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Tag: margaret atwood

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Publishing a review that has been lounging in my drafts unnoticed:
“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.” 
Had you met me three years ago, you would have found me at the height of my Trojan War obsession. That was the time I devoured The Iliad and many retellings and novelettes based on the myths. The Odyssey did not capture my attention quite as much as the other Homeric epic, but I did read it, for the great beauty of verse that only the Robert Fitzgerald translation can offer.
I lost much of that rapture for these stories sometime in the last three years, and it was invigorating to revisit them with The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Ever since I finished reading it last night, I have been thinking about it – enough to burst into pressing soliloquies (speaking to myself, much like writing, helps me think) in the confines of my four walls. It’s a cleverly written book, quite a Odysseus-like trickster in plot and wordsmithery.
The Penelopiad is the story of Odysseus and his wife Penelope through her eyes, instead of his. But get this – the story is set in present-day, when the Penelope has been dead for thousands of years and speaks to us from beyond the River Styx, from the netherworld of Hades. She has spent her time reassessing the events that took place before and following the now mythical Trojan War and she wants to get word out of what really happened: her defense. You see, Homer’s Odyssey ends with great bloodshed, and among the dead are twelve of Penelope’s maids, whose death Atwood feels was most unfair and offensive, and the one tragedy in the Odyssey that has gone ignored for too long.
The Odyssey begins after the Fall of Troy, when the Greeks have set sail for home. In the Odyssey, while Odysseus is on his way back to his land, Ithaca, his wife Penelope is coaxed by many suitors, young princes who wish to take advantage of the lonely woman and the treasures of the empire. Upon Odysseus’s return, the suitors have gone too far, and raided the palace for food and spoils and have raped the maids and even tried to force themselves upon Penelope. He enters the palace disguised as a beggar, unbeknownst to even Penelope, outwits the suitors and wins her hand in marriage. He then orders them all to be killed. And, Penelope’s maids, whom he believes to have been traitors in cahoots with the suitors, are hanged by Odysseus’s son Telemachus, a meer teen at the time of these events.
These maids of Penelope sing of their plight and fling accusations at the heroes of the book, the author and history for forgetting about them. It is a tricky book, and the running chorus of the maids, which forms a large part of the book, is only one of its tricks. The maids sing their chorus in myriad forms – a folk song, ballad, iambic verse and so on. They say: 
we danced in air
our bare feet twitched 
it was not fair 
with every goddess, queen, and bitch 
from there to here you scratched your itch 
we did much less 
than what you did 
you judged us bad
With the Penelopiad, Atwood tries to add to the Homeric epics what time and the bard failed: women characters with some semblance of agency. In the original Iliad, Penelope waits and even her smallest attempts at cleverness fail – she does not recognize Odysseus, her own husband whom she’s been awaiting, when he enters their palace. In this book, she does, but for reasons critical to Atwood’s twist ending, chooses not to reveal this information. In Atwood’s story, Penelope is not simply waiting, you see, but plotting her own way out of her dilemma. She’s sent out search parties for Odysseus and has instructed her maids to work for her. It is unbeknownst to her that the maids are brutally murdered by Odysseus – and even now, centuries later, Penelope sits in the netherworld and repents for his actions. The maids still haunt her. 
This is one of the many misconceptions explained by Penelope of history as we know it. The other major discrepancy in historical writing is the innocence of Helen. In an at once dry, bitter and biting tone, Atwood’s Penelope characterises Helen of Troy as a woman who uses her beauty to get away with anything. Helen is Penelope’s cousin and in appearance, her complete opposite, strikingly attractive. Penelope also considers her vain and seeking the attention that men give her, basking in the wars she causes. Her unfairly strong condemnation of Helen is possibly her way of acquiring narrative justice, but also seems to show this spirit of feminine rivalry that Helen may have caused in the wake of her decisions. The epics only talk of the effect on men of Helen’s beauty, we can only yet imagine the female perspective. Atwood has strong opinions on female relations. Even so, the flow of double-standards from Penelope’s tongue is unpalatable. It surprises me that a book that heavily addresses the vulnerability of women in the time of men and gods has no sympathy for Helen. 
Another problem with the book is that I somehow don’t buy it – while the epics do lack with women with any kind of active power, Penelope is one of the stronger prominent characters of Homer. I do not believe she needed an update. That said, The Penelopiad is somehow brilliantly written. The wry sarcastic sort of voice that I have somehow begun to associate with Atwood (though I’ve barely read two or three of her books) is interesting. It frequently elicited chuckles from me. And it definitely made me marvel at Atwood’s clever use of narrative techniques. Would like to see the play some day!
All in all, an interesting book, but not nearly my favourite in the Canongate Myths series. I somewhere that Atwood was originally working on a retelling of the Norse myths for the same series. Glad she did not take it up. This is provided in the series by A.S. Byatt’s retelling of the Norse apocalypse in the most brilliant and underrated book titled Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. A real treasure, that book is! My favourite myth retold though is not a Canongate book, but is Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, a retelling of Psyche and Cupid, from the point of view of Psyche’s sister – a haunting tale. What about you? Any retellings of myths or fairy tales that you would recommend?

