Thursday, 29 June 2017

CNN worse than poets: The File on H. by Ismail Kadare

How faithful are Homer’s transcriptions of the Iliad and the Odyssey to the oral originals? Those who believe both works were written by a single poet of genius will probably stop reading and venture out to burn Ismail Kadare's oeuvre. But for others, who believe epic Greek poems have their origins in oral transmission, The File on H. may be of interest. 

One of Kadare’s central themes revolves around the question of how an oral tradition maintains the central truth of the story, especially when they comprise thousands of lines. If a line changes slightly here and there with every retelling, then how does that change the story over the centuries? Mathematically, a thousand-line poem retold every week or so should be unrecognizable in less than half a century. Yet it appears they are not.

Kadare explores this question through an academic sortie into Albania – one of the world’s remaining repositories of rhapsodes reciting heroic poetry – by two Irish Homeric scholars in the 1930s. For this alone, the book is worth reading.

However, given the state of Fake News and the recent exposure of CNN calumny in particular, any reasonable observer would conclude that Albanian rhapsodes were capable of transmitting facts about stories centuries old more accurately than most contemporary journalists can do about something that happened yesterday. And whatever views you have on the Homeric question, Homer most likely got more facts straight about the sack of Troy than CNN does about anything.

I predict that in the distant future a talented novelist will mine the early twenty first century for a similar story. Two foreign academics will travel to America to test the hypothesis that CNN journalists are less reliable than Homer. Like The File on H. it will be a subversive, satirical novel, and the contemporary reader will be left wondering what on earth society must have been like for such shenanigans to have been let free to flourish. 

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