THE PERSIAN BOY / Mary Renault. 1975. (411 pgs)
First Sentence: “Lest anyone should suppose I am a son of nobody, sold off by some peasant father in a drought year, I may say our line is an old one, though it ends with me.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: First person biographer narrating his life through story and recollection.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The narrator is a proud youth from a significant hill-clan in Persia whose family was instrumental in the outward expansion of the empire as told through the eyes of a mature and articulate storyteller.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: A young boy describes his early years, the betrayal and murder of his family, being ripped from his tribal home, sold as a slave and gelded (which is different from becoming a eunuch). Bagoas is a loyal house slave to a prosperous jeweler, but during an economic recession his master pimps him out as a sex slave to a variety of characters. He is less upset by the sex than the selfish men to whom he is rented. This is instrumental in forming his character. Eventually he is noticed by a friend of a friend of the King (who was a friend of his father before the regime change) and is trained and taken on as the King’s consort. None of these arrangements are considered untoward, as they would surely be today. Bagoas is a favorite of the King and honored in his house. But I get ahead of myself. At page ten he has just been sold by the jeweler and is leaving the jeweler’s house, much to the dismay of the jeweler’s wife. Bagoas is very concerned about living his life as a commodity. He is eleven or twelve. The first ten pages are full of small details of ancient Persian household life as well as a young boy’s viewpoint on the political process of the time, particularly the progress of Alexander the Great across Greece, the Middle East and northern Africa.
Character: The voice of the storyteller is mature and articulate – narrated from the end of life instead of from the character’s age. The book jacket claims that Bagoas was the real life consort to Alexander the Great, given as a gift by the Persian King. This becomes clearer as the book moves along. It also claims that Bagoas is a real “historical character who may well have influenced history.” At this point in the book he is a youth who has good looks, good training and the presence of mind to make no enemies.
Setting: As in other books considered in this blog, the author brings the setting of the story to life within the first several paragraphs. What would the history of the Persian Empire and the story of Alexander the Great’s consort be without a connection to place? Since Bagoas is often on the move, Renault clearly describes where her main character is both in location and in time. She also gives enough social and historical information to help the reader understand living in a completely different time, place and social climate.
Plot & Expectations beyond tenth page: Well, I cannot tell a lie. I read way past the tenth page. At the end of the fifth chapter (pg 58) I realized that I had gone long past my intended end point. I have always wanted to read THE PERSIAN BOY. I’ve known about it since high school when it was released and was considered “scandalous.” Male prostitution! Who ever heard of such a thing! Well I was curious then and I am now. I’ll probably finish this one, although it may have to wait until I finish the first draft of my thesis presentation.
Random Comments: The setting, language and character blend well together. I didn’t feel I was reading great literature. A well crafted story, yes, but great, no. Even so I will finish it over the coming months. This book has been on the top of the gay reading list for over twenty-five years for its candid approach to sex in the service of pleasure and beauty. It was published six years after the Stonewall riots, the groundbreaking moment when gays fought back for a small piece of territory in a Greenwich Village bar. Like Stonewall, THE PERSIAN BOY must have made a huge impact on men who had “lost” their families at a young age and been thrust into an unsure world to survive on their wit, charm, bravery and not to mentions their good looks.