Mod­ern twist to an an­cient Greek gore-fest

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

In the ac­knowl­edge­ments of his lat­est novel, David Vann de­clares: “I’m a neo­clas­si­cal writer. My nov­els are all Greek tragedies.” This bold claim is a fit­ting clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Each of the Amer­i­can au­thor’s works — and in par­tic­u­lar Leg­end of a Sui­cide (2008) and Goat Moun­tain (2013) — in­cor­po­rate and re­volve around prom­i­nent themes and mo­tifs from Greek mythol­ogy: par­ent-child re­la­tion­ships and mar­i­tal ten­sion; tri­umphs of the will and ex­ca­va­tions of the soul; de­sire and revenge, con­se­quence and prov­i­dence.

“Par­ents are gods,” a mother tells her daugh­ter in Vann’s 2015 novel Aquar­ium. “They make us and they de­stroy us.”

Bright Air Black is Vann’s big­gest Greek tragedy to date, pri­mar­ily be­cause it is a retelling of an an­cient tale, a re­touched por­trait of one of mythol­ogy’s most en­thralling and no­to­ri­ous women, Medea.

Tak­ing him­self out of his com­fort zone and trans­port­ing his reader to the Mediter­ranean and Black Sea in the 13th cen­tury BC, Vann al­lows the good ship Argo to set sail once again and Medea to flee her home, con­duct a pas­sion­ate love af­fair, then come un­done through a cli­mac­tic act of sav­agery.

Vann di­vides his time be­tween Bri­tain and New Zealand. His 2014 mem­oir A Mile Down is about his love of boats and the sea, a pas­sion that al­most ended in dis­as­ter. And the con­densed epic of Bright Air Black is launched on the high seas. Hav­ing be­trayed her fa­ther, killed her brother and helped Ja­son ob­tain the Golden Fleece, Medea makes a per­ilous voy­age from Colchis with her new lover and his crew of Arg­onauts. This out­cast and traitor “has un­strung the world, pulled some vi­tal thread and un­rav­elled all. Noth­ing to do now but hold her breath and find out whether a new world re-forms”.

They sail through burn­ing days and long nights. On­board and ashore the men at­tack ma­raud­ers, then cel­e­brate with boor­ish carous­ing. Medea looks on, await­ing her des­ti­na­tion and noble free­dom with Ja­son. But when at last they reach Greece, Pelias, the usurper un­cle who sent Ja­son on his quest, re­neges on his prom­ise to give up his throne and turns Medea into a slave.

When Vann’s sec­ond part opens, time has elapsed. Ja­son and Medea now have two sons who “scratch at the dirt and wait, slaves too young yet to be of use, fat­tened for a fu­ture they can’t pos­si­bly be­lieve”. Medea wins her free­dom by trick­ing Pelias’s daugh­ters, and the fam­ily es­capes and is forced to live in ex­ile. How­ever, Ja­son soon turns his at­ten­tion from Medea to a king’s beau­ti­ful young daugh­ter. A cast-off “bar­bar­ian wife” be­comes a woman scorned with no op­tion left but to ex­act ter­ri­ble ret­ri­bu­tion.

This is, of course, a sani­tised out­line. The full-fat, fleshed-out ver­sion of events is ex­cep­tion­ally grue­some. On the Greek stage, only so much vi­o­lence could be pre­sented to an au­di­ence: abridged hor­rors were re­counted by the cho­rus and sec­ondary char­ac­ters.

Vann takes the op­po­site ap­proach and gives us a ring­side seat to a blood-soaked, vis­cer­adrip­ping gore-fest. Bat­tles are cruel and grisly. No foren­sic de­tail is spared as Pelias’s duped daugh­ters “re­ju­ve­nate” their fa­ther by butcher­ing him and stew­ing his “Demigod meat” in a caul­dron. At the end we get the mon­strous scene we have been dread­ing, the source of Medea’s mil­len­nia-old in­famy: a mother killing her own chil­dren.

Vann’s reimag­in­ing is not for the faint-hearted. Some will won­der if he over­steps the mark. Oth­ers will ques­tion the point of the whole en­ter­prise. Why bother with a book which takes, blends and re­pur­poses episodes from Apol­lo­nius of Rhodes’ The Arg­onau­tica and Euripi­des’ Medea when we can read those orig­i­nal works?

The an­swer be­comes clear sev­eral pages into Bright Air Black. Vann gives us a fresh slant on an early myth, an up-close and in-depth charac-

Medea about to kill her chil­dren, in an 1862 paint­ing by Delacroix

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