Simon Bisson (sbisson) wrote,
Simon Bisson

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A Wednesday Lunchtime "It's Rather Cold Today" Review: Alexander At The World's End

marypcb and I have a long running philosophical discussion, over the possibility of the perfectability of mankind. Influenced at an early age by the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, I argue for it, while she, backed by all the weight of Athenian philosophy, aragues against. It's a fun discussion, and one I'm sure we'll be having for many years.

But what does that have to do with Tom Holt's Ancient Grecian historical novel explorating the relationship between Athens and the Macedonians? It's because this is an argument that runs through the heart of Alexander At The World's End. Euxenus, our narrator and anti-hero, is a Yapping Dog philosopher from Athens, a disciple of Diogenes and a part time prophet. Living an unexamined life, pushed from pillar to post by the buffeting of others, Euxenus is an unwitting catalyst for change and disaster. He is failed humanity personified, hubris and denial combined, bumbling across the world tasked with building perfect societies, and seeing everything fall apart in flames as a result of inadvertant actions and deliberate inactions.

Told by a man near the end of his life, and many, many miles from home, the story begins with the matter of an inheritance. At the begining of his journey across the ancient world, Euxenus is a younger son in a large family, and a deal to save the family land from dilution forces him onto the streets of Athens, and into a career as a philosopher. Unloved, and unloving, he drifts across Athens, before finding himself drafted onto a diplomatic mission to Macedon, and the drunken court of the ambitious King Philip. By dint of a few smart words at dinner, and an imaginary snake in a jar, Euxenus becomes one of Alexander's tutors (alongside his old rival and enemy Aristotle) - and accidently inspires his march of conquest.

But that is the only time the two men will ever meet. Instead, Euxenus is sent by Philip to found a colony in our present day Crimea. Planned and designed to the nth degree, this is to be a gleaming example of Grecian power and might. In the end it's reduced subsistence farming and armed neutrality with untrusting neighbours - and everyone seems much happier. Until relations with nearby villages deteriorate completely...

Holt's writing mixes dry wit and historical accuracy. The impact of Alexander on the world is seen in ripples out from Persia, and in tales told by those who spent time with him. We see what it was like to live in Athens, and in a Greek colony. There's plenty resarch here, mixed with excellent story-telling, and a writer's grasp on the emotions of the reader - even when it appears that Euxenus feels nothing...

There's an big question here: who is more important? Euxenus who accidently inspired Alexander, and who spent his life building villages, or Alexander, who moved across Asia and left behind a myriad towns baring his name? Did Euxenus' words change the world, and in his uncaring, unexamined life, did he affect more lives than he could ever know? And why does every attempt at reaching for greatness (however small) end in disaster?

Excellent stuff, and highly recommended.
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