Tyrant by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

Sicily in 412 BC is a land under siege. Greek city-states on the island are under attack by Carthage, a rival power from across the Mediterranean. Dionysius, a young soldier from the democratic city of Syracuse, witnesses the terrible defeat and massacre of one Greek city after another, and is convinced that only under one ruler can Carthage be defeated and the Greek colonies of Sicily united. Tyrant documents the rise of Dionysius to absolute power.

The story of Dionysius has all the trappings of a sweeping historical epic in the same vein as the Claudius novels of Robert Graves. All the elements are there for a riveting read: the fight to preserve a city and its culture; the clash of democracy with despotism; and the self-devouring nature of tyranny. What’s more, Italian author Valerio Massimo Manfredi seems particularly well equipped to do justice to Dionysius and his era. As a professor of classical archaeology, and the author of eight previous works of historical fiction, he ought to bring formidable learning and experience to the story.

Ought to is the operative phrase. It’s precisely where one expects Manfredi to excel that he falls short. Bafflingly, given his background, Syracuse and the rest of ancient Sicily are dead on the page — there’s no sense of what daily life was like in these times. The dirt, the sinew, and the fragrance of history are absent. Manfredi’s interested only in history writ large: armies and battles, kings and generals, plots and dynasties.

All this would be more palatable if Manfredi were in the slightest bit capable of depicting the thrill of battle, the charisma of his protagonists, or the intrigue of their political machinations. Regrettably, Tyrant falls short on those counts, too. It’s neither enlightening nor exciting. Instead, it’s a compendium of flat characters, creaky set pieces, and crudely expository dialogue.

It’s no surprise, then, that Manfredi fails to endow Dionysius with a plausible personality and psychology. On the few occasions the author attempts a more nuanced presentation of character, it’s so poorly handled that one wishes he hadn’t bothered. The relationship between Dionysius and his first wife, Arete, is a case in point. Manfredi posits this marriage as the catalyst for many of the tyrant’s later actions. Yet their relationship is given such cursory treatment that their love seems ludicrous; it springs forth fully-fledged from a few threadbare conversations.

Manfredi proves equally incapable of depicting the transformation of Dionysius from a soldier into a despot. This is a pity because Dionysius’s corruption by power, and his estrangement from the people he loves, ought to be a fascinating story. Unfortunately, in Manfredi’s hands, Dionysius remains stubbornly one-dimensional: the subject of much ham-fisted narration and the proclaimer of much execrable dialogue, but never a living, breathing character.

In Tyrant, the pulleys and winches of Manfredi’s fictional techniques are embarrassingly visible right from the start. In the prologue, set 70 years after the novel’s main action, Dionysius’s son, dubbed “maestro” by his companions, reflects on his father’s achievements: “My father,” he boasts, “was the greatest man of our times.” To a sceptical stranger, he catalogues his father’s many achievements, until the stranger, suitably awestruck, exclaims:

“By all the gods! And just who was this phenomenon, this…” A flash of lightning brightly lit up the rain-spattered road and the maestro’s swollen face. Thunder pealed through the sky but he did not move. He clasped the sack to his chest and said, emphasizing each word, “His name was Dionysius. Dionysius of Syracuse. But the entire world called him… the tyrant!”

The pantomime melodrama of the ellipses and the exclamation marks is bad enough, but surely the heavenly special effect to which Manfredi resorts would be beneath all but the hokiest or most self-referential horror film. In fact, such is the cheddar quotient of this episode that, for a moment, the disoriented reader wonders whether Manfredi is playing the story for laughs. If only.

It’s impossible to know how many, if any, of Tyrant‘s problems are caused by its translation. Certainly, there’s an off-putting mix of idioms in which rather tweedy Briticisms such as “sod it” and “blast” are combined with Americanisms such as “son of a bitch”. Even so, the translator can’t be held responsible for theatrical lightning bolts, or for Manfredi’s determination to tell readers everything and show them nothing. However one divvies up the responsibility for Tyrant among Team Manfredi, the fact remains that the result of their collaboration is ghastly.

The best historical fiction transports its readers into a bygone era. It enlivens characters, times, and places long past, and in doing so, furnishes the reader with a sense of the continuities and ruptures between past and present. Looked at in this light, Manfredi’s attempt to reappraise and humanise one of the ancient world’s most feared figures is a noble project. It’s just a pity his writing ability isn’t the equal of his aspirations.