Postcard, a poem by Margaret Atwood

This year I’m experimenting a little with the blog, and writing about poems is something I want to try. This is not a poem I have spent months dwelling over, reciting and loving. It is a poem I stumbled across the other week, on Poem Hunter, during one of my usual guilty-pleasure John-Donne-reading-sessions. 

Postcard by Margaret Atwood:


I’m thinking about you. What else can I say?
The palm trees on the reverse
are a delusion; so is the pink sand.
What we have are the usual
fractured coke bottles and the smell
of backed-up drains, too sweet,
like a mango on the verge
of rot, which we have also.
The air clear sweat, mosquitoes
& their tracks; birds, blue & elusive.


Time comes in waves here, a sickness, one
day after the other rolling on;
I move up, it’s called
awake, then down into the uneasy
nights but never
forward. The roosters crow
for hours before dawn, and a prodded
child howls & howls
on the pocked road to school.
In the hold with the baggage
there are two prisoners,
their heads shaved by bayonets, & ten crates
of queasy chicks. Each spring
there’s race of cripples, from the store
to the church. This is the sort of junk
I carry with me; and a clipping
about democracy from the local paper.


Outside the window
they’re building the damn hotel,
nail by nail, someone’s
crumbling dream. A universe that includes you
can’t be all bad, but
does it? At this distance
you’re a mirage, a glossy image
fixed in the posture
of the last time I saw you.
Turn you over, there’s the place
for the address. Wish you were
here. Love comes
in waves like the ocean, a sickness which goes on
& on, a hollow cave

in the head, filling & pounding, a kicked ear.

First, allow me a moment to appreciate just how post-card-ly the writing is. Crisp, somewhat direct lines and abrupt pacing, the punctuation: look at all the &s, a fitting effect. The poem has this wistful tone I cannot get over. “What else can I say?” I am no expert, but this is how planned letters all sound, don’t they? Especially those you write to people who know you the best. You sit down to write and don’t know where to start, how to end, and feel a general loss for words that you fill up with routine descriptions till you get into the rhythm of it – and by the time you’ve finally dug deep enough into the meaning-well, the postcard ends. And short letters are like that, they don’t seem to say much at all to anyone except who they’re meant for. The poem leaves so much unsaid, so many blanks to fill. 
You know how a postcard hardly ever looks anything like the real place? The palm trees and the pink sand are a rosy delusion. The first lines of the poem remind me of something from, excuse the ill-timed reference, How I Met Your Mother, about how Lily insists on taking these fake “happy” pictures where their dazzling smiles conveniently hide all evidence of the disasters that led up to the photos. The poet is thinking of a lover she’s distanced from, both physically and emotionally, and what comes to her in that moment is her rosiest happy post-card memory of him. She draws the comparison herself then and tries to wash it away, brings herself to face the fact that it’s only a delusion, eventually gives up and talks about the humdrum of her routine. 

She’s on vacation at a beach, in one of those ‘poor-country’ settings that had I been a little better at geography, I would have been able to name: the heat, the mosquitoes, the pocked roads, that local newspaper, a howling child and rooster and a hotel being built right beside – you get the picture. An extended vacation, it looks like, because she speaks of seasons and as a seasoned resident not a traveller, or maybe it’s a permanent temporary-move till she’s ready to go back, if ever. She calls the hotel someone’s crumbling dream, then remembers her own crumbling wish. Her old relationship seems to her a flimsy facade, like the hotel, that she knows will run out of business as they do in those parts even as it is being built, a failure even if it is physically there. A part of her wonders, “a universe that includes you can’t be all bad”, what could matter as long as she gets to be with him. And she finds the answer right there in the postcard – one that she might be about to send him, there’s the place for the address, but should she? When all she has of him is what she is about to send him – a botched slice of the truth. The postcard will reveal nothing of what she feels, just as her memory shows her only a skewed agreeable “glossy” image of him.  

