Retracing the Odyssey

A long time ago, in the Classics department at UNC's Murphey Hall, there lived a self-published book, the title of which escapes me now. This I remember: it claimed that Odysseus, the hero of Homer's "Odyssey," once visited the Tar Heel State.

This is the inspiration of "No-Man's Lands," Raleigh journalist Scott Huler's energetic travel-study memoir: that we can retrace the steps of the most famous traveler of all time.

Many have tried, but as Huler ably points out, Homer leaves, in his nearly three-millennia-old epic, no sure evidence as to whether the sites of Odysseus' adventures -- the cave of Polyphemus the Cyclops, the shoals of the Sirens -- are fantasy, or real places, scattered around the Mediterranean Sea. For that matter, we don't even know that Homer was an actual poet who actually wrote the "Odyssey." Three thousand years, as many mysteries.

And how much does all this matter?

Here is an extraordinary thing: To at least one person it matters hugely, and Huler finds her while making his journey in faith around the Mediterranean in search of Odysseus' footprints. This episode is one among many that make "No-Man's Lands" a compelling read, underlining the enduring appeal of the "Odyssey."

Toward the end of the book, Huler finds himself uncharacteristically on a luxury cruise ship anchored near Corfu, an island on the west coast of Greece. Uncharacteristically, because he has committed himself for the trip to roughing it with a backpack, hiking boots and his "high-school French."

Here he meets Stella, one of the army of guides employed by the Hellenic Republic to guard the integrity of its history and people. Stella gets into a set-to with a classics professor on the boat about whether Odysseus was a real person. The professor is sure he wasn't. Stella "asserted that Odysseus was as real as Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone -- sure, his exploits have been exaggerated, but he was a man of history."

The best parts of Huler's journey happen when he is en route. When he completes a leg of his quest -- finds a particular cave or pile of stones that tradition has dubbed This Is It -- the result is often anticlimactic. The Cyclops' cave is a goat-dung-strewn disappointment; the home of the Sirens finds the Sirens long gone. A side trip to Sparta in 100-degree heat yields only frightening dehydration.

In between? There is that time he meets two beautiful and willing flight attendants on Malta, and, being a married man with a pregnant wife at home, has to extricate himself from the, shall we say, possibilities.

Or that time he takes a Turkish bath near ancient Troy. Or the night when Greece wins the European soccer championship and the town he's in goes nuts. Or the hilarious and frustrating ordeal of persuading a group of Italian men to interrupt their card game long enough to rent him a boat.

The humorous, the painful, and the humorously painful bunk alongside a well-researched summary and interpretation of the "Odyssey." If you don't have time for the real "Odyssey," but want to know what the fuss is about, Huler will give you a readable blow-by-blow along with up-to-date scholarship on the questions that matter.

Then there is Huler himself, the 40-something new dad who lets the reader in on his own odyssey of change: "There's a ton of weeping in 'The Odyssey,' ... and I realized: weeping is the emotion of middle age. Once you get to your forties, no joy fails to remind you of its opposite, or its cost, or those not present to share it."

All of which adds up to what we might call a "value-added" book: it is not only the story of a trip, such as Paul Theroux might give us, or the popular retelling and interpretation of an ancient tale, à la Roberto Calasso; it is also a very personal account of how engagement with a 3,000-year-old piece of literature affected one man's life.

I found Huler's account to be very much one subject to further change. Enduring literature has a tendency to morph in one's hands as one gets older -- to shine in different places, to speak with a different voice. I think Scott Huler's return to the "Odyssey," say, 10 years down the line, will be much changed from this one: deeper, calmer, stronger.

I look forward to the second edition.