I wish they had picked me to rewrite the Odyssey

"(I)n what's being described as the most ambitious international publishing venture ever -- the modern rewriting of dozens of ancient myths by the world's leading novelists ... (Margaret) Atwood is reinterpreting the epic Trojan War-era tale of Odysseus and Penelope. She intends to turn the telling of the 2,500-year-old Greek classic upside down with a heroine-centred narrative called The Penelopiad." - Ottawa Citizen, March 15 It's about time. Our ancestors may have revered Homer but we know better. We know he would have been a great author if only he'd written Crash or Naked Lunch instead of that stupid ship thing. And at last someone (other than James Joyce) is going to fix his crass blunder. But why her? Why not me?

John Robson: OK, so the story starts with Odysseus finally going home, having cleverly helped win the Trojan war.

The editors: War? Isn't that a bit, well, militaristic? Why did there have to be a war?

JR: It started with the abduction of Helen by Paris.

Eds: Say what? Is this sexual harassment?

JR: No, see, there was this beauty contest among the gods and ...

Eds: Aaaaack, sexual harassment and patriarchal religion.

JR: Look, it's just the background. Helen's was the face that launched a thousand ships, right?

Eds: A thousand lawsuits is more like it. Can we move along?

JR: Well, a fierce wind blows them to the land of the lotus-eaters where Odysseus has to tear his men away from the stupefying narcotic ...

Eds: I think they decriminalized lotuses. Leave that bit out.

JR: Uh, well, then they wind up trapped by this dreadful man-eating Cyclops called Polyphemus, but Odysseus puts his eye out and then does the "Noman" trick ...

Eds: His eye? In the singular?

JR: Yes, the Cyclops has only one eye and ...

Eds: So now we're brutally assaulting the handicapped?

JR: But Polyphemus was a monster who ate human flesh.

Eds: No. We're not having any of this colonialist narrative depicting non-Westerners as savages. Besides which, who are we to judge the vibrant anthropophagic customs of other cultures? Bottom line: Turn Polyphemus into Polymorphous and make him a heroic transgressor of restrictive boundaries concerning body image and diet. And sex.

JR: How did unusual sex get in here?

Eds: This is modern art.

JR: Oh. Right. Say, speaking of sex, afterward there's this bit where the beautiful sorceress Circe turns all Odysseus' men into pigs and ...

Eds: Hang on. Men don't need to be turned into pigs. And isn't it typically patriarchal to blame the victim? Like they see a pretty girl (sorry, woman) and can't control themselves so it's her fault. Forget it. Circe is out.

JR: Um, OK. Well there's a really exciting bit with Scylla and Charybdis.

Eds: Huh?

JR: Charybdis is this monster who sucks in ships and Scylla has all these heads on long necks and snatches sailors and somehow you have to steer right between them. It's a classic metaphor about avoiding two opposite perils at once.

Eds: Oh ho ho, so now you're doing that patriarchal privileged bit with the canon. How are underprivileged youth going to pronounce Charybdis?

JR: No, see, it's really exciting, with this dove that gets its tail feathers smashed and then they get through but about six of the crew get messily devoured and ...

Eds: I see. Ordinary workers killed on the job. It's a classist tale as well. And what's with the mistreatment of an avian companion? Forget it. No Scylla, no Charybdis and no dove.

JR: Look, I agree there are some odd bits in the Odyssey. The framework is troublingly pre-moral. But it's survived for thousands of years as an unforgettable story of loss, longing, perseverance and ultimately justice and reunion. Why are we even messing with it?

Eds: Aha. So you're saying after all this other poisonous rubbish it ends in a bloody slaughter instead of non-violent, win-win conflict resolution. Get this guy out of here. And find me an author who will dump all this loathsome superstition, blood-lust and patriarchy and maybe turn it into, you know, a metaphor about the oppression of women. Say, who's the one who did that thing about women being reduced to sexually submissive adjuncts to men forced to wear big shapeless garments, then had the creative vision to look right through the Taliban and see it realized in George Bush's America? I bet if we hired her she'd have the story sung by 12 murdered women or something. Yeah. Call her up.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson