Sunday, April 27, 2008

Niko Bellic, a new Odysseus

Armand Assante as Odysseus

There’s more than a little danger in making assertions about a character (Niko) about whom one knows as yet very little. I won’t get to play GTA4 until at least Tuesday—and I suspect it will take me weeks to get to know Niko Bellic very well. But given the history of the GTA series and the trailers that I’ve caught sight of around the Web, I really don’t think I’m far off in comparing Niko to Odysseus, at least as far as one fundamental characteristic is concerned: their anti-heroism.

It’s something that’s usually overlooked in the eighth grade English classes that almost always constitute a student’s complete exposure to Homeric epic until and unless he or she decides to take a course on it in college, but Odysseus is not really a nice guy. That’s not to say that we aren’t meant to sympathize with him, but he’s a lying, cheating, stealing sonofabitch whose only significant redeeming characteristic is an obessive need to get home and put things right. The fact that his wife and son are there, in bad trouble, means that Odysseus’ return does have a fundamentally redemptive quality, because his wife and son are nice people—in a way that Odysseus doesn’t get to be nice because he had to go fight somebody else’s f’ed up war.

Anyway, the most emphatic expression of Odysseus’ anti-heroism is perhaps what he does to the maid-servants who have been sleeping with the suitors who were trying to get Odysseus’ wife Penelope to marry them. Remember that these maids, as the ancient audience would have been very well aware, wouldn’t have had a choice in the matter: sleeping with the powerful guys hanging out in their masters' house would have just been what happened to them. At the end of the epic, Odysseus has them strung up all together, in a mass hanging, their twitching legs described as vividly as one might expect of a Tarantino flick.

No, Odysseus isn’t nice. And neither is Niko. But if the reviews speak truth, that means that their stories have something very special, very epic, and very ancient going for them. They make us imagine what it would be like to be someone very different from who we are, someone much worse in many ways, but perhaps in a few ways much better than we are. We get the pleasure of being the kind of person who doesn’t think twice about stringing up a bunch of maids, or offing the target we’ve been assigned to off. But it’s pleasure because it’s pretend, and that’s the secret to the anti-hero: our enjoyment of him depends completely on our not being like that, on our being able to see that such measures could never, in real life, be justified.