Archive for February, 2011

Coming Up Next

February 24, 2011

Polyxena is actually my second novel.  I have written another epic work titled Water Dog about Aztec Mexico, that has lain dormant for many years, but which I am thinking of getting published in the near future.  Water Dog is about the Aztec emperor, Ahuitzotl (Ah-weet-zotl), Montezuma’s predecessor and the greatest of their warrior-kings, and could not be more different from Polyxena.  It’s a third-person account of a monarch renowned for his ferocity, but also has two leading female characters that the reader will take a liking to.  Both compete for his affection; for one, the empress, an unrequited affair because of his passion for a mistress, who lives in dread of losing his love to her rival because of her beauty.  In a way, this novel can appropriately be called a soap opera among the Aztecs.

Water Dog -the English translation of the name Ahuitzotl used only in the title- is a true historical fiction novel, unlike Polyxena, which was based on mythology, with most of its leading characters having lived.  A lot of research went into this novel; I think I’m the only person in Seattle who owns an English-Nahuatl (Aztec) language dictionary.

The basic theme of Water Dog can be summed up as pride leading to fall.  Ahuitzotl is an arrogant and ambitious, yet a fascinating and charismatic warlord who stops at nothing in order to attain his vainglorious ends.  Readers may not appreciate him at first, but I compensate for that by keeping their interests riveted on the two competing ladies of his court.   In the end, however, he is seen as a tragic figure in the classical tradition, that is, he himself sets into motion the forces which ultimately culminate in a cruel retribution against him and evokes our sympathy.  Sorry that I can’t give you a completion date at present, but it won’t be long now.

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My Book’s Future

February 21, 2011

Over the past few months I have given potential readers a number of blogs on my novel, a story of the fall of Troy as seen through the eyes of King Priam’s youngest daughter, Polyxena, relating her thoughts to us (i.e. Aphrodite) just before she becomes the last casualty of the war.  I think it is one of the better stories written about Troy, unique in its conception and construction; she touches us with her basic goodness, her observations, and in providing her perspective on the more renowned people associated with these legends as she meets and converses with them.  Above all, it is a love story -between her and Achilles, and although their time together is of short duration, the love they shared is alluded to often and makes its presence felt through the rest of the novel.

What do I see as Polyxena’s future?   Readers will be the test of that.  The book is good (it won an editor’s choice award for me); my hope is that anyone reading it will share this opinion and recommend it to others.  The response I’ve gotten from those who have read it has been very positive; my biggest problem, one which I admittedly did not anticipate, was that so few people know who she is.  Even those familiar with the Trojan War tell me they have never heard of Polyxena -disheartening.  Perhaps, if fortune favors me, my novel will popularize her name once again.

If dreams can come true, then certainly I would like to see my story made into a movie – what an epic it would make!  I mean, this book has it all:  Amazon warriors, epic battles, renowned heroes, action, adventure, and romance.

But even if none of these things happen, I have to say that I enjoyed working on this story -a true labor of love.  It didn’t actually take that long to write -eight months- but a lot of thought went into this work, long before even starting on it.  If there’s such a thing as a writer falling in love with his main character, then that is the case with me.  Polyxena is a beautiful creation -she is real, having attributes one likes seeing in a person, as well as the flaws, making her very human.  Her story is so tragic in that she wants to believe she was responsible for her fate and yet knows that other influences had a hand in it -events she believes were orchestrated by the Goddess Aphrodite- but never quite understands how, circumstances obscuring the answer from her.  My intention was to make it unclear, to her as well as the reader.  So the question remains:  Did Polyxena create her own fate or was she fulfilling her destiny?  I leave it to the reader to decide.

Why I Admire The Ancient Greeks

February 16, 2011

I once heard or read somewhere that while the rest of the world gave us astrology, the Greeks gave us astronomy.  That simple statement sums up my deep admiration for the ancient Greeks -they were the most glorious happening in human history.  We owe almost all of our sciences to them, much of our mathematics, to say nothing of their contributions to literature and the arts.  Who among the ancients has given more to our civilization?

Everything about them was different from what preceded them.  Man is the measure of all things, they maintained, even creating their gods in man’s image, and placed reasoning and logic as the highest virtue.  As an example of this: they knew full well that the earth was a sphere, deducing this from its shadow cast to make a crescent moon (so eminently logical); that acceptance is best demonstrated by Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who in third century BCE, calculated the circumference of the earth, by measuring the angle of the sun’s shadow between two locations (Aswan and Alexandria, Egypt) and having someone pace off the distance separating them (he was only off by 200 some miles).   It’s the certainty in which this was perceived, with no doubts whatsoever, that is so impressive.

