Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Herodotus and the English Patient

Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Herodotus and the English Patient

Article excerpt

The story of King Candaules of Lydia in Book I:8 of Herodotus' Histories (5th century B.C.), which describes a domineering and monomaniacal husband who proudly but tragically shows off his beautiful wife, combines two eternal literary themes: illicit voyeurism and murderous revenge. In Susannah and the Elders (in the Apocrypha) the lecherous elders spy on the naked Susannah, demand sex with her and, when she refuses, falsely accuse her of fornication. But Daniel exposes their lies and they are justly executed. In 2 Samuel 11:1-4 King David watches Bathsheba bathing, falls in love and sleeps with her. He sends Bathsheba's husband to war and, when he is killed in battle, marries her. In Aeschylus' Agamemnon and in Shakespeare's Hamlet, as in Herodotus, the wife and her lover kill her royal husband and he replaces the king.

There are nearly twenty references to Herodotus' Histories in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (NY: Knopf, 1992). The hero, Count Laszlo de Almasy, has added to his 1890 edition of the book by "cutting and gluing in pages from other books or writing in his own observations--so they are all cradled within the text of Herodotus" (16). In this valuable commonplace book he's also put "other fragments --maps, diary entries, writings in many languages, paragraphs cut out of other books" (96). He has even glued a small fern into his "thick-leaved sea-book of maps and texts" (97-98). When updating what he calls "his guidebook, ancient and modern, of supposed lies," he sometimes "brought out his glue pot and pasted in a map or news clipping or used a blank space to sketch men" and animals (246). Referring (anachronistically) to the Penguin paperback edition of 1954 (revised in 1972 and reprinted in 1985), and to a Greek sculpture of a seated philosopher in the Louvre, Almasy self-reflectively observes of the often unreliable Herodotus, "I have seen editions of The Histories with a sculpted portrait on the cover. Some statue found in a French museum. But I never imagine Herodotus this way. I see him more as one of those spare men of the desert who travel from oasis to oasis, trading legends as if it is the exchange of seals, consuming everything without suspicion, piercing together a mirage" (118-119).

A crucial passage in the "Cave of the Swimmers" chapter explains, with the help of four long quotes from Herodotus, how Almasy falls in love with Katharine Clifton, the only woman on an archeological expedition in the Libyan desert. Ondaatje devotes three whole pages to Katharine reading aloud the story of Candaules to her husband Geoffrey, to Almasy and to other members of the group. Katharine sees the story "as a window to her life" and is jarred by what seems to be a familiar situation. In the story the king, madly in love with his own wife, praises her beauty to his favorite retainer Gyges, convinces himself that Gyges does not believe him and absolutely insists that the man see her naked to prove the claim. When Gyges vehemently objects, Candaules assures him that he will not be harmed and that his wife will never know. Gyges then hides in their bedroom and watches her undress, but the queen catches sight of him and realizes that the king is responsible for the wicked plot. The next day she summons Gyges and tells him, "Either you must slay Candaules and possess both me and the Kingdom of Lydia, or you must yourself here on the spot be slain. …

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