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PN Review 276
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This review is taken from PN Review 146, Volume 28 Number 6, July - August 2002.

SHIFTING LIKE A RUBIK CUBE DERREK HINES, Gilgamesh (Chatto & Windus) £8.99.

The epic story of the ancient Sumerian hero Gilgamesh is interesting and powerful, but also tantalising because of the incompleteness of the records. Unlike Beowulf or King Arthur, Gilgamesh is an attested historical figure who ruled the kingdom of Sumer in what is now southern Iraq around 2800 BC. But like these other two heroes he became the focus for many legends and mythical extensions which took his story well beyond the realities of third-millennium Iraq. Tales and rumours about his deeds began to circulate not long after his death. Whether (as is fairly likely) they were orally transmitted we don't know, but they were certainly written down, as literate poetry, and the Sumerians prided themselves on the importance of recording, probably because they saw their invention of the earliest complete writing system as a key to the arts and sciences as well as for counting sheep or bales of cotton. The cuneiform script, made by pressing a reed stylus into clay, produced surprisingly durable tablets. Their own language, which has no known relatives, died out, replaced by the Semitic Akkadian, but the Akkadians admired and respected Sumerian culture and copied and translated and re-edited the Sumerian poems, including Gilgamesh. Though their language was quite different, they still used clay and cuneiform, and if it wasn't for these sunbaked tablets dug up in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, we wouldn't know anything about Gilgamesh. The Akkadians even borrowed the Sumerian word for clay tablet, dub, into their own tongue as tuppum. For the history of Gilgamesh it was touch and go in any case, since knowledge of cuneiform was lost about the time of Christ, and the whole Gilgamesh story disappeared for nearly two millenniums, until after the writing was deciphered in the nineteenth century. The Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans did not refer to Gilgamesh, and so his remarkable and moving legend never passed into the mainstream of Western culture. Now we make belated amends. The poem's force can still be felt after five thousand years, a fact all the more notable when you consider that there are gaps in the text where tablets have been damaged or are missing, and that there are still some words whose meaning is uncertain or unknown.

New attempts to unlock the treasures of this epic are therefore always welcome. It goes its own way, and its challenges are not by any means the expected ones. Here is this renowned man, this heroic and active character, builder of cities, defender of a powerful and wealthy state, encourager of all the arts and crafts, yet a complex figure with marked flaws, moody, overbearing, at times impatient, at times indulgent and generous, emotionally swinging between elation and black depression. He is young, handsome, strong, unmarried. What do the gods have in store for him? You might think they would want to make him a tragic hero, give him a memorable death. But in fact this does not happen, and Gilgamesh returns after many adventures to his native city, chastened by sufferings and disappointments, a more humanly sympathetic figure. The poem ends as it had begun, praising the strength and beauty of the walled city of Uruk which is Gilgamesh's monument. It is written in celebration of a man and a city, but it also asks questions about both. What lasts, what changes, what survives?

The new version by Derrek Hines is, he says, 'in no sense a translation'. The back cover of the book carries an encomium by Christopher Logue, and Hines's method clearly derives from the free sort of adaptation employed so brilliantly by Logue himself in his versions of Homer, i.e. there is no fear of anachronisms, and there is the desire to produce a 'voice' that will resound in contemporary ears. The main difference is that Logue, for all his apparent waywardness, keeps returning to a regular pentameter beat, begins each line with a capital letter, and evinces many marks of traditional respect, whereas Hines writes a much more irregular free verse and departs much more widely from the original. The main outline of the story is preserved, but the omissions are fairly drastic: Enkidu's grim dream of the House of Dust, the sparky encounter with the Scorpion-Man and Scorpion- Woman, the dialogue with Utanapishtim and the whole story of the Flood. In addition, Hines includes an account of the death of Gilgamesh which is not part of the original poem.

The opening lines try too hard to hook the modern reader, who may well be put off by an apparent anti-dignity syndrome, always a risk in dealing with great works of the past:

Here is Gilgamesh, king of Uruk:
two-thirds divine, a mummy's boy,
zeppelin ego, cock like a trip-hammer,
and solid chrome, no-prisoners arrogance.

Pulls women like beer rings.
Grunts when puzzled.
A bully. A jock. Perfecto. But in love? -
a moon-calf, and worse, thoughtful.

Fortunately, this is not typical. There is some excellent scene-setting:

Euphrates' airy, fish-woven halls,
a sleep of reed-beds, the éclat of date palms,
wind-glossed corn. And in the distance

desert - the sun's loose gunpowder.
Green rolls up
and rasps along it like a tongue
wetting sandpaper.

The anachronisms are often effective. Gilgamesh and Enkidu moving towards their wrestling-match are described as 'Juggernauts too wide for the narrow streets', the monstrous Humbaba is a 'a quantum entanglement magus', and when the goddess Ishtar stamps an angry foot in heaven the tiles 'shift like a Rubik cube to receive it'. What is perhaps less defensible is the constant spatter of metaphor, which may be interesting in itself but which seems overbaroque for a poem that reserves great simplicities for great moments. It is true that both Sumerian and Akkadian are welldeveloped, non-primitive languages, and the poem has some word-play and puns. But that is not quite the same as

Imagine the drop
at 12,000 feet
of juddering piano-roll,

his panicked fingertips
twisted into the perforations,
composing silent variations
on a theme of terror,
a counter-song to Death's.

This, describing how the dying Enkidu falls back into his pillows, is too curious and clever for the sadness of the event. At other times, when the original involves a supernatural element, Hines draws on science- fiction simulacra to grip the modern reader, with results that can be defended, despite the difference of effect. When the vengeful Ishtar calls down the Bull of Heaven to ravage Uruk, it is, in the original poem, a real bull, slavering at one end and shitting at the other, and Gilgamesh and Enkidu have to deal with it like Spanish bullfighters. Hines makes Ishtar unclamp the constellation Taurus and send it down to Uruk, where it becomes a nightmare in the mind of Gilgamesh, dissolved by his opening of an eye at dawn. It seems a pity to miss the real bull, but Hines's approach does preserve the mysteriousness of what 'sending down the Bull of Heaven' might mean.

If this version brings in new readers and helps to keep the great old story alive, good luck to it. Its occasional uncertainties of tone and style are the result of a somewhat shaky modernisation, and some of the direct emotional power of the original has gone. But there are many appealing things in it; it flashes some new facets; and it deserves to be read.


This review is taken from PN Review 146, Volume 28 Number 6, July - August 2002.

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