‘It has been said that history is written by the victors’, begins Tobias Hill’s compelling novel about the terrorism rife in Spartan history, both past and present, but ‘the truism is false in one case. The Spartans were once masters of all they surveyed, prevailing over Greece through fear and war, yet did not trust their prevalence to writing.’
By contrast, our rogue protagonist Ben Mercer – a thirty-something Oxford scholar with a cockney ancestry on the hunt for a Grecian excavation – does commit himself historically to paper, as although the bulk of the book is in the objective third person, it is interspersed with Ben’s ‘Notes Towards a Thesis’, a ploy to slow the pace down and allow him some reflection on the page. In doing so, he can locate the current state of Sparta within its historical and archaeological context, but sadly at times, is not all that academic.
Ben fled the bureaucracies of scholarly life after his wife put an end to their failing marriage and left him for a higher professor of the college. Only semi-eager to keep the peace with her and to care for their young daughter, he travels to Lacedaemonia for a dig, and a chance encounter with a contemporary and a phone call later sees him on the excavation of his career.
Popular with the dig-leader but alien to the recreational activities of the ambiguous five westerners who he works with, he longs to be in the knowledge of their secrecies, and the comfort of their brotherhood. Obsessed with the history of Sparta, they idolize themselves as its ‘Hidden’, a group of the most discreet young warriors who would hide in the trees and kill every Helot the Spartans had taken captive, while this twenty-first century group, no longer faced with the imminent prospect of battle, kill jackals in the woods by night.
As Ben becomes more affiliated, he learns what they themselves have hidden in one of the old Grecian caves: a political prisoner, in response to the massacring of protesting students in ’73. While they warm to him, he becomes more disillusioned with his moral standpoint, his affinity with women, and his ability to interpret the notion of terror. Terror is the name of the game here, be it in authority of the storyteller, in the rightful preservation of history, in the conception of Ben’s first child, in the Spartan children burning a stick-made Judas at Easter time, and even the distribution of religion as a whole. A patchwork of quite so many topics might sound far-fetched, but the novel’s greatest conceit is that it’s not until we reach Ben’s nihilistic epiphany in a book of cinematic speed (Hill does not even have time for quotation marks in speech) do we pan out and realize quite how much alarm needs to be raised in every single episode of the narrative we just witnessed; that through its readability, we find just how much we must read into ourselves and our own history.
One flaw is that Hill didn’t go that one step further and give it all to us wholly in Ben’s first person, and force us to question the notion of ‘trust’ in his ‘prevalence’ (or lack thereof) on paper. Perhaps he made the sacrifice in the name of speed; but either way, this is a haunting novel that is dexterously layered as much as it is quick, as informative as much as it is gripping.