Set on the shores of Western Turkey, this strange and adventurous novel centers on the fate of Heinrich Schliemann, the 19th-century archaeologist
cum smuggler of ancient artifacts who mined the site of Troy for his own wealth and glory. In this story, he's been renamed Heinrich Obermann as author Peter Ackroyd presents an exhilarating expose on the life of a committed egoist who became obsessed at re-creating - in his mind at least - the lost glories of the Homeric world.
Heinrich Obermann is already middle-aged when he travels to Athens to court lovely young Sophia Chrysanthis, a girl of wealthy means who understands English and, more importantly, reads Homer with an avidity that Obermann cannot help but admire. A stout fifty-year-old who "wears pebble glasses and who has a great round head like a cannon ball," the portly archaeologist beguiles his beautiful bride with tales of Homer and the legendary Greek gods while also describing to her his excavations at Troy, and his previous excavations at
Ithaca, "known to all as the civilized world."
With a dowry of fifteen thousand dollars promised to her parents, Sophia travels with Obermann to the windswept plains of Southern Anatolya and the historic site of Troy, certain that she is now finally in the company of this man who will carry her forward to a new and better life.
The vulnerable young bride had certainly never once dreamt that she would be sailing away to Turkey with such an accomplished and notorious German husband.
When Sophia first arrives at Troy, she sees a "fortress hill" teeming with life "like some nest or burrow" and is distracted by the noise and activity around her. Soon, however, she proves herself to be a rapid and eager student, and Obermann's reserve towards her lightens, no longer treating her as one of his prized possessions. Sophia even becomes somewhat of a healing force, rapidly charming the diggers and tempering the animosity that exists between site manager Kadri Bey and Leonid, Obermann's mysterious young Russian assistant.
Once again, the professor becomes swamped by the ruins of this ancient site, fueling his genuine passion for discovery, searching for the remains of Troy like a lover. His determination to discover the old city and disclose it to the world becomes almost an uncontrollable fervor,
even as he lectures Sophia on the importance of Homer: "there is truth in all of the Greek legends, we live in a hard age, an age of iron and we need these stories."
When Sophia unexpectedly uncovers an ancient floor awash in gold earrings, bracelets and vases, hidden for five thousand years, Heinrich hides them from Kadri Bey, determined to smuggle these lost glories of Troy out of Turkey to keep them for himself and his own planned museum of antiquities. In turn, Sophia begins to question the motivations of her husband, especially when he forces her, no questions asked, to take the priceless pieces across the plain to the farm of his best friend, Theodore Skopelos.
Sophia's suspicions about her husband are further aroused when she hears hysterical, wild laughter that sounds like a madwoman coming from the shed behind Theodore's house. When Obermann tries to sabotage the work of American archaeologist William Brand and later the English historian Alexander Thornton, who is hired to come to the dig to interpret a series of clay tablets with unexplained writing on them, Sophia can no longer escape the fact that Heinrich is up to no good.
Brand finds himself constantly bewildered by Obermann's restless, impatient, and emphatic manner of being. For Heinrich, Troy represents an army of Homeric heroes, while William merely sees a tribe of alien people who perhaps cultivated human sacrifices. In the meantime, the poor but savvy Sophia ends up finding herself the unwilling victim, swept away by Alexander Thornton's romantic intentions while unsuccessfully endeavoring to remain positive about her new life with her husband.
As Obermann's faith in his wife and in the world around him gradually unravels, the dig starts to fall apart.
Suspicion and mistrust prevail as everyone, including Sophia, becomes convinced that Heinrich has sinister plans and that he will stop at nothing to curry the treasures of Troy for himself.
In his lifetime, Obermann didn't represent the best of the Homeric traditions - he was without doubt possessed of a brilliant mind, but he was hardly heroic. In this respect, Ackroyd doesn't shy away from depicting him as a shiftless and self-deluded character,
ever on the lookout for his own gratification, indulging his whims wherever and whenever he pleases.
The Fall of Troy is a bracing read, even if at times the prose comes across as uneven and clunky. The novel is drenched in archeology and history, especially when Troy's buried secrets slowly acquiesce to Obermann, Sophia and Brand, as Heinrich finally sets on William, deciding that the young student is out to destroy him, his work, and his miracle discoveries.
Ultimately, this intriguing book is about the ramifications of misguided
idealism and how one man can suddenly gravitate toward lunacy based in the belief that he's immortal. In the end, Obermann (Schliemann) seems to go through life in foolish stubbornness, perhaps even thinking that he
is one of the great and everlasting Greek gods that he so loves and admires.