David Malouf was inspired to write his book Ransom by a scene from The Iliad.

Accepting the award, Malouf expressed his delight as “an amateur classicist” that “real” classicists appreciate his work.

It is a scene that Homer deals with in just a few lines but it saw Malouf in Athens recently to receive a highly regarded literary prize.

Priam, king of Troy, is heartbroken at the sight of his son Hector, slain in battle, his unburied corpse desecrated by the Greek warrior Achilles, who is avenging the death of his friend Patroclus at Hector’s hands. The king decides to offer a ransom for the body of his son so that he may perform the proper funeral rites.

Australian poet and novelist David Malouf was haunted by the story of Troy, which he first heard from his primary school teacher, who read an excerpt one day in 1943 when it was too rainy to play outside.

Years later, he developed this scene into a novel, Ransom.

He imagines his way into the souls of Achilles, Priam and his no-nonsense carter Somax whose two mules, Beauty and Shock, carry the king on his mission to the Greek camp.

It is prose written by a poet, an imaginative take on a myth and
a meditation on war, fathers, sons
and stories.

Now Ransom has won the John D. Criticos Prize, which saw Malouf in Athens on October 7 to receive the award and talk about the work that inspired his own.

Introducing Malouf’s work to
the audience at the Gennadius Library, Irish writer and critic Colm Toibin praised its “luminous prose.”

Malouf, he said, “makes his style anew to match each subject.”

Toibin observed that while war is the background to this novel, in the foreground there are other themes that recur in the writer’s work, notably a concern with stories.

Elizabeth Speller, chair of the adjudicating committee for the 2009 Criticos Prize, noted that this was the first time the prize had gone to a novel, the first time it had been won by an Australian and the first time the award ceremony had taken place in Greece.

Accepting the award, Malouf expressed his delight as “an amateur classicist” that “real” classicists appreciate his work.

He spoke of the impact that the Troy story had on him as a child in wartime Australia, “living in a city that expected to be invaded.”

Taking questions from the audience, he spoke of his fascination with stories and the recurring theme of alternate lives in his work.

“In a lot of my fiction, people are haunted by an alternate life they might have lived. Life,” he said, “has a shadow as well as a substance.”

Elizabeth Speller also extolled
the quality of all the books on the
short list.

Commenting on the “rich parallel world” of Ransom, Speller remarked, “It looks back to antiquity but also holds up a mirror to the present.”

She described Logicomix, a graphic novel by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou, illustrated by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, as “unique, incomparable. It takes complex ideas and makes them not only comprehensible but compelling.”

Cathy Gere’s Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, which uses the story of Sir Arthur Evans’s excavations in Crete to explore a wide range of themes, was “stimulating and controversial”.

And, in his sometimes bleak but witty A Short Border Handbook, Gazi Kapllani “gives a voice to those who don’t have a voice,” said Speller, who commended Portobello for having the book translated from Greek into English.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s translations in C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems were “intriguing, literary and scholarly,” with a great introductory essay and notes.

The 10,000-pound prize is sponsored by the Criticos-Foteinelli Foundation and administered by the London Hellenic Society.

It is named after John D. Criticos, a shipowner and businessman who was a member of the Greek community in London and who actively promoted Anglo-Hellenic understanding.

Past winners include Michael Llewellyn-Smith, Paul Cartledge, Edmund Keeley and Mark Mazower.