to withstand the impossible.

In a contemporary moment of war, Lennon’s sharp eye for the barbarism that can accompany society’s theatrical coping mechanisms feels almost too relevant. I had to put the book down for days after reading a scene in which a corps of small children adorned in Athenian armor decide, encouraged by Gelon and Lampo, whether to give the group of dead soldiers from whom they stole their magnificent costumes a proper burial.

The smallest of them — “the helmet on his head a cauldron” — steps forward to protest. “They killed my brother,” he says. “No prayer!” This poor child, immobilized by a grief too big for his tiny body to hold, is acting the part of a soldier in the very garb of the invading force that robbed him of his favorite person.

Near the start of “Medea,” the title character’s old nurse says that events in Medea’s life “have come to such a pitch of grief that there stole a yearning wish upon me to come forth hither and proclaim to heaven and earth my mistress’s hard fate.” (The “Medea” of “Glorious Exploits” begins in a slightly different way, since none of the Athenians are able to recall the nurse’s lines.) Sometimes grief is so profound that the only thing to do is proclaim it, in our own halting ways, to heaven and earth — even if those proclamations themselves cause more grief.

In “Glorious Exploits,” they do just that. But they also spark a kind of resonant clarity and healing. “Gelon says that’s what the best plays do,” Lampo reflects. “If they’re true enough, you’ll recognise it even if it all seems mad at first.”

Talya Zax is an editor at the Forward.

Henry Holt. 289 pp. $26.99

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