Jane Cochrane’s Odysseus’ Island, is a moving memoir that narrates the author’s archaeological quest to find Odysseus’s palace in the Greek island of Ithaca, Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy reviews
Once upon a time, a young student of literature sat in class listening to his formalist professor trying to blur the line between literature and human existence or reality. The professor said that whatever you have in a narrative has no connection with the outer world of that book. But this young student had trained himself to see art as ‘a mirror of society’ and the idea that it should be considered an entity on its own outside the society, author, or epoch that fashioned that art failed to sit well with him. That was probably his first contact with a pure formalist and he felt he just had to say something.
This young student got up and told the professor that he could not be right. Understanding literature often demands understanding the circumstances surrounding such literature and that literature is as much life as life is literature. He remembered that he had read somewhere that the Troy-site of the ten years Trojan War had been discovered, thereby giving credence to the fact that Homer’s The Iliad had not been woven from mere imagination but rather a product of true life experiences. But the good prof. would hear none of such. He silenced the young man by declaring his position null and void before asking him to sit down so the lesson could continue.
That young man was me and although I have since come to understand a lot about Prof.’s approach to literature and art in general, my belief in the fact that our experiences influence our creative aspects remains unshaken.
I have since then seen documentaries on how archeologists, using the homeric verses, have traced the ancient city of Troy to modern day city in Turkey and in no little way has this discovery amazed me. Homer’s epic were in no way designed to be read as history (even Aristotle draws out this discrepancy in his The Poetics), but in the absence of a historian, modern civilisation has often turned to the artist for an understanding of the past. This is the position that Homer holds, and it underscores the important role of the artist in human civilisation.
Given such a background as mine, it seemed obvious that Jane Cochrane’s Odysseus’ Island would arrest my interest. The book is both a memoir and an archeological narrative about finding the actual location of the palace of the great ancient Greek warrior, king, and adventurer, Odysseus, who once ruled the small Island of Ithaca and its surrounding empire.
Many had hitherto believed that Homer’s epics were mere fantasies cooked out of the mind of a blind poet. But people like Heinrich Schliemann (a German ‘homeric’ businessman and archeologist) felt they had to be some truth in those epics and he pursued them, eventually locating the site of Troy but not really finding it because of the crude excavation methods he employed. Following this colossal find was the discovery the palace of Agamnenon and Nestor (two great kings who played pertinent roles in the Trojan war).
These discoveries were monumental and it was inevitable that the human eyes would soon begin creeping about in search of Odysseus’s palace as if it was the only missing puzzle in the game.
Alec, a British born Greek barrister and arbitrator, happens to be one of these pairs of eyes in search of Odysseus’s palace. So, he sets out like Odysseus and his men (but with his much younger wife, Jane Cochrane, and her kids) from England on a journey to the Greek island of Ithaca. Little did he know that he would fall in love with the Island and even become a residence on it. Another thing Alex probably did not envisage was that like Moses, he would be gifted a view of the Promised Land without stepping a foot on it.
While I think Jane Cochrane went on to give too much background narration before throwing in the main subject (the search for Odysseus’s palace), I love how she gets her readers immersed in Ithaca’s olive tree filled landscape and the aspects of the Ithacan culture which has persisted into modern era. The first half of the book largely qualifies as memoir while the second part is the archeological narrative itself. I think the importance of the first half lies more in the value they offer the writer. For her, they hold the memories of her beloved late husband without whom the archeological research may neither have taken place in the first instance nor be completed by her.
The second half traces out Odysseus’s palace using clues from Homer’s The Odyssey combined with the works and efforts of other researchers. The second half is a fulfillment of her husband’s dream and also a refutation of Robert Brittlestone et al (a group of archeological researchers who produced the book Odysseus Unbound) erroneous postulation that modern day Ithaca could not have been the same as the one which Odysseus dwelled in simply based on the evidence of two disjointed verses. Also, having come to dwell among the Ithacans for over two decades and even learning to speak the Greek language, she must have felt that she is one of them and saw the need to defend their right as the original Ithacans.
Finally, I love the fact that Jane Cochrane cherishes her husband and treasures his memory to have committed the wonderful moments they spent together into her book. I also love the way she was able to naturally melt to become one with the landscape and culture of Ithaca. The book is a good read but I wish the author had not deliberately starved us of a great opportunity by not providing coloured print pictures of the various wonderful topography of Ithaca as described by Homer and which she visits with her grandson in the quest for Odysseus’s Palace. And if this book doesn’t make you feel like visiting Ithaca already, nothing else will.
© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2020