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The Penelopiad or The Ballad of the Dead Maids

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and OdysseusThe Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

This has been my introduction to Atwood and I have to admit that I feel slightly underwhelmed. I went in with high expectations, wondering how Atwood will take the ‘waiting widow’ of The Odyssey and transform it into a full length novel. Turns out that she mostly indulges in recapitulating the bulk of the original with a few wild theories and speculations thrown in as supposed rumors that Penelope has gleaned in the after-life.

Which brings me to how the story is constructed and this happens to be the high water mark for this novel. Atwood starts with Penelope addressing us from the other side of River Styx, reaching us through the mysterious sounds of the night and the barks and hoots of unseen animals. Penelope has grown bold since her death and is no longer the meek woman we saw in the original but a bold one who doesn’t mind speaking her mind and spilling a few uncomfortable beans.

Penelope subjects all the popular characters of the odyssey to scrutiny but reserves a special attention for Odysseus, Telemachus and Helen. She convinces us with case-by-case analysis that Odysseus was no hero – he was a lying and conniving manipulator of men who never uttered one truthful word in his life. She talks of rumors that told her of what his real adventures were, stripped of the trappings of myth. Telemachus becomes a petulant teenager full of rebellion against his mother and Helen becomes the ultimate shrew, seductress and a femme fatale of sorts.

But the story that Atwood really wants to tell is not of Penelope, that story is hardly changed except to assert speculations on the original text whether Penelope really saw through Odysseus disguise or not. What if she did? It hardly changed the story.

The real twist, and the only reason to take up this book is to see Atwood’s exploration and reinvention of the twelve maids who were killed by Odysseus in punishment for betraying him by sleeping with the suitors. These twelve girls are the Chorus in this book and appear every now and then playing a baroque accompaniment to the text and giving us new perspectives on their story. This carries on until Penelope herself reveals to us that they were never betraying Odysseus, she had asked them herself to get acquainted with the suitors to get obtain information for her. They had never betrayed Odysseus or his kingdom. So their murder was just that – murder. This was Atwood’s plot twist and her intended question was about the morality of this ‘honor killing‘ as she calls the hanging of the slaves, which, she confesses in the foreword, used to haunt her when she was young – ‘Why were they killed?‘, she used to ask herself and tries to present their case in this modernized version (which even includes a 23rd century trial of Odysseus).

In the end though, the reader hardly gets anything beyond these idle speculations and supplemental myths and small factoids like how Helen was really Penelope’s cousin and that they have to eat flowers in Hades. Even the main point of the book, about the dead maids, too ignores the fact that Odysseus genuinely seems to believe that they betrayed him by helping the suitors in various ways and hence it becomes as question of misinformation than morality and the blame will fall back on the shoulders of Penelope herself, rendering this whole exercise moot. Just go read the original again; the short hops of imagination that Atwood has taken in this retelling can easily be overtaken by the leaps you might make yourself in a re-reading that you might treat yourself to on a leisurely sunday afternoon – and those will surely be more impressive as well as intellectually more rewarding.

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Posted by on March 21, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Book Appreciation: The Odyssey by Homer, Robert Fagles (Translator)

The OdysseyThe Odyssey by Homer, Robert Fagles (Translator)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started this as I was told it is essential reading if I ever want to give a shot at reading Ulysses. I was a bit apprehensive and spent a long time deciding on which translation to choose. Finally it was Stephen’s review that convinced me to go for the Robert Fagles‘ version. I have no way of judging how good a decision that was.

This translation, by Robert Fagles, is of the Greek text edited by David Monro and Thomas Allen, first published in 1908 by the Oxford University Press. This two-volume edition is printed in a Greek type, complete with lower- and uppercase letters, breathings and accents, that is based on the elegant handwriting of Richard Porson, an early-nineteenth-century scholar of great brilliance, who was also an incurable alcoholic as well as a caustic wit. This was of course not the first font of Greek type; in fact, the first printed edition of Homer, issued in Florence in 1488, was composed in type that imitated contemporary Greek handwriting, with all its complicated ligatures and abbreviations. Early printers tried to make their books look like handwritten manuscripts because in scholarly circles printed books were regarded as vulgar and inferior products — cheap paperbacks, so to speak.

First up, I enjoyed the book, even the droll parts. It was fun to repeatedly read Odysseus‘s laments and Telemachus‘ airy threats about the marauding suitors.

But now that I have finished it, how do I attempt a review? What can I possibly say about an epic like this that has not been said before? To conclude by saying that it was wonderful would be a disservice. To analyse it would be too self-important and to summarize it would be laughable.

Nevertheless, I thought of giving a sort of moral summary of the story and then abandoned that. I then considered writing about the many comparisons it evoked it my mind about the Indian epics that I have grown up with, but I felt out of my depth since I have not even read the Iliad yet.

With all those attempts failed, I am left with just saying again that it was much more enjoyable than I expected. That is not to say that it was an epic adventure with no dull moments. No. The characters repeat themselves in dialogue and it attitude, all major dramatic points are revealed in advance as prophesy and every important story event is told again at various points by various characters. Even though i avoided it as much as I can, I could not at times avoid contrasting my reading experience with that of the epics I have grown up with and I remember thinking to myself that in comparison this reads like a short story or a novella. Maybe this impression is because I am largely yet unaware of the large mythical structure on which the story is built. I intend to allay that deficiency soon.

The characters are unforgettable, the situations are legendary and I am truly happy that I finally got around to a full reading of this magnificent epic. It has opened up a new world.

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Posted by on February 26, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Poetry

 

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