Friday 4 August 2023

The Walled Orchard by Tom Holt -- A Review by Susan Price

The only real regret I have about growing so old is the fact that I shan't live long enough to read the scathing dismemberment of the clowns who presently infest our public life by a historian who has access to all the evidence and can expose every lie, reveal the source of every pay-off and back-hander, can trace the cause and effect of every stupid blunder. But then, if I could last long enough to read the book, the rage induced by it would certainly finish me off.

I've been taking refuge in historical novels. I enjoy them. I enjoy trying to imagine myself in a world different to mine in almost every way, and understanding that world from a different mind-set.

Tom Holt is best known for writing comic fantasies -- a Rhine Maiden twisting modern men around her little finger, a modern international company being managed by a dwarf from the Nibelungenlied. If you want to read a darkly comic satire on office politics and how they're merely a pale reflection of the true power struggle between immortal gods and nymphs, Tom Holt is your man.
After enjoying several of his fantasies, I came across his The Walled Orchard, which is very different. It's set in the Athens of Socrates (who has a minor walk-on part) and is an exceptionally good historical novel. On first reading it, many years ago, and reading it again recently, I was surprised that Holt isn't far better known as a historical novelist.

The thing that struck me about The Walled Orchard both times I've read it,  is that there's no gasp about it.  I think most historicals have a gasp: -- either a gasp of horror and thankfulness that things were so horrible then and aren't any longer, or else a gasp of longing for a lost age of more Grace, Grandeur, Freedom or whatever the author imagines the past had and the present doesn't.

But the narrative of The Walled Orchard does not gasp. I can't think of another historical novel that so completely envelops you in its time.  It finds ancient Athens completely ordinary and rather grubby, every day, annoying and disappointing. Just like today, in fact. The book cares nothing for the future or its judgement.  It's funny, scathing, angry -- reading it is like listening to some honest, forthright and witty person raging about the
bunch of numpties that have somehow inveigled themselves into power in our day. In fact, think Frankie Boyle in chiton and sandals.

The narrator of The Walled Orchard is Eupolis, a gentleman farmer whose vocation is writing comedies for the festival of Dionysus -- he hasn't much time for tragedies, finding them tiresome in the extreme, but he does know Euripedes a bit and is willing to gossip about him. (He also knows Aristophanes, his rival in the comedy stakes. He hates him.)

Eupolis' stock in trade is making fun of Athens' famous democracy and its famously democratic politicians and much of the book is a great rant about the stupidity and greed of the politicians and the (possibly) even greater stupidity and greed of the citizens -- not the slaves or the poor or the women, of course. They don't have votes and don't count in this fine democracy. (And Eupolis is fine with that.)

Eupolis admits to his own stupidity -- it led to him becoming embroiled in Athens' stupid, greedy attempt to conquer Sicily, which ended badly. The Athenian citizen chosen to be the army's general is ill and has no military experience whatsoever, while the Athenian navy and army are complacent and over-confident, certain that beating the Syracusans will 'be easy'. Oh, so easy.

Eupolis gives us an account of the Syracusan war, of a battle fought by night, where the Athenian army gets lost (several times) and then attacks itself and its allies (several times) because it can't tell who is who in the dark. It's both funny and appalling.

You can't help but be reminded of another bunch of incompetent, complacent boneheads, much nearer us in time and space, who are clattering around in the dark, attacking the wrong people and blaming everyone except themselves. Holt wrote the book 22 years ago but it's suddenly taken on a very contemporary ring.

Eupolis manages to get himself back to Athens, arriving before the news of the Athenian army's extermination. On learning about the defeat, and about the men and ships that have been lost, the city reels in shock -- and then looks round for a scapegoat. Its gaze falls on Eupolis.

There's much more to the book. The small details of everyday life in Athens are thick on every page but placed so deftly that you don't notice the skill with which they're introduced -- until you catch yourself believing that you're reading the memoirs of a man who lived that life, in that city and actually saw and did all these things.

Among all the down-to-earth, everyday gossip about what Euripides was really like, and how to improve your soil and increase your olive yield, and how to farm between Spartan invasions, there are a couple of supernatural episodes, which are unexpected and chilling.

Eupolis tells us how, as a boy, he nearly died in the plague outbreak that did kill his immediate family. He wakes, weak and dazed, in his deserted street and meets Dionysus, with whom he has a chat (recognising Him by His theatrical mask and prop leather phallus.) The God tells him that He kept Eupolis alive because He has a purpose for him. We'll meet again, says the God, and tells Eupolis where -- and they do meet there, in a thrown-away moment, all the more chilling for its sudden matter-of-factness. At this second meeting, Dionysus also informs him of a third and final meeting, which Eupolis is still awaiting in the book's closing pages.

After the plague leaves almost all his family dead, the young Eupolis finds himself rich from inheritances, in possession of enough land to join the city's upper classes. He not unnaturally concludes that Dionysus wants him to become a comic poet in His honour -- and he sets about serving the God by mocking and lambasting the city, its people and its politicians.

He hates Athens, he hates her stupid populace, he hates Tragedies and all other comic poets; he hates democracy and he hates his wife -- and he loves all of them, can't leave them, can't give them up.

Eupolis mentions that the plague has left him bald and with a twisted face -- he has a permanent, involuntary grin. His wife, Phaedra, a fearsome and unfaithful termagant, is beautiful when he first marries her but is later involved in a cart accident, where she is kicked in the face by a mule. Her broken jaw, badly set, leaves her with a permanent grin. So not only are they like an Athenian Punch and Judy, a knockabout stage comedy couple but they both grin like a couple of Comedy masks. Both of them mask their own natures too -- and perhaps Athens' theatre of noble tragedies and tragic heroes is a mask that hides the city's true spirit, which might be thought closer to the phalluses, scatology, abuse and violence of the comedies. 

Comedy is always about real life, baseness and failure, while Tragedy is about the sublime: impossible Gods and heroes. Eupolis lives and ends his life as a comic hero -- a failure as a husband and a father, a playwright who knows his plays will be forgotten and who didn't even mean as much to His God as he thought he did. He advises us to heed the one thing he's learned in life which is: While travelling, go and have something to eat immediately and leave the sight-seeing until later. Then at least you've had a good meal.

The Walled Orchard certainly isn't a failure. It's impressive and it achieves this difficult thing: it makes you see ancient Athens as clearly and realistically as it's perhaps possible for us to see it: as completely ordinary and a bit squalid. No gasp at all. 

Tom Holt's other novels set in ancient Greece are also well worth a read:


can be found here.

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