A review of The Persian Boy by Mary Renault, London, 1972
Superbly inspirational *****
The story takes its name from its narrator, Bagoas, sold into slavery and castrated at ten and soon acquired as a catamite by the Great King, Darius. Following the latter's death, he went into the service of Alexander the Great, and quickly learned to love him with moving passion. The first quarter offers a fascinating introduction to ancient Persia. The rest follows the exploits of Alexander until his death and is thus a sequel to Fire From Heaven, in which his boyhood was recounted. Bagoas's personal story is considerably embellished from the few known facts, but the rest is closely based on real events imaginatively and convincingly brought to life.
Heart-achingly beautiful prose is here allied to historical authenticity to a degree achieved by no other historical fiction writer I know of. As should be, but isn't, the case with every historical novel, all that is here invented could realistically have happened and is in accord with the spirit of its setting. But Renault goes well beyond showing us Hellenic culture and values, she writes as if she were an ancient Greek to the depths of her soul and makes no compromises for modern sensibilities. Hence whether you will like this novel depends much on how you feel about the very different society it brings to life.
Having Alexander's story told by one brought up in a very different culture is an excellent device. Not only does the steady growth in initially poor understanding between King and boy deepen their love story and colour it with humour, but it allows Renault to bring Alexander and his Macedonians to life through an outsider's view. Often it is the most critical observations of the amusingly chauvinistic Persian boy that illuminate the cultural beauty of the Macedonians, or more generally the Greeks. Unashamed male nudity is one example. "Barbarians! ... Truly I had left all civilised things behind me," thinks a deeply shocked Bagoas when he first sees the King and his friends bathing naked in a river, then adds, "All the same ... if one knew no better, what pleasure to slide through the sparkling river, bare as a fish." Bagoas's similar shock at the familiarity of the Macedonian soldiers with their King puts a spotlight on how this facilitated the extraordinarily powerful bond between them.
The main criticism usually made is that Renault is too favourable in her depiction of Alexander. I shall return shortly to the "too" in this, but she makes no bones about being favourable to him. She adored him, and by choosing as her narrator a boy who was also in love with him, she relieved herself of any obligation to neutrality or objectivity. I had better confess I share this love too and am thus in complete sympathy with her approach. This is my favourite novel by my favourite writer, and having first read it at fourteen, no other has come near it in influence on me.
The most common grounds for denigrating Alexander in our age of moral repugnance for war are that success in this is all that Alexander was about. Not only does Renault illustrate well his burning curiosity in a wild range of fields and the creativity it inspired, but she points out that "not till more than a century later did a handful of philosophers even start to question the morality of war. In his time the issue was not whether, but how one made it." It is not only anachronistic to deprecate his military achievements, but misplaced to criticise her admiration of them. She does not admire them for their own sake, but as the acts of one who in pursuit of his longings gave enhanced meaning to life by showing mankind it could go further than it had imagined realistically possible.
The accusation that her Alexander is too perfect is unfair because she does not ignore or gloss over his bad deeds. Does a perfect man kill an old comrade in a drunken rage? This and other barbarities are recounted at length. They do not turn Renault or Bagoas against Alexander because they are the faults of one whom they love unrepentantly. However reprehensible, they are understandable and sometimes illuminate an attractive quality. When, for example, Alexander has his best friend Hephaistion's doctor summarily hung for debatable negligence leading to his death, one is shocked, but also moved and uplifted by the passionate love that inspired such a savage deed.
Those suspecting her depiction of Alexander is idealised should ask themselves why it was, as Renault says in her author's note, that "no other human being has attracted in his lifetime, from so many men, so fervent a devotion." That the mutineers at Opis "complained to Alexander of not being allowed to kiss him is not fiction but history." There is powerful magic to be explained here which an ordinary man's qualities will not answer.
One serious flaw with The Persian Boy as a historically true portrait of Alexander is the depiction of him as "not a boy-lover; it was the comely young men around him that pleased his eye." This not only runs counter to the Greek norm, according to which attraction to boys (specifically males not having grown facial hair) as well as women was taken for granted, but is flatly contradicted by the historical sources. While none of them suggest Alexander was ever attracted to a man, Athenaios says (Deipnosophists 603) he "was passionate about boys" and gives examples. Curtius Rufus, our only source on the age of Bagoas, presents him as appealing because he was "of remarkable beauty and in the very flower of boyhood."
Though The Persian Boy has attracted a vast number of good reviews, I believe this point has not been addressed before and is therefore worth further exploration. Both history and Renault record Alexander as romantically involved with some of his "paides basilikoi" (literally King's Boys), so this affords a clear example of how she has adapted history to make Alexander a lover of young men. Where English historians usually describe them as pages, she calls them squires. She mentions one being eighteen and implies they were all young men. In reality, we have the reliable word of Arrian, (Anabasis IV 13 i) that they were enrolled "as soon as they reached puberty", ie. around thirteen. Bagoas is correctly made to say "two or three years was the usual time of service", which must therefore have ended well before manhood. The distinction may well have seemed trivial at the time she wrote, 1972, but has unfortunately become important since then due to dishonest attempts to present ancient Greece as a precedent or model for contemporary gay society. The contradictions between them in both taste and ideals are fundamental and the most irreconcilable is whether homosexual affairs should be between men and egalitarian, or, as she faithfully depicted in her other novels, between men and boys and bringing complementary benefits to each.
Renault is recorded as confiding in friends that in her conception of an ideal man's life, after an interlude for marriage, his interest should focus on young men. Alexander was her ideal man, so it is hardly surprising she was tempted to adapt him thus. I suspect the same motive led to her deprecation of Alexander's heterosexual passions, a point I am explaining in a review of the sequel, Funeral Games, though it applies to both books. In any case, not even the very best novel or history can be perfect, and this single significant historical inaccuracy is nowhere near enough to put me off recommending it most highly.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 23 July 2016.