but slowly buried be­neath its beauty

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

con­tra­dic­tory think­ing of the good Vi­en­nese doc­tor. Freud didn’t just imag­ine the nascent sci­ence of psy­cho­anal­y­sis in terms of Oedi­pus dig­ging for self-knowl­edge, brush­ing away the base ma­te­rial of neu­ro­sis as though to ex­ca­vate a buried city. He saw the re­cov­ery of lost arte­facts — in psy­cho­log­i­cal terms, some­thing re­pressed — as an act of de­struc­tion, too. Or so he ex­plained to one of his most fa­mous pa­tients, the ‘‘ rat man’’: ev­ery­thing con­scious was sub­ject to a process of wear­ing away, while what was un­con­scious was rel­a­tively un­change­able; and I il­lus­trated my re­marks by point­ing to the an­tiques stand­ing about in my room. They were, in fact, I said, only ob­jects found in a tomb, and their burial had been their preser­va­tion; the de­struc­tion of Pom­peii was only beginning now that it had been dug up. En­ter Ben Mercer, a stu­dent of clas­si­cal arche­ol­ogy from Ox­ford whose young wife has left him for their far older pro­fes­sor, tak­ing their in­fant daugh­ter with her.

A pli­ant per­son­al­ity, hun­gry for ap­proval, Ben is drawn by feel­ings of guilt and re­morse back to painful events — it seems the break-up was his fault — yet he seems equally de­ter­mined to avoid ex­am­in­ing his own mo­ti­va­tions.

It is to shake off th­ese events that Ben flees to Greece, a coun­try whose past he loves but whose re­cent present he barely un­der­stands. There he finds stop-gap work in a dreary Athe­nian sub­urb with the myth­i­cal name of Meta­mor­pho­sis.

Slav­ing along­side street-wise Al­ba­ni­ans in a restau­rant kitchen, un­der the men­ac­ing eye of the owner’s xeno­pho­bic son, Ben pulls him­self to­gether but fails to ab­sorb the more sin­is­ter lessons prof­fered by this so­ci­ety in minia­ture.

In­stead, fol­low­ing a chance meet­ing with a fel­low arche­ol­ogy stu­dent, the bril­liant and mys­te­ri­ous Eber­hard, Ben heads for Sparta, where a dig is un­der way.

Eber­hard has as­sem­bled

a team of

smart young things there, labour­ing un­der Missy, the sweetly naive Amer­i­can rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the project’s fun­ders, while work­ing to­wards their own, se­cre­tive ends.

The group’s dy­namic re­calls oth­ers: those dis­so­lute north­ern­ers tour­ing the deca­dent, sun­drenched south in Ernest Hem­ing­way’s The Sun Also Rises and Cyril Con­nolly’s The Rock Pool , and more re­cently the globe-trot­ting hip­ster nihilists imag­ined by Bret Eas­ton El­lis and Alex Gar­land. Mostly, though, they re­mind read­ers of the gang of feral clas­si­cists from Ham­p­den Col­lege, Ver­mont, whose outre high jinks made Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Se­cret His­tory such an ef­fec­tive lit­er­ary thriller.

The Hid­den ’ s arche­o­log­i­cal crew has some of the elit­ist glam­our sur­round­ing that ear­lier group: the same quasi-in­ces­tu­ous close­ness, the same will­ing­ness to per­mit a gifted out­sider — the poor one, hun­gry for in­clu­sion — in on ac­tiv­i­ties that lie out­side the bor­ders of con­ven­tional moral­ity.

Ben’s grad­ual in­duc­tion

into

their num­ber un­folds in pure poet’s prose. It is beau­ti­ful and ex­act­ing, too ex­quis­ite on oc­ca­sion yet al­ways at­ten­tive to those de­tails that marry the dreary con­crete re­al­ity and touris­tic gaudi­ness of mod­ern Greece with a nat­u­ral land­scape of pal­pa­ble threat and ar­chaic splen­dour.

Un­hap­pily, how­ever, at­ten­tions lav­ished on the prose are with­held from the nar­ra­tive. Ob­sessed by the glossy per­fec­tion of his lan­guage, Hill is un­will­ing to bend it to the in­di­vid­ual needs of his cast. Plot is also sub­servient to the novel’s com­plex in­tel­lec­tual lac­ing of an­cient Sparta with mod­ern Greece, pa­gan moral­ity with Chris­tian ethics, de­gen­er­acy with race, Europe with Asia, and so on.

By the time Ben un­cov­ers what has been hid­den all along — the deeds per­formed by his friends be­cause of their mis­placed ad­mi­ra­tion for the Spar­tan ideal and his own com­plic­ity in their crime — the nar­ra­tive has long fallen into ruin. Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is chief lit­er­ary critic of The Aus­tralian.

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