When does war become your new normal, your life? What happens when the men in power then decide that war is over? These questions face us today in Afghanistan and Iraq just as they faced the Greeks after the fall of Troy. The Shadow in Xeno’s Eye by Jerry Soffer tells the story of one Ithacan soldier from the moment he bursts out of the Trojan Horse to the months after the Greek kings returned to their city states leaving a few men behind to guard the gates.
Inside the Trojan Horse
The beginning of the novel is chaotic. The Greeks are still mid-battle with Troy and a mess of men are waiting inside the horse for the moment when they will change the direction of this decade-long war. It’s a confusing scene and took me more than one read to understand where I was in time and what was going on, but once I got it, I was delighted to read this new perspective on a classic tale. I got a first-hand look inside the gates of Troy alongside the Greek soldiers after they emerged from the horse to see men “Gathered around a statue of a horned bird with jeweled eyes on a nest of vine leaves inlaid with gold.”
It’s been a very long time since I read The Iliad or The Aeneid, but from what I can recall, Soffer’s focus on the experience of lowly soldiers is a very different take than Homer or Virgil’s. Xeno, a simple Ithacan fisherman, encounters legends like Menelaus and Agamemnon, but his first-person narrative centers on the soldiers who bore the daily cost of war. If you don’t have any recollection of the basics of the Trojan War, you might feel like one of the soldiers on the field—taking orders without any real understanding of what’s happening—but even a quick Wikipedia skim will give you what you need to know.
“The men from Rhodes were quiet, even for a small contingent, but the feeling was more of weariness than brewing anger; voices were friendly, not raucous the way guys sometimes get. Their little brigade had a lot of seamen turned soldiers, like me, and they were glad it was over.” – Jerry Soffer
The Politics of Kings and Generals
One of the strongest scenes in the book is when Xeno overhears Agamemnon, Menelaus, and others discussing the real reasons they went to war and how they will resolve the problem of Helen. I remember the first time I heard George Bush utter about Saddam Hussein, “This is the guy that tried to kill my dad,” so it was easy to place myself inside Xeno’s mind as he realized how many lies had been told. What surprised me was how calmly Xeno reacted to the political intrigue. But as an ordinary soldier, Xeno’s good opinion was not going to be a deciding factor in the war… perhaps he realized that and escaped with what was most important to him—his life.
Boots on the Ground in an Unending War
Once Troy is sacked, it should be time for the Greeks to pack up Helen and sail back across the Aegean. But the kings want to preserve their right to settle Troy so a small group of men is left behind to guard the city. Xeno is among them and he takes for the first time a leadership role. It was very interesting to watch the men from different city states as their loyalties started to fracture. Soffer uses language rather than physical descriptions to delineate between different types of Greeks and also the tribesmen surrounding Troy. The pidgin in which they spoke to one another obviously affected relationships and trust between groups.
Perhaps I watched too much G.I. Joe as a child, but I kept waiting for Xeno to become a hero. He tried to work with the leaders each group listened to, but his leadership style was passive and I feared for all the men when the King of Phrygia showed up to take Troy for his own.
Regular readers of this blog will know I have an obsession with crones. By far the most entrancing character for me was Beach Hag, an old woman living among the soldiers. Because of the way Soffer blended mythological characters with historical ones in dialogue (which is so spot on for this type of book), I kept waiting for her to transform into some goddess. I won’t spoil the book for you, but I will say that her presence was strong enough that when she disappeared, I waited anxiously for her to come back.
If you are a fan of history or are looking for an allegory to understand how unending wars affect the everyman who has to fight them, you’ll enjoy The Shadow of Xeno’s Eye.