Review of Pat Barker’s new Trojan War novel

As tonic as such revisionism may be, Barker’s rewriting of Homer had some crippling flaws. The characterization was disappointing and superficial; Homer’s depiction of men, in particular, exhibited few of the empathic nuances so admirable in previous books, as if narrative reversal alone was enough, in Barker’s eyes, to make his arguments about gender and violence . The treatment of the mythical period and setting of the story was equally superficial, showing little of the intimacy or mastery of ambiance and setting that can make fiction about the past compelling: the ‘Memoirs of’ Hadrian ”by Marguerite Yourcenar, for example, or Alexander the Great by Mary Renault. trilogy – or, for that matter, Barker’s own WWI novels. Between a fuzzy apprehension of detail and a telling tendency to wear one’s research on its sleeve, the book has never made you feel like you’re inside this vanished world. (To whom precisely does Briseis explain that “by a long tradition, the staging of the dead is the work of women”?) And Barker has never solved a notorious problem of historical fiction: how to make his characters. The prose yo-yo between Academia.edu (“My brothers had become liminal in their very nature”) and a tense flippancy that might inadvertently veer into the Borscht belt (“Well, with a sea goddess for mother , what are you waiting for? “).

It’s possible to see how it was all meant to serve Barker’s anti-heroic project. These men, she wanted you to know, were just guys, after all – and not very nice, besides – no different from the rest, either on the battlefields of Ypres or on the streets of Ypres. Great Britain by Margaret Thatcher. The problem is that they are different. Barker’s deliberately everyday tone, so effective in her contemporary novels, never intertwined with the legendary elements of the story she told, with her gods, ghosts and miracles. As problematic as certain attitudes of the Iliad may appear today, the majesty of its rhetoric and the pathos of its drama remain overwhelmingly powerful. Much of this power, it should be remembered, comes from the statements of his female characters. The epic ends with a trio of female voices – those of Hector’s wife, his mother and Helen of Troy – raised in lamentations.

“The Silence of the Girls” was one of many recent novels, including “The Penelopiad” by Margaret Atwood and “Circe” by Madeline Miller, to take up Homer’s epics, challenging their assumptions by telling the old tales of ‘a female point of view. A generation earlier there was ‘Cassandra’ (1983) by East German writer Christa Wolf, who skillfully reused Homer’s Trojan tales into a parable that was both feminist and political, using myths to explore topics. such as the police state and censorship.

Caricature by Benjamin Schwartz

Barker’s “Women of Troy” joins this tradition but faces a major problem: the story of the fall of Troy has already been subjected to feminist revisionism. The brutal story her new novel tells, of the horrific consequences of sacking the city, including slavery and the degradation of its women, was re-told from a female perspective in 415 BC. ”(“ The Trojan Women ”) was created.

By then, the playwright was already famous, even notorious, for his shocking depictions of women in extremis: Medea, the abandoned wife who kills her children to punish her ungrateful husband; Phèdre, the queen whose forbidden lust for her stepson pushes her to accuse him of having raped her. These figures and others cemented Euripides’ reputation as a sort of Tennessee Williams of his day, a master at portraying tormented female psyches. But “The Trojan Women” was radically different from those previous, plot-driven pieces. Much like Barker’s’ Union Street ‘, each of whose seven sections is devoted to the heartbreaking story of a single woman, Euripides’ play takes the form of a spectacle of female pain: a succession of tableaux, each dominated. by a woman of the royal house of Troy. who suffered at the hands of the invaders.

The play takes place the day after the capture of Troy by the Greeks; women are nothing more than goods, prizes to be given to this or that victorious Greek. Hecube, the queen, goes to the cunning Ulysses; his daughter-in-law Andromache, widow of Hector, to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus; and his daughter Cassandra, a never-to-be-believed prophetess, to the victorious General Agamemnon. It is not so much a conspiracy as a gradual deepening of misery. Hecube learns that his youngest daughter has been sacrificed to Achilles’ ghost; Andromache learns that his baby will be thrown from the walls of Troy. Then the play is over, her chorus of enslaved Trojan women mourning the fact that their former great city will be completely erased from history – “unnamed”.

