Glorious Exploits

Ferdia Lennon

Fig Tree, £14.99 

It is hard to think of a historical novel based on a weirder concept, nor one that is as quirkily original. It took me 50 or more pages to find my feet but once I did, Glorious Exploits had me hooked.

The story opens in 412 BC, in Syracuse in Sicily, which has recently asserted itself over what had hitherto felt like an invincible Athenian army. The Athenians had been bringing devastation to the country, enslaving hundreds and killing many more.

Yet against the odds, they were defeated in battle, and those soldiers that survived were herded, shackled in chains, into a quarry on the edge of the city.

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“So Gelon says to me, ‘Let’s go down and feed the Athenians. The weather’s perfect for feeding Athenians.’ ”

The opening lines of Ferdia Lennon’s debut novel convey the horrible sense of prisoners as animals in the zoo, to be fed, or not fed, at the whim of their captors; a source of entertainment, derision, and worse.

But Gelon has a far more elevated plan in mind than spectator sport, as quickly becomes clear.

The novel’s narrator is Lampo, a 30-year-old unemployed potter – as is Gelon – who still lives with his mother.

Raffish, irreverent, occasionally spiteful and with a twisted foot, he has no illusions about his intelligence, looks or prospects.

Yet what he does have is the capacity for belief in something better, and the endurance necessary to suffer setbacks without losing hope.

When Lampo accompanies Gelon to the quarry, he comes face to face with the skeletal Athenians, many of whose companions have already died of starvation.

He recalls his own role in the war, when he set out to sea to help attack the enemy fleet, and “skewered a few rowers through the oar holes. It was a good buzz but weird.

“You couldn’t see who you’d got, only feel the javelin sink into their meat, and watch the great oar twitch and slow, the life behind it ebbing away till it didn’t move at all, and you knew the poor f***** was gone.”

Yet Lampo is no thug. Although he cannot read or write, inspired by his friend Gelon’s passion for drama, he early learned to love The Odyssey, and other great stage plays. It is the power of theatre, of art, that forms the heart of this most unusual work.

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A tragi-comedy, in homage to Euripides, it is simultaneously shocking, touching, and thought-provoking. Close to home, too.

Recounted in a lively Irish brogue, Glorious Exploits has brio and brass neck.

The author expects his readers to suspend disbelief and, rather surprisingly, we do. Lennon is a Dubliner whose father is Libyan, and the vividness of Lempo’s dialogue, his expletive, casual, modern mode of speech, help to achieve what much of the genre fails to do: to make the past feel as if it was only yesterday, and equally important. Gelon’s plan is to have the Athenians perform Euripides’s play, Medea.

When he learns that the playwright has a new work, The Trojan Women, about the fate of wives, mothers and daughters after the fall of Troy, he knows this too must be put on the bill.

Gradually gaining the trust of a small group of prisoners – feeding them helps – he and Lampo get ready to stage one of the strangest performances ever known.

It could only be trumped by the performance of Euripides’s Hippolytus, which was put on during the plague at Athens: “though the city was ravaged, and bodies lay piled in the streets, and the sky was black with funeral smoke, the festival of Dionysia went on.

The Herald: Glorious Exploits by Ferdia LennonGlorious Exploits by Ferdia Lennon (Image: free)

“Half the actors were dying. The audience too, yet the chorus sang; they danced. Gelon says this made it even better.”

As with that macabre production, Glorious Exploits is about art in extremis.

It is also about a time and place very different from our own. Almost casually filling in the setting, Lennon conveys the way ordinary people lived in embattled Sicily: the squalor and poverty, but also the vitality and excitement.

The omnipresence of slaves from Libya, Greece and elsewhere, who are found in pubs, markets or workshops, is a running theme.

In this respect, the Syracusans are no less shameful than the Athenians. The one-armed security guard at Lampo and Gelon’s favourite bar is one among thousands: “Chabrias – an Argive war slave who Dismas picked up cheap on account of the paucity of limbs.”

When Lampo falls for another of Dismas’s slaves, a young woman from the island of Lydia, there is no knowing what direction the plot will take.

Could a story inspired by Greek tragedy and underpinned by the perpetual threat of violence, possibly have a happy ending?

For all its rollicking mood and blood-thirstiness, Lennon’s work is serious and even proselytising.

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Watching The Trojan Women, Lampo makes sense of the frenzied dialogue between Hecuba, the old queen of Troy, and her benighted daughter Cassandra: “It’s despair and meaning that are being pitted against one another, and it’s asking, if meaning departs from reason, might there not be wisdom in faith-filled lunacy?”

The point of art, as Gelon and Lampo’s theatrical endeavour shows, is to change minds and hearts, to bring people together rather than divide them, and to offer a glimmer of light. Setting up what is to follow, one of the epigraphs to the book comes from The Trojan Women: “Death cannot be what Life is, Child: the cup of Death is empty, and Life always has hope.”

That is the credo by which Glorious Exploits operates.

By turns grotesque, crude, terrifying, tender and probing, it takes an improbable cast and far-fetched plot and holds up a mirror to our own times.

Nothing here is far removed from our experience or knowledge.

A paean to the potency of art, it is also brutally – and sometimes upliftingly – realistic about the world. As one of Lampo’s new friends says, “the hearts of men are alike wherever you go. The rest is scenery.” It is as true today as then.