A Secret Monster
Faber and Faber, 2009
At one point during Tobias Hill’s new novel, The Hidden, a protagonist describes Greece as the grandfather of all Europe. This familial relationship, somewhat primeval, somewhat allegorical, increases the power of the story, giving it a kind of universal resonance. Hill’s Greece is a place where gods and monsters once roamed free, equally dangerous, and a place where legendary history overshadows the more prosaic but equally monstrous present, concealing it from reader and narrator until it is almost too late.
Greece is the perfect setting for a novel in which events and people remain part-hidden and half-understood. Hill’s protagonist and narrator, Ben Mercer, is an Oxford scholar in Classics and Archaeology, with the tenuous beginnings, almost abandoned, of a thesis on Sparta. Excerpts from it are interwoven through the novel, raising the themes of war, death, and secrets. As the novel begins, Mercer arrives in Athens, having left Oxford in the wake of his divorce, and finds himself purposeless, directionless and alone. It is not the Greece of his studies; he gets a job in a restaurant, living in rooms above with three Albanians, working long hours in less than savoury surroundings. Hill touches on modern conflict and corruption here, with references to the recent history of Greece, the struggles and the ideologies, the political impositions of the countries that liberated Greece from fascism.
But politics appear to be forgotten when a chance meeting with an old college acquaintance leads Mercer to an archaeological dig in Sparta itself. There he finds a cabal of foreigners, drawn from all over the world, working with a handful of native Greeks and the increasingly isolated dig director. An undertow of sinister factionism hardly prevents Mercer from being drawn towards the clique of the other “shovel-monkeys” and towards the friendship that dominates the second half of the novel.
Comparison of Hill’s narrative with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is inevitable: both involve a secretive group of classicists, to which the narrator desperately desires admittance; gaining that admittance, he finds that the golden apples are poisonous, shot through with worms of violence and monstrosity. In some ways, it is the story of the Fall of Man: Mercer eats of the Tree of Knowledge and immediately wishes that he had not, as he is drawn into a violent secret that makes passivity an act of evil in itself.
Hill began his writing career as a poet, and this comes through clearly in his prose fiction. The novel’s language is beautifully resonant and rhythmic, crystallizing the country of Homer into tiny evocative vignettes. We read the journey in phrases rather than sentences, each a single perfect image: “An avenue of bulbous palms, ivy growing up their flanks like military coats.” “A dog in a ditch, dead and swollen as a fruit. The Corinth Canal, deep and sleek as a gun.”
This poetic language is both a strength and a weakness. Extracts from Mercer’s thesis and from a lecture given by one of the other characters both ring slightly false—too perfect, too poetic—lacking in prosaic scholarly exactitude, as when “their archers carried bows as long as they themselves were tall.” The novel is also slow to reach the action, first of the dig, and then of the underlying secret, which frustrates the reader, but perhaps reflects the narrator’s naiveté. We are sympathetic to him, since, despite deceiving himself about his new friends, he never succeeds in truly misleading us, and we wish him back in the time of innocence.
The themes of hidden secrets, of archaeological excavation of lives and mysteries, of monstrosity, both literal and metaphorical, have come to dominate Hill’s novels. A number of skeletons come to light in the excavation. They belong to infants left to die on a rubbish heap because of their monstrous forms. The question of what makes a monster is one that is asked over and over again in different ways through the novel: are these children the monsters or were those who abandoned them? Were the results of British liberation worse than fascism? And if a man commits a monstrous act and remains unpunished, is taking the law into your own hands permissible?
The book is tightly woven in its references and no word is carelessly used. “The hidden” of the title were a band of elite Spartan warriors, chosen not for their fighting skills but for their discretion. They lived in caves in the mountains that dominate the landscape of the area, sleeping by day, and coming out by night to enforce the curfew on the helot class—by killing those who disobeyed. Fear and terror were the only way the Spartans could keep control of their underclass, which vastly outnumbered them. The modern cabal seeks to emulate the ancient hidden ones, a realisation that comes to the narrator and reader very late in the book. But there are many other things hidden. The narrator has his own secret; each of the other characters has his or her own particularly hidden reason for being on an archaeological excavation in the middle of nowhere in the midst of a wet Greek winter.
Hidden, too, are the crimes of the everyday: things that were evil in some way, that lurk in the past, behind the scenery, behind every person that we meet. Nothing is as innocent as it appears, seems to be the message. No one is innocent, perhaps, and we find ourselves in grey and disturbing moral territory at the end of the novel. The word “monster”, Hill tells us, comes from the Latin monstrum, meaning a warning. In ancient Greece you could tell a monster from its appearance: a centaur, half-bull, half-man, or a snake-haired Gorgon. The message of The Hidden is that it is just not that easy to spot the monsters anymore.
Victoria Elliott is a DPhil student at Exeter College, Oxford, studying Education.