John Dolan’s Brutal and Absurd War Nerd Iliad

I recently read a small book called An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom by Jonathan Russell Clark, part of a series of writers writing about others writers’ works: in this case, about Roberto Bolaño and 2666. (Full disclosure: I contributed a volume to the same series.) In reflecting on “The Part about the Crimes,” the section of 2666 in which Bolaño relentlessly and dispassionately catalogs the murders of over a hundred women — a fictionalized version of the real-life murders and disappearances of hundreds of women in the city of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico — Clark says, simply and truly, “The title says it all. Bolaño doesn’t fuck around.” He goes on to note that the author:

never narrates the murders in the present moment; instead he deduces from the state of their bodies, in a decidedly clinical manner, the circumstances and likely causes of their deaths. The effect is one of resignation and witness, as if the homicides were a matter of course.

I went back and reread the novel. The sense of resignation this steady accumulation of tiny crime narratives engenders is part of the sense of inexorable apocalypse that looms beneath the novel’s surface, coming up only rarely to puff into the air like a white whale and then go back into the depths.

On the other hand, I recently watched a movie called John Wick. Someone I knew had seen it on an airplane and recommended it to me; he knew that I have a soft spot for bloody action schlock. I was sick when I watched it, just a low-grade cold, maybe a slight fever, wrapped in blankets on the couch and drinking a lot of tea. The movie stars an impossibly preserved Keanu Reeves, a beautiful affectless blank. He plays a former assassin. Some Russian gangsters kill his dog, a parting gift from his dead wife. He goes after them and kills them all — the body count is in the dozens, maybe hundreds. He kills them balletically and operatically, with guns and cars and utensils. The movie is utterly preposterous; filmed in sexy lighting, beautifully framed, with an absolute seriousness of purpose that makes it completely hilarious. You find yourself hooting along as John dispatches another dozen vaguely pan-Slavic goons at a clip.

2666 is a masterpiece, and John Wick is fine-tuned trash, but the two of them keep leaning in to bookend my reaction to The War Nerd Iliad, a new prose translation of the epic by John Dolan, a writer and former academic best known for his “War Nerd” alter ego, a columnist and podcaster who gleefully and sometimes profanely skewers what probably used to be called war correspondence and is now referred to as “National Security” reporting. The Iliad is well-suited to the gleeful and profane. It is absurdly, comically, grindingly violent. The Greeks were as fond of gross-out humor as any American frat bro, and there are plenty of laughs for eyes popping out of heads and charioteers getting skewered in the groin. Its canonization and the sometimes delicate sensibilities of many older English translators polished the bronze, but unlike The Odyssey, which despite its own moments of gutter humor is an altogether more magical, ethereal picaresque, The Iliad is fundamentally the story of two fractious, incompetent, and frequently drunk armies fighting a brutally useless campaign largely for the amusement of bickering, incestuous gods. For long stretches, it is very little more than variations on the theme of how a soldier could die in the ancient world: spitted like a goat on a spear, his head mashed in, his brains bashed out, his guts spilled — on and on in exquisite detail.

Prose translations of Homer have rather fallen out of fashion, but I like them. My first encounters with both epics came via beaten old paperback copies of the Samuel Butler translations, and we read E.V. Rieu’s Odyssey in eighth-grade English. Homer’s poetry, after all, is not really Homer’s poetry, but a transcription of a transcription of a transcription of a story much closer to the matinee entertainments of a modern “cinematic universe.” They are driven by plot and swiftly sketched character. (Odysseus is smarmy Tony Stark. Achilles is the heroic Captain America, half in love with his best friend. Paris would be played by Tom Hiddleston.) Dolan’s prose — gabby, pulpy, un-poetic, archly ironic, and usually present tense — is well-suited to the material:

The troops are screaming and whooping, ready to storm Olympos itself. They don’t know what’s going on and don’t care. All they know is that one way or another, this miserable nine-year stalemate looks set to break. Any ending is better than another year of eating windblown sand and scooping rainwater out of a rat-hole with your shield.

This is, after all, a war story, despite the gods and demigods. Like any good war story, it is simultaneously brutal and absurd.

The translation is true but not precise — it is in some sense a retelling as much as a translation. Dolan occasionally rearranges elements to hasten his readers into the plot. He opens the first book, for instance, in medias res, with captured Briesis awaiting her fate, which in the poem takes a few pages to get to. He preserves the spoken dialogue, though he makes characters like Agamemnon sound appropriately rough. He liberally adds contextual information right into the story, something you’d expect to find in science fiction or fantasy, the two literary genres closest in spirit to Homer, and the two most concerned with world building. I learned a thing or two! This was the Bronze Age: did you know that bronze swords were badly tempered and as likely to shatter as cut through a helmet or a shield? I did not.

In other writing, Dolan has insisted on the alienness of the Bronze-Age Agean world, a collection of civilizations barely up from agriculture, where “kings” were mostly chieftans of small villages, and military renown could be won by raiding a neighboring town’s cattle. The Classical Greeks believed their ancestors of this heroic age to have been stronger, bigger, nearer to the gods, but in combat their superhuman capacities are both terrifying and silly. Giant heroes like Ajax frequently use their incredible strength to throw big rocks at the opposing armies. Women, unless they are goddesses — and sometimes not even then—are less than property; Achilles is mad that Agamemnon stole Briesis from him and is mistreating her, but not nearly so concerned as he is about recovering Patroclus’s armor. Zeus contemplates beating Hera and recalls the time he hung her by her wrists and listened to her scream. Slaves are everywhere and nowhere. Armed conflicts are brawls; this is not the maneuver warfare of Alexander the Great, a millennium later, or the drilled tactics of Roman legions. This is something closer to mass-participation MMA.

I still like my Robert Fagles, and it’s unfair to paint poetic translations as necessarily prissy. “Thetis saved my life / when mortal pain came on me after my great fall, / thanks to my mother’s will, that brazen bitch,” Hephaestus says in Fagles’ version when welcoming Achilles’ mother into his home. Dolan’s book is a kind of companion to the poetry, a fantasy resetting of the classic tale. It is perhaps too funny at times; the deaths of Patroclus and Achilles, the end of Hector — the main emotional beats are swallowed by the emphasis on gory antics and the fact that even the “best of men” is basically a murderous goon. But it is just an awfully fun read, these doomed armies battering away at each other over to avenge an increasingly distant slight, with angry Agamemnon alternating between self-pity and rage like a hairy Donald Trump. The world now seems awash in pointless conflict; our own country has mired itself in wars that have now lasted nearly twice as long as the seige of Troy, to equally obscure ends. Dolan’s book is a good reminder that the most ancient foundations of our so-called civilizations were just as violent, apocalyptic, and dumb.

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