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?

On death, control and reading the Iliad by Homer

This might turn into a series. I could have Iliad-withdrawal. I have so much to say about the epic that my mind seems to come up with fuzzy nothings about all other books lately. Maybe I should give up trying to write anything other than the delighted swooning ramblings brought on by my successful (yes, it still surprises me) reading of The Iliad. 
Disclaimer: In all honesty, I haven’t even glanced at the thousands of literary analyses out there that would surely help me understand the poem better. I should perhaps do that, but I only want other opinions once I’m done processing mine – and God knows when that will be. For the first time in a long time, I find myself blogging for me, and not for the reader. I’m writing to feed the pressing need to express. So, of course, I will end up saying things that are in-your-face obvious and I hope this little disclaimer of mine will keep you from rolling your eyes and going, “geez, everyone knows that.” 
For me, one of the biggest curiosities of The Iliad is the deaths. There are hundreds, but they all go about in this pattern. The character who is about to be killed advances towards the killer, the poet tells us all about his life – where he is from, how he was raised, how he ended up fighting for the Dardans (Trojans) or the Danaans (Greeks). And then, all of a sudden, he is hit, by a spear through his neck or an arrow through his chest, gut-dropping and blood-spillage follows and we are told simply that “darkness clouded his eyes.” It’s interesting how many stories we get to know as they come to an end. It’s also mad, devilish to introduce lives just on the brink of the end. Has to mean something.
An English professor I became acquainted with this summer showed obvious indifference when I, with characteristic ineptitude, bragged to him about reading The Iliad. He compared it with the Mahabharata and provided insight into the latter which he considered more profound. I haven’t read the Mahabharata, but in all fairness, it’s about ten times the size of The Iliad; it has much more room to be more. He commented that The Iliad was little more than a gory massacre. Too sensationalized, he called it, and wrinkled his nose.  
I couldn’t disagree more, but I get where he’s coming from. If there’s one thing The Iliad lets us know, it’s that the gods have all the power. Destiny is already fixed. Hector must die, Troy will fall, but so will Achilles, who will be immortalized for his lion-hearted bravery. But this does not stop the Trojans from hitting back, the Achaeans from worrying and Achilles from simply refusing to fight. The gods don’t just have favourites, they meddle. Athena in disguise tricks Hector, Aphrodite whisks away her son from the battleground and Hera with her ivory arms fights with Zeus about being partial. The gods have their whims and the war rages on. It’s mindless. Men are puppets who pray, sacrifice and kill to please. There’s no thought in it, really, no genius, no Krishna with his war strategies. The Iliad is essentially about a man and his big hurt ego, Achilles and his stubborn thoughtless rage and how it changed the lives of nations. But is it any less meaningful? 
I think The Iliad drives home the message that control is a myth, so you might as well believe in whatever you believe in, because all you can ever be sure of is faith. I know that seems like a given, but who did tell you that the truth had to be more than simple? What sounds like a fluttering resignation can be a gracious acceptance. The Achaeans attack and the Trojans fight back, their fates sealed, because the ending is inevitable and all there’s left is shaping the middle – that is life. The deaths in The Iliad aren’t meaningless precisely because the poet makes it a point to tell us, even if a little, about every life he takes away. The war-deaths in The Iliad are only as meaningless as all death. It’s pointless, the poem has made me realize, to try and find that meaning in an ending which can be found in a life.
(Alice Oswald is the writer of a book called Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad about the minor-deaths which lead up to Hector’s death. I haven’t read the book. But I have seen this clip of her reading from it. The Amazon blurb says it is about the dead “each of whom lives and dies unforgettably – and unforgotten – in the copiousness of Homer’s glance.” Wow. Also, there’s a nice Deaths of the Iliad tumblr for you trivia nerds.)
Spoilers (Edit: I earned much amusement for putting a spoiler alert for the Iliad; still, read at your own risk:) I have stuck to the professor-prompted musings on individual deaths here. In a larger sense, death is the main theme of the Iliad. For Achilles, as for Hector, death is inevitable. For Achilles, the very purpose of whose life is ensuring immortal recognition, death is glory. For Hector, death is significant because the time leading up to his provides a fighting chance for Troy. It is death that brings Achilles out of his silence. The death of Patroclus, his friend, unleashes the monster that we’ve only heard of since the beginning of the epic poem when Achilles leaves the fight. It is also death, Hector’s, that eventually shows a glimmer of humanity in the cruellest of men. 
The Iliad ends on a sad, albeit almost hopeful note, chronicling the momentary, eleven-day, truce that Achilles agrees to upon seeing a broken King Priam beg for his son’s corpse. A long chapter about the games after the long-awaited burial of Patroclus is followed by the most beautiful ending ever, the best part of the epic, for me. Achilles was meant to kill Hector, though he couldn’t have known how or why. I think a part of him, the part that knows love and buries Patroclus in elaborate festivities, agrees that for all the passion and rigours of war, the dead and their survivors deserve respect. For trying. 