You can go on and on citing the insights of their great thinkers, but I think my simple illustration conveys the idea.  Although not often mentioned, their greatest contribution may have been the constancy of their written language, which has remained virtually unchanged since antiquity.  This has enabled us to learn about other civilizations, namely Egyptian, through deciphering its glyphs by means of the Rosetta stone.  Their written accounts of contemporary cultures that included their legends and histories have given us much of what is known about them to this day.   .

 As for their Gods and Goddesses, they conceived them as having all the flaws of humans, with only their immortality removing them from us, which, in a broader context, again puts man on an equal footing with them.  We know that, despite their reputation for logic and sound reasoning, they had problems with their religious fanatics, just as we do in our present times, the best example of this being Socrates made to drink poison for corrupting the morality of Athen’s youth (i.e. undermining their religiousness).  But, overall, they still present us with humankind at its best -inquisitive, questioning, thinking.  No other ancient civilization that I know of valued learning and knowledge more. 

 Yes, they waged their wars and ultimately could never unite, even when it meant their own downfall, and succumbed to the same weaknesses afflicting the rest of humanity.  I want to judge them by what they did when not at war and compare this to other cultures when not at war, and that is when their achievements shine over all others.  So I remain undeterred in my affection and appreciation for their accomplishments.  They truly were the most brilliant chapter in our history.  I owe my novel Polyxena to them -it’s a product of their literary heritage.

Variations to Polyxena’s Story

February 11, 2011

Polyxena is known to us primarily through her death; very little has been written about her life.   She is sacrificed by the Greeks to the Sea-God Poseidon to assure their smooth sailing home -the Trojan counterpart to the Greek Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, who was sacrificed for good winds to Troy.  Polyxena is mentioned in the dialogue of The Trojan Women and is a character in Hecuba , dramas by Euripides presented in the late 5th Century BCE, where her death is demanded by the ghost of Achilles after the fall of Troy.  The Latin writers, Vergil in The Aeneid, and Ovid in Metamorphosis similarly give this as the cause of her death, as does Seneca in his Troades.  Euripides may be the earliest account of her; in Hecuba, Polyxena tells her mother of her preference of death to living a slave, an idea eagerly embraced by the Romans centuries later.  Once it was decided that her sacrifice served both purposes, classical writers strove to invent stories how she and Achilles came to know each other.  Here is where variations occur.

One version has Polyxena at a fountain with her brother, Troilus, where he was watering his horse, when Achilles comes upon them, pursues Troilus and kills him; she manages to escape but not before arousing his passions and leaving her imprint in his mind, so that he (or rather, his ghost) asks for her in a dream to his son, Neoptolemus, after Troy falls.

Another version is that Polyxena accompanied Priam and Andromache (Hector’s wife) when he met with Achilles to retrieve the body of his slain son.  Achilles remained unmoved by the pleas of Priam and Andromache, but was swayed to relent his hard stand by Polyxena when she offered to remain with him as a slave.  This account has Achilles smitten by her and proposing to betray the Greek cause if Polyxena was his; agreements  are made for their union, and Achilles is ambushed and slain by Paris when he comes to finalize the arrangement.   

A twist to this version has Polyxena betraying Achilles, pretending to love him and getting him to reveal his vulnerable spot, his heel, to her; when he comes to finalize their wedding plans, he is ambushed by Paris and Deiphobus, Polyxena’s brothers, and slain. Hyginus, in his Fabulae supports this view.   Connected to this story is a rendition that she commits suicide in remorse over what she had done. 

Latin writers, like their Greek counterparts, focused their attention on Polyxena’s death, but they seemed to have a greater interest depicting her with patriotic zeal in opposing the Greeks, giving her uncommon courage in facing death (displaying a defiance towards the Greeks that the Romans probably secretly took delight in since they claimed their ancestry to Aeneas of Troy).  In their works, which are actually quite moving, Polyxena demonstrates a clear preference of death to slavery, and literally dares her executioners to proceed, while she remains calm and unafraid right up to very end.       

The Polyxena of my novel is more of a real person, fearing her impending death, and struggling to work up the courage to face it.  She and Achilles very much loved each other, and he does reveal the vulnerability of his heel to her, but it is through treachery that her brothers learn of it, allowing them to ambush and slay him.   You will have to read my book on how that happens.