Barely. Barker’s own example is one of many which have shown how successfully a writer of one genre can inhabit characters of another; the undeniable power of Euripides’ predominantly female play has given rise to a long line of adaptations for both men and women, from the Roman playwright Sénèque in the 1st century to Jean-Paul Sartre in the mid-20th century. More recently, “Troades” has been reworked to comment on modern warfare (Christine Evans’ 2009 fantasy drama, “Trojan Barbie”) and the Syrian humanitarian crisis (“Queens of Syria”, a 2013 play in which a group of refugees tell their stories to Euripides). This overcrowded tradition of adaptation is both a blessing and a curse for anyone who wants to remix those memorable female voices again, illuminating new possibilities while making it much harder to get too close to the original. How much is left for these women to say?

Like her predecessor, “The Women of Troy” is narrated by Briseis, who, we learn, was once intimate with the Trojan Royal Family, giving her a special perspective on the characters whose stories she will now tell. (As a young girl, she was sent to live in Troy and has become a royal family pet of sorts.) When the novel opens, Achilles has been dead for months and Briseis is now married to a mighty Greek. No longer a slave, she nonetheless feels a deep feeling for the Trojans, news of the humiliations to which she had long become accustomed, from the nocturnal rapes to the degrading household chores that these former members of the royal family must now perform. . The male antagonist who takes center stage is the young Pyrrhus, who arrived on stage just before the Greeks’ victory, in which he plays a particularly wicked role, slaughtering Priam as the old man struggles pathetically to defend his family and his son. kingdom.

Pyrrhus sometimes appears in Greek literature as an impassive but kind-hearted young man. Barker has the brilliant idea of ​​making him a teenage tyrant whose arrogance barely conceals an inferiority complex; he is haunted by the father whom he has never known and whose glorious reputation he will never be able to honor. When “The Trojan Women” opens, Pyrrhus is seated inside the Trojan horse, awaiting the start of the final assault, “feeling like an impostor all the time, a little boy who had been allowed to stay up late”. The youngster’s concerns about his masculine authority motivate his harshness towards Trojan women, from which much of the plot of the novel will flow.

There are also some fine and quirky touches in Barker’s reimagining of mythical women. In the Iliad, Helen of Troy (whom even the Trojans cannot blame themselves for the war, so attractive is her appearance) is a rather sad figure: full of regret for her past, and stuck with the fool so magnificent. Paris, she spends her time weaving a tapestry that illustrates the war she caused. Barker’s novels portray the Greek Queen as a cool client with an eye on primary luck and few illusions about men or women. In “The silence of the girls”, Briseis notices that Helen has not yet placed herself in the still unfinished tapestry: “She will not know where to stand until she knows who has won”, retorts one. other female slaves. . In “The Women of Troy”, Helen searches for psychotropic drugs in anticipation of her impending reunion with her cuckold husband, Menelaus.

Barker’s most famous Trojan woman – the one you wish you had a bigger role – is Hecuba. Andromache is too noble to be truly captivating; Cassandra too nutty. (Even her mother has doubts about her: “People always say it’s divine madness…. I think she just does things as she pleases.”) Catnip for Barker, whose portrayal of her has something of the humor and liveliness that distinguish “Union Street”. Here, the battered widow of myth and drama is profane (“You’ve always been a piss trail,” she barks at a slender priest) and irreligious (“leaving things to the gods doesn’t work very well”) . She holds your attention every time she appears, far more than the stale Briseis ever does.

Whether the selfish Helen and the crisp Hecube, rather than the ostensibly nicer victims Andromache or Briseis, are Barker’s most successful creations tells you something about the dangers of writing fiction with a lofty goal. And here, as before, his attempt to debunk the myth in order to communicate his message about male brutality and female suffering is hampered by a clumsy treatment of historical and legendary elements of the story. Too often, Briseis sounds like the voiceover for a History Channel special: “As a woman living in this camp, I was navigating a complex and dangerous world.”

“The Trojan Women” only really works when Barker forgets the old models in his story. Much of the novel is devoted to a plot that does not appear in any of the traditional tales of the fall of Troy: the horrific Pyrrhus issues a decree prohibiting anyone from burying Priam’s body – a terrible violation of religious propriety. One of the enslaved Trojans, a young woman named Amina (Barker has a bizarre penchant for pinching the names of his opera characters), disobeys the decree, risking her life to give the old man a proper religious burial. Eventually, Briseis is drawn into Amina’s illegal actions, with potentially disastrous consequences. If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it’s the plot of Sophocles’ “Antigone”. Barker’s characters may appear tiny compared to Sophocles’ – Amina’s “You Can’t Just Go Beyond God’s Laws” isn’t a patch on Antigone’s great defiant speech – but the import by the author of the tragic plot is a clever way to infuse all of the abjection and moralization with genuine drama.

About Norma Wade

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