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on 8 December 2001
This is a Very Serious Work, one that cannot be read (or summarized) quickly without doing it an injustice. A newly created, "classical" epic for the first hundred pages, it has larger than life heroes from Greek mythology fighting great, ancient battles in which the survival of a culture is at stake. King Meleager of Kalydon, the lone huntress Atalanta, her dog Aura, and her cousin Meilanion are, with sixty other hunters, trying to conquer a ferocious boar unleashed upon the country by the goddess Artemis. As the other hunters fall prey to jealousies, duplicities, and betrayals, these three alone face the final battle, the outcome of which is never clear.
The rest of the book tells parallel stories from three 20th century time frames, involving modern characters whose lives involve similar battles with "the boar" and what it represents. Solomon Memel, Ruth Lackner, and Jakob Feuerstein are teenage friends in Romania in 1938 when the Russians and, soon afterward, the Nazis, occupy the country, create ghettos, and bring the Holocaust. In 1952, Solomon publishes a poem, "Die Keilerjagd," in which he describes his World War II experiences with partisans in Greece, paralleling the boar hunt of the ancient heroes, as they chase a Nazi field commander through the same mountains in the war's waning days. Some years later, when Sol is 49 and a heroic icon to schoolchildren, Ruth, a successful theater figure, decides to make a film of his poem and experiences, and the accuracy of his poem and memory are challenged publicly. Sol's battles to fill the gaps in his memory and to recall uncertain events represent yet another battle with the boar.
Time is flexible here, filtered through the consciousness of Sol, as memories from all three time periods crowd his life in no particular order, and he recollects one event after another, perhaps imperfectly. Norfolk does not always dot all the I's and cross all the T's as Sol tells his story, requiring the reader to bring his/her own consciousness to the interpretation of events, and, like Sol, to keep an open mind to alternative interpretations. His concern with myths, both ancient and modern, how they are created, what they reveal about human needs, how they reflect reality, and why they are perpetuated give tremendous impact and broad scope to his several stories. The hypnotic, musical cadences and the elaborate, minutely detailed descriptions lend a weightiness appropriate to an epic. The action is intense, the themes are universal, and the scope of the author's vision seems almost limitless. This is a slow, but ultimately rewarding, reading experience, sometimes requiring the reader to fight his/her own battle with the boar.
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on 11 September 2005
I was almost put off this book by some of the very negative comments on this site and am very glad that I ignored them. The story ranges over millennia, from Greek myth to the near past and effectively interweaves them. Lawrence Norfolk has the ability to create powerful and lingering images through his erudition and use of language.
The first section is heavily footnoted. Many of these references are of academic interest only but others expand upon the sources and open up the mythical background, in addition to reinforcing the plot later in the book. Rather than tiresome, as described by some reviewers, I found the footnotes also added to the journey undertaken by the protagonists in the tale, the notes becoming clues and tracks to echo the hunters' progress. It makes for a halting read at times (but then a hunt would also be halting as the trail progresses) but then the pace accelerates and one is propelled inexorably towards the quarry.
Film and the creation of a movie forms part of the plot and indeed this book reminds me of the sort of high quality foreign film that is not afraid to challenge it's audience and leave them thinking. Excellent
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on 31 January 2009
First, an overview:

The first part of the book recounts the tale of the Boar of Calydon, a mythological beast hunted by the whole of the older generation of ancient Greek heroes (excepting Hercules). The second part transposes this hunt into a more modern setting (WW2 and the present day), the main characters being Jewish youths who have escaped from a ghetto (and their older selves), Nazis, and a group of partisans.

Norfolk, in beautifully poetic prose, weaves these two stories together into a brilliant meditation on the very value of "truth".

It must be noted that Norfolk, in the first section, employs extensive foot-notes. To begin with, they seem simply to quote sources. However, they increasingly transform into more complete annotation, and eventually into a narrative in themselves, somewhat subverting the main text. It's very clever (but not too much so), and to appreciate the novel as a whole you can't really just ignore them.

The first part in particular is quite brilliant in its execution, and although it does seem to drag a little in the middle (it's difficult to work out where it's going), it quickly picks up again.

Perhaps not to everyone's taste, but it really is very intelligently and powerfully written, and Norfolk's ingenuity gives it an extra dimension.

Extremely highly recommended.
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on 3 February 2009
The story of a mythical boar sent to plague the people of Ancient Greece who is hunted throughout history, and ultimately reappears in 70s Paris. We start in Greece, before moving to the second part of the story, which is shared between war time (WW2) Romania and 70s Paris. However the boar in the 70s is somewhat altered to that of the legend. This is a decent premise which got me to buy the book.

This is an engaging story with plus points aplenty but a substantial drawback. Norfolk commences in the vein of classic, epic literature from the period in which his story is set. For the same reasons that the Iliad is very difficult to read, as are certain parts of the Bible, so are the first 40 pages of this, which is off-putting. He lists character after character, figure after figure, reference after reference - similar to pieces like the Iliad. His work is one of fiction, slightly grounded in reality (if you count legend as reality). By basing his text on epics the readabilty that the 2nd half possesses is massively offset and upset by this first half.

However the second half (or two thirds) is a entertaining and involving story with credible but extraordinary characters on whom he paints the events of the past, but has them dressed in modern clothes. His history is spot on, and you learn a bit too - which is never a bad thing. If one were to start reading at the shift in time between Ancient Greece and Romania circa 1943-44 you would have a good read, not outstanding, but enthralling nevertheless, whilst only being slightly confuseed as to what had gone before.