She concludes with how it still hurts, time comes in waves and she floats on it, not moving ahead, not ready to go back to the past either. And love comes in waves too, she is caught up in them. This is the second time she mentions the rolling waves on her beach, in the middle of nowhere. And so the poem ends hauntingly with images of water, filling and pounding inside her, of drowning. It begs the question, is this her final note?
This was fun for me, a mind-exercise I would love to repeat on the blog. I would also love to know what you make of the poem, your interpretation, if you see something I’m missing? Not to mention, poem recommendations would be very welcome. Happy reading!

Image courtesy of pandpstock001 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I know most people out there wouldn’t agree with me on this
one; but I thought Oryx and Crake was better than The Handmaid’s
Tale. This book was very nicely written and though I did think that the
plot slacked a bit at places, it didn’t stop me from being completely drawn
into the book. The mystery, the “what the hell is happening”-feeling
was just great. The only thing I hated about the book was that it was a library
copy, and some crazy person had underlined (with a bold pen) words like toga
and scamper and written down meanings in corners (which is worse than
dog-earing the pages, according to me, anyway.)  Sorry, not the point.
Oryx and Crake isn’t a proper dystopian novel; it is sort of
a dystopia in a dystopia. A short summary (from Goodreads): 
Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by
a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human,
and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive
Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a
journey–with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake–through the lush
wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took
mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.
I am not in the mood to write a proper book review, as I
rarely am these days. There were parts in the book, which were unrelated to the
plot and seemingly unnecessary, and I just loved them. See for yourself how
simply and beautifully the book is written:
A caterpillar is letting itself down on a thread,
twirling slowly like a rope artist, spiralling towards his chest. It’s a
luscious, unreal green, like a gumdrop, and covered with tiny bright hairs.
Watching it, he feels a sudden, inexplicable surge of tenderness and joy.
Unique, he thinks. There will never be another such moment of time, another
such conjunction.
These things sneak up on him for no reason, these
flashes of irrational happiness. It’s probably a vitamin deficiency.
A beautifully written book isn’t always a well thought out
book, and I get that, especially in case of this one – because it wasn’t up to
the mark plot and character arc-wise, not to mention, the slightly goofy
seeming scientific details. But sometimes, a beautifully written book leaves a
far greater impression on you than a well though-out book (hey, I said,
sometimes) and this one was one of those few books for me. Somehow (I may be
able to better explain how later) I loved this book.
If you like dystopian fiction, check out Dystopia 2012 at Bookish
Ardour.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood


This review is a part of the Dystopia 2012 Challenge hosted at The Bookish Ardour.

“A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the center of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier, once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to. “

About the book: The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel by
Margaret Atwood, which was first published in 1985.
Summary: (from Goodreads) Offred is a Handmaid in the
Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a
day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words
because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a
month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of
declining fertility, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their
ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she lived and
made love with her husband, Luke; when she played with and protected her
daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. 
But
all of that is gone now…
My Thoughts: This may seem like a very halfhearted review
and I do not blame you for thinking that. I don’t usually tend to write reviews
about books I don’t like, unless they’re review copies, in which case I have
to. It’s because I am mostly unable to think of anything to write. But since I
read this book as part of a challenge, I decided to go ahead and write the
review.
I have seen this book compared to Orwell’s 1984 countless
times. I won’t try to tell you how wrong those comparisons were; I merely want
to show how wonderful I expected this book to be. What I got, instead, was very
clumsy writing; not to mention very little character development and an average
plot.
The book starts out painfully slow. The writing is childlike,
with short pretentious sentences, too many metaphors, an inconsistent narrative
and for some reason, no quotation marks. The authors tries too hard to sound
beautiful, scary, touching. Throughout the book, the reader is kept in the dark
about most important things, and instead presented with a whole lot of
irrelevant details. Till the very end you don’t get a clear explanation of why
the world is this way, what drove the characters and we never find out what
happened of half the characters.
So much of the plot is withheld for so long, and I can think
of no other reason why the author would do this than to attempt to keep the
audience intrigued. I wasn’t intrigued, just confused, slightly irritated and
sort of amused. The only reason I kept reading the book was because I had to
find out if the mystery ever ends.
I wish the book had a more intricate plot, or better
developed characters. The book would make a much stronger statement, if only
all the underlying themes such as gender, sex, caste, class and patriarchy
were, in fact, underlying. I like books that have a point to make, but not if
the message starts to hinder the plot and character development. I appreciated
the basic premise of the book, the world that the author has tried to create
and the impact she’s tried to make; but that basic idea was the only thing I am
completely certain I liked.

If someone asks me how I find this book, I won’t say I hate
it, because I don’t; I would just call it okay.