Memorial: A Version of Homer's Iliad by Alice Oswald is not a conventional translation of Homer’s epic poem. Unlike most word-for-word translations, Oswald rewrites the Iliad to instead focus on common soldiers, rather than great generals. The first pages of the work are simply a list of the soldiers who die over the course of the war, without any reference to their status. In doing so, Oswald evokes one of the most common themes in all of literature, that it is necessary to write about the past to remember it and to use its lessons for the future. The book’s spare, elegant verse simply details the demise of various warriors. It is deliberately anachronistic, making reference to snow and other common reference points for contemporary readers which would not be familiar to the Greeks (Oswald 14). Oswald suggests that to prevent destruction today, we must rewrite how past wars were understood.
Of course, the idea of memory as a way of preserving life and preventing destruction is not a new one in literature. One of the oldest novels, Robinson Crusoe, specifically details the survival of a man on a tropical island and how he thwarts the ultimate destruction, the destructive power of death. Crusoe fends off cannibals and other threats to eventually return to his homeland. Crusoe, writing in the first person, is determined to remember what he endured for posterity and how he preserved himself. Even his servant Friday’s name is given to the native man to remember that Crusoe saved his life. Once again, as in Oswald’s interpretation of the Iliad, memory acts as a way of preserving someone’s life against the forces of destruction, either in the face of death or insurmountable odds.
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay depicts a group of Anglicans visiting the ruins of Turkey. The novel creates a deliberate comparison between the antiquated attitudes of the British visitors and the destroyed, “disused, wrecked, Byzantine” civilization they are viewing (Macaulay 72). But in this book, although memory is important, so is the idea of being able to look at the past with new eyes, to avoid the decaying forces of destruction. Although they see themselves as modern and the civilization they are gazing upon as antique, the book implies that both the relics and people are the same, because they resist both change. Remembering the past is important but there is always a need to rewrite history and offer a new perspective from the present day vantage-point.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. SC Active Business Development Srl, 2017.
Macaulay, Rose. The Towers of Trebizond. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
Oswald, Alice. Memorial: A Version of Homer's Iliad. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.