On Translation and reading The Iliad by Homer

I spent this entire morning snuggled up in bed reading the final fifty pages of The Iliad, aloud, to myself, because out loud is the only way the book should be read, trust me on this. The blog has been in a slump through December and I can’t think of a better way to revive it than by sharing impromptu musings on my new-found respect for translators and a glimpse at the best reading experience of my life – yes, that’s what it’s been. It’s The. Effing. Iliad.

In all honesty, a part of me wanted to read The Iliad for the same reason you’d want to read Proust – so I could say I’ve read it. I was looking at attending university, studying literature and hardly well versed as I am in classics, I thought being legitimately able to insert “When I read the Iliad…” into conversation would tip the scales in my favour. Of course, that was only one reason. Another was just trying my hand at reading an epic. I chose The Iliad because it was a History Channel film on Helen of Troy I’d seen as a kid that had first sparked my interest, if a dull spark back then, in mythology.

Choosing the translation was a difficult business. This was back in July; I spent days perusing Wikipedia’s English Translations of Homer page. I did not want to pick something too heavy or clunky to get through and end up abandoning it. Finally, I narrowed my choices down to the post-1950s translations by Richmond Lattimore (most recommended,) Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald. Sampling their translations on Amazon, I found Fitzgerald the easiest to follow and the most poetic. Interestingly, my copy arrived with a blurb on the back cover by Atlantic Monthly that says,

“Fitzgerald has solved virtually every problem that has plagued translators of Homer. The narrative runs, the dialogue speaks, the military action is clear, and the repetitive epithets become useful texts rather than exotic relics.”

I won’t get into what I thought of the epic. It is still far too fresh in my mind for that. But reading this book has completely made me question an initial unthinking stance on translators and here’s why. Homer is not easy and Fitzgerald just plays with words. The writing is beautiful and I cannot stress enough how smoothly the writing flows, how rhythmic it is; how deceptively with-ease he makes rhymes. It retains the conversational-recital tone of the epic, and it can be experienced, as is appropriate, without academic help.

Reading The Iliad made me realize and accept the very critical and influential role of a translator in literature. Not as the commonly described “bridge between reader and writer,” which attempts to sound all profound but is basically a definition of the job. A translator is an interpreter and giver of new / deeper meaning. A good translator should peel back the layers of a narrative, maintaining or adding aesthetic quality, sure, but mostly – making a text more accessible to his intended audience. And that is something that I never thought about before, the simple idea that a translator may have his own intended reader that might not be the same as the writer’s. Translation is maybe not a strict replacing meaning-for-meaning work that has everything to do with language. Taking focused liberties with a piece could make a great translator out of a good one. 
I’ve come to realize recently that I think as I write which makes me often end up in winding lanes of thought and incomplete corners. But that’s how I am. So, I’ll leave this characteristic half-formed idea with a far more coherent comment (which I hope it’s okay to repost) by a fellow blogger, Viktoria, on my review of Translator Translated by Anita Desai
I have noticed when it comes to poetry that they like to use the word interpretation instead of translation. Which makes sense. I really think of all translation as interpretation, and come to think of it, I think the act of reading, whether across language borders or not, is interpretation. I have been in enough book discussion groups to know that my reading can differ a whole lot from my neighbours reading. Actually, I think what makes literature great is its capacity to contain and express my own experiences. It´s like writing is the art of embracing and affirming every potential reader. So, I would argue, there is an art to reading that is kin to the art of translating. Its mother, perhaps.

Something to chew on. I’ll post more on reading The Iliad later. It’s good to be back.