Review: Gilgamesh by Joan London
by Joan London
272pp, Atlantic, £12.99
The Epic of Gilgamesh, the world's oldest known poem, is about a Sumerian king who has everything a man could want bar immortality. The gods dispatch a wild man to teach him his place. The plan goes awry when they become best friends; together they set out to see the world, and, as one quest follows another, they become so arrogant that the gods condemn the wild man to the Underworld. Bereft, the king makes one last effort to achieve immortality. He fails, and as he stands before the walls of his great city, he knows his story will be his only lasting testament.
Joan London's Gilgamesh is not a reworking of this epic so much as a quest for its modern shadows. It begins in a convalescence hospital south of London. By page seven it has moved to a group settlement in southwest Australia. It then travels by way of London, Istanbul, Batum, Tiflis, Yerevan, Tabriz, Aleppo and Alexandria.
Almost always, its characters travel in pairs. When Ada meets Frank Clark at the end of the first world war, she tells him she wants to go far away to another world where there will never be a war. "That's where I'm going!" he cries and offers to take her home with him to Australia. By the late 1930s, they are only just managing to eke out a living in Nunderup, and the farming life has broken Frank's health. On his deathbed he looks over at his odd, mad wife and finds reasons to be proud of her. There must be some point to the force that drew them together. He wonders what it is, and if the answer will take generations to work itself out.
Enter the second pair of travellers. One is fat and blond, one dark and lean, and they're both dressed in narrow-brimmed black hats and long black coats that they bought from the same Arab tailor. The first is cousin Leopold, who has been living in the Middle East, working as an archaeologist. The second is Aram, a young Armenian who was his driver and is his best friend. Edith, the more enterprising of the Clark daughters, is swept away by their tales of travels. She falls in love with Aram after he tells her about the parents he lost in the 1915 massacre, the Aleppo orphanage where he spent his childhood, and
the landlocked homeland, now part of the Soviet Union, for which he is willing to sacrifice his life.
Soon after he leaves, she finds out she's pregnant. The usual sanctions loom, but even after the baby is born, they are no match for Edith's dreams. "Armenia had become a landscape superimposed over the hills and valleys around her . . . The full moon was Armenian, and so were the Honeymoon Gardens when no one else was there . . . The spire of the Anglican church on the outskirts of Torville was very Armenian, because as you saw it from the bus it seemed to promise something ancient and spiritual . . ."
So off she goes with her son and £50 to throw herself on Armenia's mercy. Her first stop is London, where a White Russian aunt warns her against leaving for a communist country that is about to go to war, but she refuses to listen. When she is befriended by an Armenian cloth merchant who boards the Orient Express in Bulgaria, she accepts him at face value. With his help, they are admitted to the Soviet Union without a visa; he then takes them to Yerevan to live with his estranged wife.
Here she lives a life some might think unworthy of a Gilgamesh - washing clothes, foraging for food, looking after the ill, the elderly and her awkward, unusual son, while waiting for Aram to find them. From time to time she glimpses the sinister gods who have mapped her fate, but it never occurs to her that she should fear them. She's not alone. The mortals that surround her share her gritty, inconvenient nonconformism: you are left feeling that they're on loan from other, even more thrilling epics that they'd love to tell you about if they weren't in such a rush.
Gilgamesh was a bestseller in Australia and has been published to great acclaim both here and in the US. You can see why, with its sleek storyline, its sharp, glittering narrative fragments, its carefully honed sentences, its heroic women and its shadowy men, its spanning of generations and continents, its epic allusions, its sense of the sublime, its love story in a time of war. But what I love most is its ragged and eccentric itinerary, which captures the romance of wanderlust like no other novel I have read.
· Maureen Freely's books include The Parent Trap (Virago).