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5 june 2013

The Odyssey is as uneven as the Iliad. If there's a profile of the Odyssey among readers, it's that it's somewhat later, somewhat more literary (as opposed to oral-traditional), though that's a very vexed scholarly question. The Odyssey is sometimes thought of as having a more sophisticated structure and greater psychological nuance than the Iliad, and with good reason. But it's also a strangely disparate epic, full of contradictions and inconsistencies – and it's all the more wonderful for them.

As people have no doubt been noting for over 2,500 years, the great story of travel takes place more at home than on the road: 14 of the Odyssey's 24 books are set in Ithaca, the place Odysseus is trying to get to. He himself gets there halfway through the story. The word "odyssey," a common noun for the archetypal hero's journey, is something of a misnomer. It's as if the Iliad were set somewhere other than Troy, or Moby-Dick took place mostly ashore.

And you can't help feeling, as you wind through the Odyssey, that it's oblique in ways the Iliad never is; that the Odyssey is in some hard-to-define way not about what it's about. The characters, though praised for their directness, rarely talk straightforwardly. Odysseus, of course, will lie as soon as look at you. He's the original unreliable narrator; when asked for an account of his travels, even when he's admitting that he's actually Odysseus (which is not often), he comes up with a different version every time. We usually assume that the version he tells the Phaeacians in the middle of the Odyssey is what really happened to him. He repeats a digest of that version to Penelope in Book 23: though he could just be corroborating his own lies, and to assume that he's going to be any more truthful with Penelope than anybody else is romantic wishful thinking.

The evasiveness of the characters extends well beyond Odysseus, however. Telemachus, Odysseus's son, sails to sandy Pylos to get news of his father, because the proverbially wise Nestor rules in Pylos and must know everything about everything: "do not, / out of pity, spare me the truth, but tell me / Whatever you have seen, whatever you know. / I beseech you, if my father, noble Odysseus, / ever fulfilled a promise he made to you" (3: ll. 105-09, p. 31). And Nestor proceeds to launch into a long discussion of absolutely everything but Odysseus.

Nestor does talk a lot about Agamemnon, though. In fact Homer himself begins the Odyssey with Odysseus, naturally, but quickly makes a digression to talk about Agamemnon. The homecoming of Odysseus is played out against what the characters already know of the disastrous homecoming of his boss. In Book 11, Agamemnon meets Odysseus at the edge of the underworld to complain about his welcome home; in Book 24, Agamemnon has a chat with the newly-dead Suitors, and draws still further invidious parallels between Penelope and Clytemnestra.

Meanwhile, every conversation among the three principal Ithacans (Odysseus, Telemachus, and Penelope) seems off the point, querulous, or opaque. This is in part quite realistic; it's a pretty dysfunctional family, after all, and they haven't seen one another in, oh, 20 years or so. But there may also be cultural factors at work that translation can't quite capture. And in part it may just be that Odyssey style: tell a tiny portion of the truth, and tell it exceedingly slant.

Stanley Lombardo's 2000 translation is the current state of the art, a direct version that conveys the exhilaration of the Odyssey's several plots and the hammering violence that is all the more shocking because here it breaks out at peaceful moments (unlike the Iliad's more predictable rhythms of war). Odysseus standing over the Suitors he's slaughtered, ordering his house to be purified with sulfur fumes, is like a latter-day zombie slayer standing over a mound of the recently-walking dead and realizing that the clean-up is going to be as hard as the killing.

And of course, there's more killing in store. Just as Tiresias has foretold that Odysseus will have to start traveling again as soon as he stops traveling, he's also forced to start killing again as soon as the killing ends. The Odyssey isn't quite as eloquent as the Oresteia or the book of Genesis on the problems of the endless vendetta, but it deals with them. Or rather, it deals with them by having the goddess Athena descend (not literally in a machine, though she might as well have) and simply tell everybody to stop it.

The ending of the Odyssey is as perfunctory and slapdash as the ending of the Iliad is awful and profound. There's probably a thematic appropriateness there, though. The Iliad is about things coming to an halt, ending irrecoverably; the Odyssey is about never being able to cease from motion. So it has to end arbitrarily, and is unsatisfactory: and it has to provoke later writers to conclusions and adaptations and alternate versions: to become their own Odysseuses.

Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000.