but slowly buried beneath its beauty
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
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.