There's nothing modern about a disrupted narrative; both The Iliad and The Odyssey structure their stories around the device. After revealing his identity to the Phaeacians, Odysseus spends four of the latter poem's remaining books - a sequence known as the Apologos - telling his story in the first person. Here, we lack even the ipse dixit authority of a disembodied narrator to assure us that what we're being told is truthful, or at least truth-like.
This poses an interesting question. If we make the assumption that within its own reality, the text itself is sincere, and the Homeric narrator an honest one, how does this shifted perspective change the trust we place in what we're hearing? Could Odysseus be lying to us? Would he do a thing like that?
Well, for one thing, he's good at it. Really good. Fibs, ruses, disguise, and tactical seduction are well-worn tools in his armoury. And he doesn't treat them like solemnly-wielded superpowers. Indeed, he's used his talent for selfish gain more than once, especially if you believe some of the non-Homeric folklore. Consider the time he feigned madness in order to avoid a trip to Troy. It didn't work; Palamedes caught him out, revealing Odysseus' sanity along with his deceit. He was forced into doing his duty - but was that the end of it? Was it hell. Years later, encamped at the siege of Troy, Odysseus framed the innocent Palamedes for treason, and had him shamed and brutally executed.
The Apologos takes place as part of a single night on Scheria. It's short and snappy in the re-telling, especially when you consider that its events cover most of The Odyssey's chronology - and crucially, the whole of our hero's back-story post-bellum. As they listen to him, the Phaeacians have very little with which to corroborate or undermine his account. After all, in mortal circles, nothing has been heard of the Ithacan fleet since Troy. And as for motive, there's more than simple vanity at stake. Odysseus is about to ask them for a big favour. Is it surprising that given such circumstances and the skill to exploit them, he might be tempted to portray himself in a better-than-factual light?
There are further warning signs within the text of his story. He candidly admits the mistake of revealing his name to a freshly-blinded Polyphemus. He doesn't miss the opportunity to insinuate that the Cyclops was a tad petulant to use it against him, but he concedes it nonetheless. Look deeper though. Beyond this error, pretty much everything that goes wrong is blamed on venal crewmates, unthinking monsters or spiteful Gods. How does this amount to more than a clumsy exculpation? In the source text for our series, the Laestrygonians make a hairpin swerve from pastoral to psychotic, and he describes the phenomenal ensuing bloodshed in barely a few dozen lines. None of it is well-explained, but we're categorically assured that it's not his fault.
In this context, it is no coincidence that the events of the Apologos take on a dream-like quality. Friends and enemies are fluidly exchanged. Rational decisions shift into magical reasoning, while capricious immortals cling to strands of genuine agency. The human motives of love, greed, homesickness and hospitality drift ephemerally across the narrative, as if at a tangent to the action itself. For moments at a time, they drive events - until swept abruptly away by the supernatural. Some of Odysseus' stories bring him literally to the edge of reality.
Faced with the unreality of it all, we might choose soak up his self-portrayal as a good man in a cruel world, punished in excess of his flaws. We could cling to his patchy account; it is, after all, the only explanation on offer. Perhaps we could even ignore the tension inherent in a narrator-protagonist's role, and so abrogate our responsibility to recognise a conflict of interest when we see one.
If we choose to side with the hero, we're quite entitled to trust Odysseus until Homer's first-person device is reduced from a structural lynchpin to a gimmick. However, if we're to read the text with consistent rigour, there are questions to answer - regardless of whether we accept the existence of monsters on the other side of the sea. For us in particular, there's one little detail we're rather intrigued to explore. What really happened in the land of the Laestrygonians?