By Jonathan Carr
WHO, REALLY, was the man who first claimed in 1868 to have located the palace of Odysseus on Ithaca, who led the discovery between 1870 and '73 of what he announced to a sceptical world was the ancient city of Troy and who, just a few years later in 1876, sent that famous telegram from Mycenae: "I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon?"
Some details about Heinrich Schliemann's' life are documented but not too much should be taken for granted about a man so adept at presenting grand conclusions based on dodgy evidence. The location of the Homeric Ithaca remains in dispute and what Schliemann did find on modern Ithaca was no palace; the treasure he unearthed at Troy has since been dated to more than a thousand years before Homer's Trojan War; and he is believed to have been about two to three hundred years out in terms of 'Agamemnon's' mask.
And yet, however flawed and hasty his conclusions might have been, German-born Schliemann did manage, over a remarkably short period, to instigate and lead the first excavations at major sites of antiquity - in particular Troy, Mycenae, Tiryns and Orchomenos. The treasure the digs yielded was immense, in terms of both artefacts and information. A staggering achievement for a man who was born the son of a humble pastor, had to make his own way in the world and did not even take up archaeology until he was over forty. A gifted linguist and entrepreneur, he made two fortunes in Russia and one in the California Gold Rush. With the funds in place, he was now able to concentrate on what he claimed had always been his real passion.
Some accounts credit his father for originally introducing young Heinrich to the story of Troy. Schliemann himself seemed to prefer the more theatrical version - that in his first job working as a grocer's apprentice a drunk would come into the shop and recite Homer. Captivated by the language and tale, Schliemann decided he would make it his destiny to rediscover Troy. He made a preliminary trip to Turkey in the early 1860s and, using the Iliad as his atlas, decided that a hill near the village of Hissarlik met all the conditions set in the poem - you could see Mount Ida, the source of the river Scamander; the sea was the right distance away; and it was -flat enough in the immediate environs for Achilles and Hector to have run round the city. Excited, he now had to learn something about archaeology and its procedures so he went to study it for two years at the Sorbonne in Paris.
He was almost ready. There was just one more requirement before he began. He needed to have the right partner. Already estranged from his Russian wife, he divorced her and wrote to a friend in Greece asking him to locate a suitable young woman for him to marry who must read and love Homer. Seventeen-year-old Sophia Engastromenos was produced and terms were agreed. The rest has become controversial history. The prevailing view is that Schliemann was driven by the desire to do things quickly rather than carefully and often flouted good archaeological practice. There are also allegations that he may sometimes have fixed the evidence to fit the theory. Nevertheless, he uncovered eleven different Troys on the one site near Hissarlik. And he would retain his ties with Greece. His diaries are held in the Gennadius Library, his remains lie in an elaborate mausoleum in Athens' First Cemetery and the neoclassical mansion he built for Sophia now houses the Greek Numismatic Museum.
This makes fascinating material, then, for both the biographer and the writer of historical fiction. Peter Ackroyd is both and a bit of both who has won major prizes for both. He is also a poet, dramatist and literary critic. There is one more reason, though, why this tale, in particular, must have appealed to him. He has always been intrigued by his native city, London, and the influence it has exerted over so many of the authors whose lives he has recreated (William Blake, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, TS Eliot et al). Most recently, he has conjured up the city as a character in its own right in London: The Biography (2000). So the fact that Troy was the "first city" of western European culture must have been enticing and is, indeed, a recurring motif in his fictional rendering of the Schliemann/Troy story entitled The Fall of Troy.
Ackroyd, unusually, avoids any postmodern tricksiness and tells a straightforward and chronological tale that begins with the arranged marriage of Heinrich (Obermann) to Sophia (Chrysanthis) in Athens before moving swiftly to the excavations on the Hissarlik hill. Some facts are tampered with or altered, some fictional characters and extra plotlines are introduced but, generally, Ackroyd adheres to the basic Schliemann story. Of course, he gives it his own slant but his overall interpretation breaks no new ground. More damagingly, despite plenty of detail and incident (Ackroydis rightly admired for the rigour of his research), the characterisation in the novel is shallow. Obermann may be energetic, driven and ruthless, he may know his Iliad and he may be a fairly transparent crook. But even if we accept that he is in the 19th-century mould, his behaviour and utterances increasingly verge on buffoonery rather than something more profound and disturbing as, despite setbacks and tragedy, he refuses to emerge from behind the parapet of traits Ackroyd assigned him from the outset. One effect of this is that his musings on the power of myth and the importance of stories, which are central to Ackroyd's view of the world, lack resonance. Sophia is similarly hampered. She is thinly drawn, not convincingly a 19th-century Athenian and the high standing in which she is so quickly held by Obermann strains credulity.
Ackroyd, though, is good at keeping things going (perhaps in conscious imitation of his protagonist) and the novel moves swiftly through discoveries, intrigues and visits from suspicious antiquity experts. But there is little sense of mystery created about Troy itself and the plot twists are so well-flagged there are few surprises. Most, disappointingly, although Obermann may often entertain he does not intrigue. Schliemann sounds to have been more interesting.