My novella, “I, Polyphemus,” is now available on Amazon.com. Writing this book has been a labor of love for me, involving a couple of years of rewrites and research. With its publication I thought I would blog an introduction into the book’s genesis.
I became fascinated with Greek mythology when I was eleven after I nearly died from a serious illness. It was also at this same time that I began to write.
The tales of gods, heroes and fantastic creatures were somehow palliative, and drew me away from my focus on my illness. Of the many tales that captured my imagination, Homer’s Odyssey was my favorite, and Odysseus was my favorite hero. He was not the strongest or greatest warrior among the Greeks, but throughout the story he is referred to with the sobriquet “Wily” Odysseus. Reluctant to go to war against the Trojans, he acquiesces, angering Poseidon, who makes his journey home after the fall of Troy a long and tormented one
In book IX of the Odyssey, the cyclops Polyphemus is introduced. Odysseus and a number of his men take harbor on Cyclops Island on their way home to Ithaca. Nearly starving, they discover a cave stocked with milk and cheeses and glut themselves, when the cave’s occupant, Polyphemus, arrives home, and, after perfunctory introductions, begins to devour the Greeks.
In the Odyssey, of all of the characters Odysseus encounters, whether it be Circe, the Sirens, Calypso or the Lotus Eaters, seemed knowable. But Polyphemus was a brute riddle. For me he represented the existential absurd, as it seemed he was put on Earth for the sole purpose of encountering Odysseus and eating his men. He is a one dimensional enigma.
As a writer, the challenge to flesh him out and make him a sympathetic character was akin to the alchemist’s feat of turning base metal into gold. But what if in my story he is a loving shepherd who feels his sheep are his children? What if in my tale, Odysseus and his men instead of eating his cheese, murder his children? And what if the violation unleashes the dormant poet within the brute?
Through the years, as I would revisit the Odyssey, and as my political world view evolved, my perception of Odysseus evolved as well. He became more nuanced and less sympathetic. His wiles now seemed deceitful and duplicitous. He was complicit in the murder of civilians in the villages surrounding the walled fortress of Troy, he was an active agent in a war of aggression and the architect of the wooden horse that brought down Troy. He could now be recast as an imperialist, sociopath and war criminal. In my story he is the antagonist provoking Polyphemus into violence and madness.
This is a novella, but stylistically it has elements of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as an epic narrative poem. The narrative is almost exclusively in the voice and point of view of Polyphemus. In portions of the story the narration weaves in and out of dreams, and enters the realms of Magical Realism and Surrealism. As in Homer’s works, the characters exist in a duplicitous world where intervention from the gods and Fates is constant.
The most central character next to Polyphemus is the centaur Chiron, who represents reason and denies the gods’ existence, and becomes a benevolent father figure to Polyphemus. Incorporating numerous characters from Greek mythology into the story was at first a challenge, but ultimately I felt I chose the right ones as my vision of Polyphemus began to take form.
As a character grows and begins to take shape, it is almost as if at some point the writer passes the torch to the character; the writing almost seems co-authored. For me, this happened when Polyphemus goes mad. It was as if I had become an observer merely chronicling what I saw as Polyphemus came to full, complex fruition- a mad poet, a vengeful father and a killer who kills with dark, sarcastic humor and a flamboyant joie de vivre. The complicated anti-hero Homer would never recognize was born.
I put everything I’ve learned and everything I had into this book, and my reinvented protagonist has become like a brother.
With that, let me introduce you to my one eyed friend- the cyclops Polyphemus.