Michael Crichton has been dead for nearly 8 years. I have wallowed many times that I did not read him until nearly 7 years ago although who amongst the living has not heard of Jurassic Park? Crichton brought the dinos to life for kids and adults alike. I think I was nearly ten years old when I first saw the first part and was enthralled. At that time, I had no idea who Michael Crichton was and unfortunately none of his books crossed my path (I have no idea why). Since then I have read his Timeline, Sphere, Andromeda Strain, State of Fear and most recently Rising Sun. Crichton is clinical in his writing and writes in a distilled voice. For those who don’t like floral and verbose writing, he is the man.
Eaters of the Dead came my path because it was firstly Michael Crichton and secondly because it was relatively a shorter read than the other books in my library and I was feeling ambitious. What I did not expect was the way he wrote this book when I began. I thought for the first couple of chapters that he was building a preamble to a story, not knowing that, that was the story. Crichton’s experimentation with the style is commendable. Ibn Fadlan, a representative of the Caliph of Baghdad, goes on a mission to spread the word to the shores of Volgar and be an ambassador to the King of the Bulgars. He encounters many places, many people, faced with hardships and cruel weather and is finally ripped apart from his companions and spends quite some time with the Vikings of the north. He reports all of his journeys and observation with an acute sense of a recorder. Again and again he says, “I saw with my two eyes…” and gives a sense that what is written in script is real. There are side notes and observations given which gives it an even more genuine feel.
I have to clearly state that because of the title of the book, I thought it would trail to some sort of a history of zombies, but that is not the case. Instead, more than half way through I came to the realisation that it is a clever retelling of the Legend of Beowulf. Not only is it a more clearer, non mythical retelling but also holds mettle because it is observed through the eyes of the outsider.
There is a general controversy about how true this book is. This shows the level of Crichton’s craftsmanship. However, one only has to read the end notes, where the author explains the idea and the treatment of the story telling method. The origination of Beowulf is uncertain. It is the earliest dramatic poem but we don’t know how long ago it was incepted because it had been handed down in the oral tradition before it was ever written down. Stories from the oral tradition are difficult to track and are in constant flux. Every speaker adds and subtracts, uses hyperboles and metaphors that are then changed to the literal and hence it is very difficult to reach the real truth. That is what Crichton has tried to chip away at.
When I finished the book, I mused on the idea of the use of structure and style and thought… “Why didn’t I think of that?” But we all have these moments. Well, every good writer must be a reader and a risk taker. So, I archive this book in my head to visit again sometime. Treat it as a historical, historical fiction and enjoy the possibilities.