The Hidden by Tobias Hill
Faber and Faber, 2009. Reviewed by MARIA McMILLAN
It’s an interesting time to be reading a book about a man whose remorse over past wrongs is saturated in denial and self pity. The Hidden is a wonderful book. It shines out in an era where many conversations analyse and contextualise acts of violence to the point of making them disappear. That’s a clever and comforting conjuring trick, but one that author, Tobias Hill, refuses to engage in.
Ben Mercer is an Oxford academic whose speciality is Sparta, a civilisation he’s obsessed about since childhood. We meet him his first night in Greece. He’s left Oxford, his ex-wife, and his daughter who doesn’t want him to go. Ben appears a nice guy. Recognisably flawed and vulnerable. He’s lost and sad and missing the married life he feels like he should be leading. He feels sorry for himself and we feel sorry for him.
Ben kicks around Athens for a week or so until he’s befriended by a couple of women who take pity on him and find him work in one of their uncle’s grill restaurant in the suburb of Metamorphis. After a fiery, smoky, barbeque scarred month sharing a grotty room with other grill lackeys, Sauer Eberhard, a figure from Ben’s former Oxford life dines in the restaurant and hints at a dig in no-less than Laconia, formerly Sparta. Despite Eberhard’s clear hostility, Ben, uninvited, follows up the hint and independently lands himself a job on the same dig.
The most notable characteristic of Spartan culture is its total commitment to brutality. I can’t sympathise but I can understand those, like Ben, who some two thousand years later romanticise the single-minded purity of its war mongering, the skill of its combat, and the revolutionary formations of its soldiers.
Hill uses the nasty beauty of Spartan culture and the process of digging it up as the starting place to explore a whole raft of contemporary forms of violence and the naive adoration of that violence. We observe the failure of the perpetrators and the titillated onlookers to understand the gravity of violence, or to take responsibility for its impact.
When Ben arrives at the Sparta dig the boss alludes to discord among her team. A close knit group of Ben’s fellow diggers including Eberhard are alluringly standoffish and are awfully cagey about something. It all smells a bit rotten. Despite friendly overtures from others on the dig, Ben, lonely and aimless and seeking redemption for his own mistakes, can’t resist the dual seductions of a cool crowd and a dangerous secret. He spends an awful lot of energy working to ingratiate himself with the group and to find out whatever there is to find out.
Tobias Hill is a poet as well as a novelist, and has a poet’s genius for compressed compelling language. His scenes sometimes revert to gorgeous dense lists of action and things. His sentences sometimes so short and perfect they could be verse.
The flare of incendiary fat. The thutter and blurt of meat. The steel pans gilded with oil. The fish as green as celadon, as dull-bright as lead, as pink as grazed flesh. The rare laughter of the Albanians. A gallon jar of cucumbers, broken in the kitchen yard, the pickles shrivelled in the sun like the cadavers of lizards.
But Hill is also a gifted teller of yarns. We get glimpses (forgive the irresistible image) like potshards of what the story may contain – of what’s been hidden by earth or intimacy for millennia, or a few years, or a few days. The exposure and ultimate shape of the story, the rendering of the toll violence takes on the violent as well as violated, however, is brilliant and unexpected.
Maria McMillan is a Wellington librarian, activist and poet.