History with a capital “H” is happening throughout the twenty-some years spanned in the course of Bryher’s 1964 novel The Coin of Carthage–the Second Punic War, to be specific, during which Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants, conquered much of the Italian peninsula, and then was forced to retreat and was defeated by Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama.
But Bryher’s subject is history writ small–the history that happens on the margins of capital “H” history. Her story starts with the Greek trader Zonas waking in a stable after being robbed and beaten by a couple of bandits and winds its way through a half-dozen other main characters–a fellow trader named Dasius; Karus and Orbius, two Roman soldiers and friends; Karus’ mother, Domina Sybilla; a slave named Verna and a Carthaginian ship captain named Mago. Each, in his or her own way, is a victim of war, even though none of them dies in battle and only Karus is actually wounded. Their losses are psychological less than physical, but for Bryher, they’re more profound and lasting.
The two great losses in the book, in fact, are friendships. Karus develops an intense attachment to Orbius, a platonic bond with strong homosexual undertones, that is broken when Karus is wounded and Orbius is taken prisoner in a minor skirmish with a Carthaginian reconnaissance party. When they are reunited years later, Karus finds that years of captivity has turned Orbius’ spark of life into a smouldering anger and thirst for revenge. Mago befriends Dasius and the two live together on Mago’s farm near Neapolis for several years until they are separated in an early Roman assault on Carthage. When, several years after, Dasius manages to return in search of his friend, he learns that Mago had killed himself in despair for the loss of all he valued–his farm, his ship, his hopes for his own country and people. Though handsomely rewarded for services to Rome, Dasius is left to spend out his days in mourning.
I have to confess that I didn’t really appreciate the book or what Bryher was doing until the final chapters. The story seems to wander along, the focus shifting from character to character, with no dramatic peaks. In terms of action, there are only two moments of real narrative tension–when Zonas runs into the midst of a Carthaginian parade to save his mule and accidentally meets Hannibal, and when Dasius helps Orbius escape from his prison–and neither is significant in its affect on any of the characters involved. Much of the book is devoted to casual conversations–over a fire, over a table at an inn, over a cup of bad wine, sitting in a courtyard as the suns goes down.
But this is, I think, what Bryher tried to show in The Coin of Carthage. The lives of her characters are not marked by milestones or major events but by what happens in between them. Orbius isn’t wounded in battle but by years of degradation, squalor, and neglect as a prisoner. The material comforts Dasius gains by the book’s end do little to compensate for the many pleasant days he spent working with Mago in the fields and orchards. War–the big “H” history–is a great wave that scoops up little pebbles and scatters them over a beach, barely taking notice of them in process.
This sense of the insignificance of ordinary lives is heightened by something I found Bryher conveyed better than any other author writing about pre-Christian times, which is the perspective of a world where the only real divine power is Fate. Characters–particularly Zonas–make offerings to the gods in hopes of appeasing Fate, but Fate is clearly an enormous and impersonal force whose reasons are never expected to be understandable to mortals–rather like war. What with Fate and war lined up against them, no wonder Zonas and Bryher’s other characters focus on smaller and more intimate matters.
I read The Coin of Carthage as the first few days of news from the devastation of Japan’s recent earthquakes and tsunami was filling the airwaves, and I kept thinking of Bryher’s characters. I don’t suppose the fact that friends and family members died in a once-a-century event provides the slightest comfort to any of the survivors. Only journalists and historians have a good reason to distinguish between big-H history and little-h history.