Sunday, March 02, 2008
When We Were Gods
Our book today is When We Were Gods by Colin Falconer, and it treads the thrice-trod ground of the storied romantic entanglement of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt with ... well, really with the burgeoning Roman Empire, although specifically with two very different individual Romans: first an older and slightly grizzled Julius Caesar, envisioned by Falconer as a frustrated statesman dreaming of some last-minute glory, and second by Marc Antony, Caesar's one-time top enforcer, portrayed by pretty much everybody other than Falconer as an ambitious dupe Cleopatra first used than tossed aside.
This storyline has been revisited by writers of historical fiction ever since Plutarch made most of it up, two thousand years ago, and usually these writers manage to get only one out of the three main characters right (about the same ratio of success usually applies to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in Star Trek - and from what we've seen, we have every reason to expect that ratio to hold true in the upcoming movie, since in it, Kirk has been cast as a bland, blond nobody and McCoy has been cast with an actor easily fifteen years too old for the part, leaving the field clear for what we're certain will be a spot-on Spock).
Caesar is in some ways the easiest. Most writers offer up a variation on the slightly effete, bored, blank space conjured up by Rex Harrison in the famous movie. Here's a sample of Falconer on the man, in a section in which he visits the tomb of Alexander the Great with Cleopatra:
The Great One could have been a statue. His hands were crossed on his breast, his golden hair spread out around his head like flax. The skin had been highlighted with cosmetics, to give it a more natural hue, but beneath the embalmer's artistry the skin was like parchment. One of the nostrils was gone, knocked off by some accident, it was said. by one of her ancestors.
Ceasar was overwhelmed by what he saw. He had taken no more than a few steps into the chamber when he gasped and fell to his knees.
She was astonished. It was the first time she'd seen him in awe of anything. He is human after all, she thought. And what he most reveres is my own bloodline. Perhaps I have a greater hold on this man than I believe.
For a long time, he did not speak. Finally, he said, "He was far younger than me when he died, and yet he had conquered half the world."
"You are greater than he is," she whispered.
"How can I be greater? When I compare myself to him, I have achieved nothing."
"But you are still alive. Alexander is dead."
This seemed to cheer him slightly.
Cleopatra herself elicits slightly more original handling from Falconer (although it should be pointed out that his writing on all his many characters is really quite good, a good deal better than virtually all other such novels on this subject, most certainly including the latest over-Loebed doorstop from Colleen McCullough), as in this little peroration in which she tries to spell out to Caesar just exactly how important she is:
As queen I hold the monopoly on all of this. It is the queen who tells the peasants how much to plant, and the products are pressed in my factories. All that oil is mine. It is Cleopatra's grain that feeds the Mediterranean, and the tax on wheat is twenty million bushels a year. And there is so much you haven't seen. My papyrus plants make paper for the whole world. I have a monopoly on wool, a quarter share on all fish and honey sold in Egypt, a third share of all the grapes. I have salt and natron pits. I have gold mines in the south. I take a twelve percent duty on all goods that go up the Nile...
You go, girl!
However, as good as Falconer's book is - and it's very good, good enough to be recommended here at Stevereads - it stays true to the golden ratio: it only gets one of its three main characters exactly right, and it's the one most writers reliably get wrong. Falconer's Marc Antony is a lowbrow brute you can't help but like, a foul-mouthed soldier who's nevertheless more honest than everybody around him. That honesty does him no good - in fact, it dooms him - but it's at least enjoyable to read. Falconer's Antony is worth the price of the book, as in this bath house scene, where he and Cicero catch sight of young Octavian (the future 'Augustus' of the known world) cavorting:
"Octavian," Cicero muttered.
Antony examined him critically. "Look at him. Bottom as hard as a camp bed. Talking of beds, they say his friend Maecenas has camped there overnight once or twice."
The boy jumped into the hot water and disappeared from sight.
"They say he's Julius' favorite," Cicero murmured. "One day he might be named as his heir."
"That little bitch? He would make a Consul a good wife, certainly. But I doubt he shall ever amount to anything. The first rain and he sickens like a wet cat."
Of course Antony - and all his allies, including Cleopatra - turn out to be drastically wrong about Octavian's staying power, but that's a large part of the fun of revisiting this story so regularly, isn't it? We all know how it ends. It's up to each author to take the material up and make something interesting out of it. Shakespeare of course created one of his most lush and over-ripe masterpieces. Shaw crafted a play in which he himself more or less shuts up, always a noteworthy occasion. And Colin Falconer has made a novel well worth your time.