The House of Names.
Picador. 2017. 262 pp.
ISBN 978 1 7605 5142 1.
Clytemnestra's husband, Agamemnon, on the instructions of the gods, has ritually sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, in order to obtain a fair wind for his becalmed ships so they can sail to wage war on Troy. During the ten years he is away, Clytemnestra takes his cousin Augisthus as her lover, and on the day of Agamemnon's glorious return, she welcomes him lavishly and then murders him in his bath. Electra, their second daughter, knows all this and has watched her mother's behavior with disgust and anger. She arranges for her young brother, Orestes, to be taken to a safe haven so he can grow up and return to claim his rightful heritage.
In the Ancient Greek myths about Orestes, family relationships are interwoven and complex, and the gods are heavily involved. In House of Names, Colm Toibin avoids these complexities by focusing only on Orestes' immediate family, which is probably a blessing for those unfamiliar with the ancient myths. And he dispenses with the gods almost completely.
I read House of Names before refreshing my memory of the original myths, in which there are several different versions of the story. It is a powerful story however it is told, and Toibin manages to capture vividly the sacrifice of Iphigenia and Clytemnestra's thoughts and feelings as she watches this happen. Clytemnestra's voice is compelling, and we come to understand some of the reasons for her subsequent anger, dissimilation, and duplicity. Electra, too, has a voice of her own, and we feel her disgust and anger at her mother's behavior, her fear of Augisthus, and her growing desire to avenge the murder of her beloved father. We understand her longing for Orestes to return and exact this revenge.
Toibin says, in a publicity sheet accompanying the book, that he did not find anything much about Orestes in the Greek texts. Orestes, he says, "has been away; he returns; he performs. That is all. He remains a mystery." This is true only in so far as Orestes' exile is concerned. It is certainly not true of what happens to Orestes after he murders his mother. In 458 BC, for example, when Aeschylus's trilogy, The Oresteia, won a major prize for drama, the audience learned in the first play of the adultery, deceit, and murders in the House of Atreus at Argos, to which Orestes is heir. In the second and third plays, they would have seen the terrifying results for Orestes of these acts and his subsequent trial for matricide. Justice and law, the struggle between the old earth gods and the new Greek gods of Olympus, all were played out with Orestes at their center.
It is an author's privilege, however, to tell a story and invent its contents as he or she wishes. Toibin says he gives Orestes "a memory, a conscience, a way of noticing and feeling," and he creates him "at two different ages; as a young boy and then later as a young man." Toibin also invents what happens to Orestes during his exile. After his father's murder, Toibin's young Orestes, at the command of Augisthus, is forcibly taken to a far-distant, violent, and cruel prison where other boys from the city have been incarcerated. Orestes and his friend Leander escape, taking a sickly boy called Milos with them. They flee across dangerous, war-scarred land and eventually find refuge with an old woman who tells stories referencing (for those who recognize them) old myths about Orestes' family history. Eventually, Orestes returns to Argos, meets Electra, is reunited with his joyful mother, and following a plan devised by Electra, murders his mother. All this is dramatic enough, but since Toibin chooses to tell Orestes' story himself, rather than giving him a voice, the result, compared to his creation of Clytemnestra and Electra, is rather flat and dry.
For anyone who knows even just the broad outline of the ancient Orestes' story, there are things here that will jar. Why, for example, does Toibin change the name of Orestes' closest friend, Pylades, to Leander? It was in the noble house of Pylades' father that Orestes of the early myths spent most of his exile, and it was there the two boys formed their close bond. Toibin keeps the homo-erotic suggestions of their friendship but eventually separates Orestes and Leander, kills off Leander's family, and gives Electra the role Pylades originally plays in supporting Orestes in the murder of his mother.
In spite of such quibbles, for those who know nothing of the original myth, Toibin's House of Names is as dramatic and bloody a psychological thriller as any modern, murderous, TV family drama.
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