War Music, Christopher Logue's "account" of Homer's Iliad, Books 16-19, which is published this week, begins in the ninth year of the Trojan War, when the defeat of the Greeks seems imminent: Patroclus begs from Achilles his armour and his soldiers, but destiny outstrips his ego and he is killed trying to storm Troy; the distraught Achilles determines to re-enter the fight to avenge his lost love, makes his peace with Agamemnon and prepares to ride into battle - to victory and to death.
Logue's adaptation, given a stunningly effective production by Liane Aukin on Radio 3, spares us none of the savagery of war; the bridge between ear and mind's eye is flooded with bloody images of mutilated bodies, as sharp and as shocking as any photograph of war: bones protruding from the corpses like "pink drumsticks," blood and water mingling like "cherry froth." And then, just occasionally, there is a picture of peace, albeit ominous: Achilles "walking alone beside the broken lace which hung over the sea's green fist. The sea that is always counting...."
With his wardrobe of voices for gods and heroes, as well as mere mortals and narrator, Alan Howard performed the entire account, which lasted just under two hours, accompanied only by Ronald Fraser's spare music, throbbing and jangling like a quiver of nervous arrows. With a voice as cold and as hard as steel, Mr Howard tore into the words with the relish of a cannibal long deprived of human flesh, or glided softly over them like velvet slippers on ice. For any epic Mr Howard is your man. And in this case, your god as well.
The Sunday Times. 10.5.1981.