Recently there has been a spate of retellings of the Iliad, to name just Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, focusing on the female slaves, and Colm Tóibín’s take on the aftermath of the Trojan war, House of Names. For his second novel, Michael Hughes attempts something more literal and more challenging: to transpose the narrative of Homer’s war epic as closely as possible to the Troubles.
The story concerns Achill, a disenchanted IRA sniper, and his paramilitary boss, who fall out over a girl. Pig is just as unappealing as Agamemnon; Helen is local beauty Nellie; Hector is SAS man Henry; and Patroclus pleasingly, becomes Pat, Achill’s young protégé but not bed partner. Hughes does his best, finding reasonable fictional correspondences for Ilium (Camp William, the ‘W’ having gone missing), and such moments as the child Astyanax (Max, here) being terrified by his father Hector wearing a helmet. Other elements prove harder to update, such as the Greeks’ complex bartering, two-handled cups and bronze tripods translating with difficulty into modern consumer goods.
The action is set during an IRA ceasefire, with Pig’s active service unit goaded into action by Nellie’s first becoming a ‘tout’ (informer) and later running off with her English handler, nicknamed Paris. This narrative is even more aggressively masculine than the Iliad, with Nellie and Henry’s wife Anna (Andromache) far less resonant than their originals. In the Iliad, it’s the Greeks who are usurping others’ territory, the Trojans who are on home ground. But that’s the beauty of Hughes’s schema: when it clicks you admire his ingenuity, when it doesn’t you contemplate the irony.
Convoluted talk of political machinations and ‘back-channels’ in Belfast, Dublin and London update the action, while Country’s grim, anti-heroic tone sometimes veers on the humorous, as in the description of the honeymoon of this modern Helen and Menelaus, a week in Donegal: ‘Most of it she spent sitting on her hole staring out at the rain while he went and caught up with various old friends.’ More relentless are the equivalents to Homer’s ghastly passages about the hacking of human bodies in war. Knowing what’s going to happen lessens the tension; it’s easy to guess how Achill will re-enact the desecration of Hector’s body. A certain moral equivalence is granted all the fighters, though ultimately Hughes is less subtle and even-handed than his original. But there’s no shame in that.