Rachel's Reviews > The Persian Boy

The Persian Boy by Mary Renault
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's review
Aug 22, 11

bookshelves: historical-fiction, hubris-and-arete, lgbt
Read on August 22, 2011

It is possible - though somewhat distressing - that my love affair with Mary Renault is beginning to draw to a close. It began about eight years ago, when I first read The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea surrounding a passionate, pilgrimage-like trip to Greece. I was amazed that Renault possessed the same respect, reverence even for the Greeks and the Greek culture that I did. The care and seriousness with which she endowed her historical novels impressed me - here, I thought, is another person like me! It didn't bother me that much, then, that her books were so universally lacking in female characters - she wrote about Greek, mostly homosexual (though all of them, with the possible exception of Bagoas, are at least slightly bisexual, which touch of realism I also appreciated) men, and those were important stories that needed to be told, even though there was little room for women in them.

However, several years later, having just now finished the last of her historical novels that I will ever read for the first time (two of her earlier, contemporary set efforts I haven't been able to secure yet), I find that I can look at her with clearer, more judgmental eyes. I see flaws, now, in her writing, that I never noticed before - shortcuts she makes in her characterization, the way the persistent marginalization of the women in her stories moves beyond a quirk of plot and into a troubling, almost, Anne Rice-like pattern, the way the structure of her novels is almost always oddly anti-climactic, with the plot petering out in a manner that, while it may be quite realistic, proves distinctly unsatisfying. I don't fall into a sort of contented adoration when reading her books any longer - I don't feel quite so much at home.

But, nonetheless, she remains good, and strangely unique. She writes about Greek men, Greek masculinity with this astonishing clarity and compassion that I don't think anyone else has quite managed on that particular topic. She is still the only author I know who writes men in love with one another and remaining - realistically - warriors, without a hint of stereotype (this turns into a quite ugly denigration of effeminate gay men in The Charioteer, which is enormously problematic, but we'll leave that alone for now). And what I found most interesting in The Persian Boy was the freedom that she found, in the person of this entirely unexpected narrative voice, to explore this really fascinating dialogue about what the classical Greek culture means, what makes it what it is and how much of that is actually worthwhile.

The Persian Boy is a strange book. It is the story of Bagoas, a eunuch in the court of King Darius III of Persia, who became the eromenos of Alexander the Great after Alexander's conquest of Persia. It's a brilliant example of an author taking a minor figure in history and opening them up, making them into a very wonderful and unique window into a large and important time while still giving them realistic prominence as an individual. I appreciated it as a book that gave voice to a voiceless figure in history, for eunuchs and concubines get mentioned on the sidelines of both of histories and novels - for a character to rise to the rank of protagonist, normally they must daringly and implausibly escape both of those situations. Bagoas' position also gave him a unique and interesting perspective on the aforementioned Greek/Persian dialogue that runs throughout the book. While he loves Alexander unerringly, and loves the Greek qualities in him because they are part of him, he finds Greek ideals and ideas, generally speaking, ludicrous and laughable (but, of course, he loves Homer, because I don't think Mary Renault could bear to write a point of view character who didn't like Homer). His paeans to the dignity and power of hierarchical Persian court rituals, especially the ritual of vassals' prostration before their king, are startling and powerful, and almost convincing. You side with him for a long time, sharing his frustration as Alexander's Macedonian comrades proudly refuse to bow before him as though for an oriental monarch - Bagoas does not only consider them old-fashioned, as Alexander himself does, but insolent, uncouth, and disloyal, as well as entirely irrational.

And then, midway through the book, the limits of Bagoas' vision came into focus a little more clearly. Alexander is committing hubris, and most dreadfully - claiming that his deeds outshine those of Herakles and Dionysus is a blasphemy that would shock me in the most arrogant of Roman emperors. Alexander may, as Renault and Bagoas claim, want nothing more than the love and devotion of his subjects - but the devotion he wants is that due to a deity, not to an equal and citizen. Moreover, Bagoas was trained in the rites of respect and hierarchy of which he speaks so highly at the same time as his training in concubinage - at the age of twelve. I was impressed, at the beginning of the book, by how seriously Renault took Bagoas' trauma (in this she does not resemble Anne Rice and The Vampire Armand, which has some suspiciously similar plot points), but by the time Bagoas meets Alexander it has seemingly faded to the background, to be replaced with a cool professionalism and a pride in his 'work' as a concubine and courtesan. I distrust this, and thus anything Bagoas says about sexuality or power dynamics following his formalized training in the court of Darius. The moral tapestry Renault is weaving is a little more complex than that - are we really sympathizing with these tyrants, who habitually mutilate children for use has sex slaves, over the Greeks, with their wonderful 'undignified' nudity and their belief in democracy? Perhaps Alexander should have been murdered after making his his comrades prostrate themselves before him.

I may be reading too much into it. It is clear from the afterword of the book that Renault loves Alexander almost as much as Bagoas does - she may have been willing to excuse him both the ways in which he was Greek and the ways in which he was Persian. But I, at least, was stimulated by the ethical dialogue, by having my sympathies jolted so.

Other problems I had with the book - because the central character is a trauma survivor whose sense of his masculinity has been seriously (and literally) damaged, the exclusion of women felt even more arbitrary than it normally does. We hear Bagoas speak with anger and nuance about his own violations, as though they are serious crimes worthy of our attention as readers, but the screams of captive women being raped are referred to, more or less casually, throughout the book. I wanted to hear their stories as well, not just Bagoas'. Also, Bagoas monogamy was a mild irritation the whole time - his jealousy of Hephaiston just felt utterly stupid. I wanted them to have good, sympathetic conversations with one another.
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