Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Gilgamesh the King

Robert Silverberg
Completed 9/3/2015, Reviewed 9/8/2015
4 stars

The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is an ancient epic Sumerian poem about the exploits of Gilgamesh, the greatest king of Uruk in Mesopotamia.  It tells the tale of how he overworked his people to build a great kingdom, his friendship with the wild man Enkidu who was sent by the gods to distract him, his battles with the goddess Inanna, the earliest account of the great flood, and his journey seeking immortality.  Silverberg’s book is a novelization of the epic with some liberties taken, particularly the interaction with the gods.  The result is a highly readable retelling of what is considered the first piece of literature in human history.  I was completely engrossed in the book, both from an historical perspective and by the wonderful prose that Silverberg is known for.

Gilgamesh is an unreliable narrator.  This becomes evident as the book progresses.  Being told in first person, it paints him as a great, likeable hero, only eventually revealing to the reader that his perspective might be flawed.  This is a wonderful device drawing the reader into his personal struggles from his exile as a child to his claiming of the throne, then to his rebuilding of the kingdom.  But rumors abound that his people are exhausted from his seemingly unending supply of energy, his only distraction appearing to be his loneliness for intimate companionship.  That’s where the veneer of infallibility is first cracked.  Of course he has a harem of many wives, but we figure out he suffers from a few complexes.  To remedy this and to provide relief to his people, the gods send him a friend, Enkidu, a man who was raised by wild animals, the only man who can challenge him, and get him a little past his self-absorption. 

My one problem with the book is that Silverberg had to note that the relationship with Enkidu was not a gay relationship, but one of extreme filial love, and wrestling.  It’s like he had to appease the censors who thought the relationship was too homoerotic.  I mean, come on, they were always wrestling.  Considering they never engaged in sexual relations, I think it would have been fine to have left this statement out, leaving it ambiguous.  Considering Gilgamesh’s huge harem of wives and insatiable appetite for them, I think it’s much more believable to postulate that he was bisexual, and a similar book written today probably would have allowed that.

Dovetailing on this, one of Gilgamesh’s duties as king and representative of the consort Dumuzid, is to have an annual encounter with the priestess who is the representative of the goddess Inanna.  What’s significant about this is that this priestess is really the only woman he loves.  It creates a great sexual tension that permeates all of Gilgamesh’s thoughts and actions.  The introduction of Enkidu creates a triangle that sets the tone for the rest of the book and the tragedy that follows. 

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is Gilgamesh’s relationship to religion and the gods.  While he performs all the religious rituals necessary of a king, he also has a very modern, almost cynical view towards them.  It sets up a battle of the sexes and secularism, with religion represented by a women and the state represented by a man.  This multi-layered conflict is threaded throughout the latter half of the book, creating the exciting denouement that finishes the novel.  I know there is a sequel, where Silverberg pulls out more stories from the original Epic, including the journeys through the underworld, but this conclusion is quite satisfying.

I’ve only read one other Silverberg book, but considering he never won a best novel Hugo, he seems to be one of the more underappreciated writers of the golden era.  And I think that many SF readers are missing out one of the era’s best.  Silverberg’s prose is wonderful.  It never gets too haughty, but still feels literary.  Exemplified in this book, the words, plot, and images simply flow like water, making the reading experience a delight. 

Despite my one concern, I give this book four stars out of five.  I was completely engrossed in the book and the characters.  This was another one my used paperback purchases from Orycon with pretty small font, and I thought I’d have trouble with that as well as the fact that this is basically historical fiction with a little mythology thrown it.  But it proved me wrong and Silverberg remains one of the authors I just have to read more of.

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