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Theodor Kallifatides, Herakles (Heracles)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2006. ISBN: 9789100111168

Reviewed by Stig Olsson in SBR 2007:1

"Know thyself", says the Delphic oracle to Hercules who, in his soul-searching efforts to understand the meaning of life, has finally found the respected and feared deity. It is educational and interesting to keep an eye on an "official" account of the ancient Greek myth of Hercules while reading Kallifatides. This is more than an update of the commonly known story of Hercules. In the author’s blunt, often sexually explicit modern Swedish, the myth of antiquity becomes a tale of loneliness, self-scrutiny, uncertainty and awkward fumbling. This represents a sort of humanization of the hero – the selfish, cruel and outrageously violent son of Zeus. Kallifatides has produced an easy read, often fascinating and enjoyable, although sometimes disconcerting.

Thebes and Mycenae are important geographical landmarks in the story. One day Hercules kills his music teacher, a revered old man. Angry with the old man, he therefore kills him with a single blow to his head. Hercules is twelve years old! The story dwells for a while on what might very well have resulted in a civilized society in the ancient world. Kallifatides describes with great passion the reasonable and plausible deliberation involving King Kreon and the wise citizens of Thebes struggling to determine what the appropriate punishment of the young assassin should be. In the end Hercules is sentenced to six years of community service on the mountain of Kithairon. A new life begins for Hercules, with daily chores on the mountain among the shepherds, simple friendship and happiness.

Hercules is eighteen when he leaves the mountain, having served his sentence. However, a new insight worries him. What kind of creature is hiding in his body, waiting to take charge? Is he a hero or a deadly demon? "I am Alkemene’s son. She was as wild in her grief as she was in her lust. It was from her I inherited this intoxicating evil, altogether calculating and controlling like poetic inspiration." How will he live with it? Are the gods testing him? Perhaps the real test is learning to live without under-standing? In moments of clarity Hercules finds that everything is so simple. One animal eats another. That is how life is, and neither evil nor hatred come into it. And so, despairing again: "I want to do good, yet everything goes mostly wrong. What curse hangs over me?"

The confined life in Mycenae is not attractive any more. It forces him to live up to his own myth. Sometimes at night a strange feeling of fear comes creeping over him. Every man or woman he has killed brings him closer to the one who will eventually kill him. Such is the nature of life: eventually you will meet your match.

However, there are always individual challengers to kill, armies to divert or fight and so Hercules finds himself in yet another vicious cycle of campaigns, marauding, death, glory and, not least, women. Often, the intoxication of the moment of triumph turns into a nightmarish sadness. Never has he felt so lonely before.

Why cannot Hercules see what is happening to him? He believes his fate, in order to make the world a better place, is that his heart must be frozen solid. "The gods created the world and we must put it right", Hercules once says to Prometheus. Life is all delusion, and the tragic hero dies as violently as he has lived.

The dust jacket of Kallifatides’s book reads, "This novel captures, strengthens and conveys the beauty of the myth of antiquity". One tends to agree.

Stig Olsson

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