'...Shrewd Odysseus!...You are a fortunate man to have won a wife of such pre-eminent virtue! How faithful was your flawless Penelope, Icarius' daughter! How loyally she kept the memory of the husband of her youth! The glory of her virtue will not fade with the years, but the deathless gods thekselves will make a beautiful song for mortal ears in honour of the constant Penelope.'
- The Odyssey, Book 24 (191-194)
...he took a cable which had seen service on a blue-bowed ship, made one end fast to a high column in the portico, and threw the other over the round-house, high up, so that their feet would not touch the ground. As when long-winged thrushes or doves get entangled in a snare...so the women's heads were held fast in a row, with nooses round their necks, to bring them to the most pitiable end. For a little while their feet twitched, but not for very long.
- The Odyssey, Book 22 (470-473)
Such are the epigraphs to Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, the second book in my From the Stacks Challenge and the third installment in Canongate's Myth Series. Each determinedly signposts one of the book's narrative strands: the first, with some irony, points toward Atwood's Penelope, her plain-spoken first-person 'heroine', and the second, with no hint of irony at all, toward her poetic Chorus, the twelve hanged maids. This sinister snippet of the Odyssey's plot (and it really is hardly more than a snippet) becomes the keynote of Atwood's retelling of Homer's classic narrative and is, as the author herself hints in her short introduction, its raison d'etre. The book's title, and its narrative structure, misdirect us to assume that The Penelopiad is about Penelope, Ulysse's long-suffering wife, when really its focus (and power) is elsewhere and is always sliding sideways. I could fancy this up and say that it is a function of the narrative's play with liminality, and that it vividly highlights women's roles - economic, social and personal - in the margins of story and history. But what I really mean is this: The Penelopiad is about the twelve hanged maids.
[Note: The original hardback cover is beautifully representative of this too. On the front is the single female, Penelope, hogging the limelight, but on the back, more haunting and twice as evocative, are the hanged maids. While reading I was repeatedly drawn back to them; in this case, the back is the front.]
We meet Penelope as she watches the modern world from the vantage of extreme hindsight. She assures us of this in the first line - 'Now that I'm dead I know everything' - with a confidence that suggests she is both omniscient and all-understanding. She goes on to question the received versions of the story (legend? myth?) of which she is part, lamenting that all she became after her trouble with Odysseus - 'tricky and a liar' - was an edifying legend: 'A stick to beat other women with. Why couldn't they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I had been?' Now though she means to do a little story-telling of her own; now she means to set us straight. She's a revisionist.
She begins with tales about her childhood - about her feckless Naiad of a mother, and her infanticidal father; about her breasty cousin Helen and about the race Odysseus ran to win her hand when she was fifteen years old. (He cheated, apparently.) And throughout she has that matter-of-fact Atwood tone to her - a hybridisation of self-deprecation and brutal self-honesty:
'As for me... well, people told me I was beautiful, they had to tell me that because I was a princess, and shortly after that a queen, but the truth was that although I was not deformed or ugly, I was nothing special to look at. I was smart though... That seems to be what I was known for: being smart. that, and my weaving, and my devotion to my husband, and my discretion... would you want to conjure up a plain but smart wife who'd been good at weaving and had never transgressed, instead of a women who'd driven hundreds of men mad with lust and had caused a great city to up in flames?
Neither would I.'
She's entertaining; a witty word-smith not unlike her creatrix. She likes to play with tonal associations, and enjoys modifying her discourse for the audience she conceives for it:
'And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat. A package of meat in a wrapping of gold, mind you. A sort of gilded blood pudding.
But perhaps that is too crude a simile for you. Let me add that meat was highly valued among us - the aristocracy ate lots of it, meat, meat, meat, and all they ever did was roast it: ours was not an age of haute cuisine.'
We see that she has her weaknesses, of course, her jealousy over Helen being the most clear and obvious - they exchange biting words in the underworld - but she encourages us to glide over her more insidious tendencies. Alternatively, she actively refigures them - her apathy becomes cunning inactivity, her indecisiveness is transformed into an angelic kind of patience.
Which makes me certain that the key to grasping The Penelopiad (specifically as a 'retelling') is realising that Penelope herself is as 'tricky' as her husband and that, if she is not exactly a liar, then she is at least a raving apologist. She wrong-foots us with that confidence of hers and with her generous breadth of voice. She acts like she is speaking the language of truth, when really she is telling us a story: another myth, a pack of lies. Worse still, it is her personal myth. We're always inside her comfort zone.
The Penelopiad is not all Penelope though. It is punctured by 10 Choral interludes, all of them acting as deflatory counterpoints to the main narrative and sung/chanted/recited/acted by the twelve maids, those infinitely flexible servant girls who Odysseus condemned to death on a rope. They're incredibly insistent, and haunting, and from their first appearance onwards their thematic centrality is clear. Immediately after Penelope has promised us 'a thread of my own', they break in with A Rope-Jumping Tune, a slightly thicker thread of their own:
we are the maids
the ones you killed
the ones you failed
we danced in air
our bare feet twitched
it was not fair
The reader is reminded of the ending when they've hardly begun, reminded that no telling is virgin ground. Eternally marginalised by the official version of events, the girls are determined to be noticed, using all kinds of voices, even rattling off Penelope's own verbal freefall in Kiddie Mourn, A Lament by the Maids:
'We too were children. We too were born to the wrong parents. These parents were not not gods, there were not demi-gods, they were not nymphs or Naiads... We were told we were dirty. We were dirty. Dirt was our concern, dirt was our business, dirt was our speciality, dirt was our fault. We were the dirty girls.'
Their sinister inteludes become the real story, more visceral and more pointed than Penelope's new myth about herself. They become the revelation, the keynote, clearly demonstrating that for all her bravado and gumption, Penelope's expose is just another cover-up. She is, in some ways, as passive, patient and culpable in their deaths as she ever was:
'What could I do? Lamentation wouldn't bring my lovely girls back to life. I bit my tongue... Dead is dead, I told myself. I'll say prayer and perform sacrifices for their souls. But I'll have to do it in secret, or Odysseus will suspect me as well.'
Not wholly culpable of course, and the maid's Chorus makes that clear too - they direct their baleful gazes at Telemachus, Penelope's son and the man who strings up the rope, and at Odysseus too, not to mention at classical Greek culture (in a wicked satire of an anthropological article) and at narrative form itself. They use a myriad of different strategies, from poetry to soap opera, to sneak under the narrative radar and to un-marginalise themselves. Of course, you wouldn't expect any less of Atwood: she always takes her novels beyond the obvious discourse. The Penelopiad might look like your run-of-the-mill feminist reinterpretation of a patriarchal cycle but it is more, so much more than that.
The Myth series is supposed to be about re-shaping 'timeless and universal stories', a conceptual mission that I have some problems with (for a start, if they're so timeless and universal in the first place, why doe we need to retell them for the 21st century?) In my view 'reshaping' and 'retelling' can all too easily devolve into crude analogy, or become a matter of stylistic 'redressing' (or, worse, window-dressing). Without the twelve maids this is what The Penelopiad would tend towards - a parallel yarn, an easy sell, a bit of a leech. What I mean is: Penelope is the big name on the ticket but the maids are what you should go and see.