Verdict: A little too clever for its own good at the expense of readability.
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on 17 February 2001
Lawrence Norfolk is known from his previous books, "Lempriere's Dictionary" and "The Pope's Rhinoceros", as an extroardinary writer of historical worlds. Those books were exceptional entertainment. With "In the Shape of a Boar", however, Norfolk does something new. This book is shorter (just over 300 pages) than the other two and much more poetic, and the historical setting is the relatively recent World War II. And rather than merely creating an historical thriller, mystery story, or picaresque, Norfolk weaves a complex layering of stories in which psychic truths are hidden, revealed, transformed, hidden again.
The book's first third is a beautiful, haunting, and innovative retelling of the boar hunt in Calydon, involving the fathers of the Greek Trojan War heroes and Atalanta, the virgin huntress. The reader is vividly placed in the changing landscapes of the hunting expedition, from sweltering valley to icy shadowed gorge, experiencing the hunters' growing misery and filth, even how their sandals feel through mud and on rock. It is extensively footnoted for sources in the first 30 pages and again in the last 10 pages. As the story proceeds, Calydon is decimated and deserted, all of the heroes are killed or flee, and only Meleager, Atalanta and her dog, and Meilanion remain to face the boar at the end.
Golden-haired Meleager had invited the heroes to help him. His father, king of Calydon, invoked the boar by neglecting Artemis in his first-fruits sacrifice. Atalanta, whose protector is Artemis, is a resented presence among the men. There is a tense sexual electricity between her and Meleager, which makes things worse when the heroes start hating Meleager as well. Meilanion is a cousin of Atalanta and desperately in love with her. He sets out on his own in the hope of killing the boar himself.
Meleager and Atalanta track the boar to a cave at the edge of a barren crater in the mountains. Meilanion follows them, watching them enter the dark cave. He hears a struggle and then nothing. He enters the cave and hears the sound of another's breathing -- the boar? one of the hunters?
The rest of the book is about Solomon Memel, a German-language poet living in Paris. After the war, he published a long poem telling the story of Greek partisans cornering a German SS officer in a cave, a hunt he was part of and which he tells in terms of the ancient boar hunt in the same place, now called "The Cauldron". Around 1970, a friend from before the war comes to Paris to make a movie interpretation of his poem. The rest of the book becomes a tense dance towards uncovering the truth behind the poem.
Norfolk describes the life of the three friends in pre-war Romania: Sol, Ruth (the actor-cum-director), and Jakob. When the intent of the Nazi occupation of their town becomes clear (they are Jewish), Ruth does what an attractive young woman can to survive and arranges for Sol and Jakob's escape. Jakob disappears, however, and Sol walks alone to Greece.
After Sol's poem becomes famous, a heavily annotated edition appears from Jakob, casting doubt on its veracity. Sol is unable to contact Jakob, but his reputation is eventually restored by others. Ruth appears to still doubt the story. Or she feels it is the wrong one, as her movie retells the poem as simply between a young woman and an older man in a Paris apartment -- her post-war story.
After the stunningly poetic language of the first part, the rest of the book requires an abrupt adjustment in expectation, but it soon picks up as more of Sol's stories are told and Ruth's efforts instensify to get him to admit something she is sure he is hiding, from himself if not from her. (Fifteen years earlier, he sat with a bottle of whiskey waiting for a telephone call from Ruth. The whiskey was gone when her call came. Sol can't remember what he said to her, and Ruth didn't understand it. At the end of Sol's escape from Romania, he was guided in his delirium into The Cauldron by Jakob. These are just two of the loose threads that nag them.)
Norfolk's achievements in this book concern the evocations of memory -- its necessity and its pain. The boar hunt may or may not be fictional, but the catharsis it provides is indeed true. Uncomfortable truths may lurk in the boar's dark cave, and it might be better that they stay there. Bringing the boar into the light brought about Calydon's destruction. Sol's past might have died in that cave, in that cauldron; perhaps by writing his poem, he killed it, leaving him unable to relate to Ruth as he once had. By writing the poem, he wrote his own death perhaps but also his rebirth.
There is no resolution to these tensions. The last section, only two pages long, returns to the poetic tones of the first part. It is called after the region of Calydon "Agrapha", "unwritten"; the surviving hunter embraces his dying boar.
"In the Shape of a Boar" is a profoundly haunting read. There is much mystery in this book and its careful and complex tale deserves multiple readings.
--Eric Rosenbloom, Brooklyn, New York
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on 16 July 2005
Really looked forward to reading this after seeing its reviews. Just goes to show that you shouldn't believe everything that other people tell you. The characters, both ancient Greek and modern, are totally unrealistic and act and talk in completely unnatural ways. You never get a feeling that the people are real so that you can never relate to them at all. Sol's lapses of memory are very convenient for allowing the author to paper over huge discrepancies in the story. Other reviewers talk about the multi-layered aspects of the book. What they should really say is that the story(?) is just a mish-mash of events and people which has no structure and culminates in a totally unsatisfactory ending.
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on 14 October 2001
Having flicked through the first few pages of this book I thought it looked like an exciting historical tale which from the review on the cover I felt would travel through time and the repercussions of earlier events would be felt in more modern times.
However the first 100 pages of the book become largely unreadable due to footnotes, and whilst there is later an explaqnation of this, you really just want the book to end.
Whilst the book picks up pace a little after this first third it never comes to life.
The end of the book is as disappointing as the beginning with the author sadly lacking the conviction to choose between the various scenarios open to him. Whilst leaving an ending open can in many cases allow a reader to decide for themselves what will happen, in this case the book was crying out for an answer to the questions raised in the past.
I have to say I struggled to finish this book, and I would recommend that unless you have a keen interest in books by Homer (The greek, not the Simpson) you don't even bother starting it.
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