On Homer

February 7, 2011

Homer is our primary source on the Trojan War.  He is the Ionian poet who is credited with having created the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, although, it must be said that there are doubters that these works were composed by the same person and may have even been composed by several persons, but the most widely held position maintains that they are the creations of a single artistic mind (this reminds one of today’s disputes about William Shakespeare).  There are a number of other poets who have left us with pieces of their work on the Trojan War between the period 800-500 BCE, which have been lumped together as the ‘Epic Cycle’, but we have no names for them.

Hardly anything is known about the man, and stories when he lived and where he was born vary greatly.  There is a tradition that he was blind, and that he was from Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), but again, six other cities claim as being his birthplace, and that he most likely lived in the 8th century BCE.   There are some who doubt if he existed at all. He apparently voiced his work, following the oral traditions of his time, and it is believed that the stories he spoke of were not put into writing until the 6th Century BCE for use in Athens, in texts that were said to be slanted to increase the city’s role in Troy’s fall.  In the 2nd Century BCE, two renowned scholars in Alexandria, Aristarchus of Samothrace and Aristophanes of Byzantium, edited the texts again, giving us the version that is generally known today. 

Homer devised many of the techniques we associate with modern day structures of novels, such as flashbacks and parallel lines of action.  His narratives are appreciated for their simplicity, the descriptions of their characters, giving them unique personalities, and the realism of the action portrayed in the passages.  Even today, in reading his works, we are struck by the attention to details, the richness of the language employed -the heroes speak to us as if they were our contemporaries, presenting us with emotional conflicts no different from our own.  The Iliad is considered to be the greatest war epic ever written.  The adjective ‘Homeric’ is now used to reference the Bronze Age of the Achaean Greeks, a time period associated with great warriors performing heroic deeds, rich palaces, and epic events, evidently so memorable that four to five hundred years later they still evoked an almost nostalgic curiosity among the ancient Greeks. 

It should be mentioned here that Polyxena is unkown to Homer; she is the creation of later classical writers who were interested in romanticizing the stories of Troy’s fall.

My Visit to Troy

February 3, 2011

Turkey is a treasure trove of great archaeological sites, but Troy (Truva locally), near Hissarlik, is not one of them.  I visited the site in June, 1990, before I ever imagined I would someday write a novel about it, but, even back then, I was into the Trojan myths and knew my Iliad, and I remember looking upon it with some dismay.  At the entrance you pass a sculpture of a wooden horse, resembling an undersized version of the horse in the 1955 movie, Helen of Troy.  In my mind’s eye, Troy should have been considerably larger and I could not envision it as the city of the Iliad.  If this is indeed Troy, I was thinking, the ruins we see must be of city’s inner citadel, the Pergamus, rather than the city itself.  The massive impregnable walls depicted in the Iliad, with its huge Scaean and Dardanian gates, cannot be mentally connected to this site and therein lies much of its disappointment.   But if you’re into Greek mythology or classical literature, you should go there (other sites like Ephesus and Pergamon provide awesome compensations).

I know that Heinrich Schliemann claimed he found the site based on descriptions in the Iliad, probably its proximity to the Karamenderes River -the Scamandrus River of the Iliad- and distant Mount Ida.  The site is now generally accepted as the real Troy.  There are actually nine Troys there (with Troy VI and Troy VII having sub-division layers) and the consensus is that Troy VII-A is the one of the Iliad (covering a time span of 1300-1190 BCE).  The layers denote separate destructions of the city (either by war or natural disaster).  Troy II rewarded Schliemann with the greatest treasures, and he believed it to be Homer’s city, but its fall has now been dated at around 2250 BCE, much earlier than the Troy of the Iliad.   Only reluctantly have I accepted this site as Troy.     

It was when I tried to imagine Achilles chasing Hector around the site that it really let me down.  For one thing, it is on a steady slope rising from the seashore (which is a long way off) to the hills behind it, with its inland side at a higher elevation than the side facing the coast.  Nowhere does it say in the Iliad that Troy stood on any gradation.  How could Achilles drag Hector behind his chariot around the walls if it was on a slope?   You readily assume the city was on flat grounds.  This is a classic (pardon the pun) example of romanticism and reality clashing, and I admit to being a romanticist at heart, preferring the idealized, imagined glory of a place to its grim, stark actual presence.

I suspect that Homer embellished Troy in his Iliad, giving it a grandeur that exceeded its times -much as we today tend to give King Arthur’s Camelot a magnificence exceeding the engineering capabilities and political realities of its days (if it even existed).  None of this detracts from the greatness and fascination of these stories; it’s their characters that hold our attention and rivet us to the drama depicted as having happened there.  The fact that there is a Troy, or a Tintagel in the case of Camelot, adds flavor, giving the stories a legitimacy; it doesn’t matter what the places look like -I am grateful that they are there.