Peter Ackroyd: The Fall of Troy
The story of Heinrich Schliemann and his excavation of Troy at Hisarlik is well known and Ackroyd has done little to disguise it in this novel. His main character is called Heinrich Obermann but, apart from the slight name change, much of what we know of Schliemann can be found in Obermann, except for the nature of his death and a few other details. We start with Obermann’s marriage to Sophia. Though her maiden name is different from the real Sophia, this Sophia, like the real one, was found in response to an advertisement and is thirty years younger than Schliemann. Virtually all of this novel is set in and around the village of Hisarlik, the site of Troy.
Ackroyd is determined to show that Obermann/Schliemann is dishonest and a fraud. His excavations have two aims – to find treasure and to ‘prove’ that the Hisarlik site is the site of Homeric Troy and that the events described in Homer can be shown from the archeological record. To prove his case, he is prepared to lie, cheat, fake evidence and destroy evidence that disproves his case. He is even prepared to kill. Ackroyd gives us ample examples of all of these, though whether Schliemann went as far as this is not certain. However, he was convinced that he was excavating Homeric Troy and was more than happy to steal treasure from under the eyes of the Turkish authorities. Obermann’s view is always that he knows in his heart that he is right, therefore there is no argument. Sophia and others are enlisted in his cause. Of course, we now know that Schliemann may have been right (though there are alternative views) but that his archeological approach was at best clumsy and often downright destructive and that most of his interpretations about the various levels were quite wrong.
Ackroyd, however, throws in another story. Alexander Thornton is a British Museum archeologist, expert in deciphering rare languages. He finds some tablets and determines a non-Indo-European origin for them. (Tablets were not found at Troy though Hittite tablets have been found possibly referring to Troy and, of course, Linear B tablet were found and interpreted by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, who were both born around thirty years after Schliemann’s death. Hittite and Linear B are both Indo-European languages.) Schliemann is not happy about this and is determined that Thornton is wrong. He tries to prove him wrong by having a race round the walls of Troy in which he again cheats. The whole business ends very messily.
It is not a very good story and not particularly well written, even though Ackroyd does get across his ideas of fabrication, fraud and lies. However, there is little subtlety or originality in his story-telling and this must definitely be considered one of his lesser novels.
First published 2006 by Chatto & Windus