Irish novelist continues in the ancient storytelling tradition by reinterpreting the stories of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Orestes.
“House of Names”
by Colm Tóibín
Scribner, $26, 288 pages.
Having reinterpreted Christian scripture in his iconoclastic 2013 novel “The Testament of Mary,” celebrated Irish novelist Colm Tóibín now offers a brilliant and challenging reinvention of the Greek myths of the bloody House of Atreus, or as Tóibín terms it, the House of Names.
To appease the gods and raise a wind to blow his foundering fleet to Troy, Greek general Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia, dooming himself thereby to be murdered upon his triumphal homecoming by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus.
These are destined in turn to fall by the hand of her son Orestes, urged on by his sister Electra, concluding a cycle of grisly retribution reaching back through generations of rape, murder and even cannibalism in this most dysfunctional of families.
Ancient Greeks wouldn’t have viewed the preceding as “spoilers,” being as familiar with that outline as we are with the story of Jesus, Hamlet or Batman. They would however have expected a poet to give an original spin to those materials, as witnessed by profound differences between Aeschylus’s “Oresteia,” Sophocles’ “Electra” and Euripides’ “Electra and Iphigenia at Aulis,” staged over a 50-year span in fifth-century Athens.
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Each generation created its own version of the story, and Tóibín fulfills this ancient expectation by both drawing on and departing from these varied classical sources, inventing fresh episodes that invite new questions.
The novel begins traditionally enough with the ravishing, incantatory testimony of Clytemnestra. Living “alone in the shivering solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed,” Clytemnestra commands the first 70 pages with her hypnotic words, drawing us on with dreadful inevitability from slaughter to slaughter. Tóibín taps into the main vein of Greek tragedy here, providing a stunning and intensely satisfying immersion in bloody vengeance that would do Aeschylus proud.
Later chapters offer a reprise of sorts in the voice of Electra, whose heart belongs to daddy but who in matters of revenge is very much her mother’s daughter. Stewing away at her “outpost of the underworld” amid the reconciled shades of her sister and father, Electra wonders longingly about her missing brother, whom she has cast in the role of avenging angel. As years pass, where is Orestes, and will he ever return?
Tóibín engages these questions with an extracanonical third-person relation of the adventures and exploits of Orestes in exile. Spirited away by the crafty Aegisthus on the eve of Agamemnon’s murder, Orestes and his fellow fugitives Leander and Mitros escape captivity to wander through a wilderness desolated by years of war, a place of aging widows and fallow fields roamed by packs of dogs. Here they learn how to love, how to kill and how to tame the encircling darkness with stories.
In striking contrast to the upright flames of his mother and sister, Orestes wavers amid perplexities and doubts, bringing a curious and unsettling energy to the story that persists after the preordained crisis and catharsis resolves to a half-lit world of restless ghosts, palace intrigue and administrative routine.
Might this haunting uncertainty be a new kind of curse, visited on those who come of age after the death of the gods? We are left to draw our own conclusions. Euripides would approve.