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The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (Canongate Myths series) Versión Kindle
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Margaret Atwood is a prolific Canadian writer whom I have regrettably never read before. I do recall seeing her work, The Blind Assassin: A Novel on the convenient dining room table of one of the Canadians that I knew in Riyadh, who read serious books, way back in the year 2000, when Atwood was awarded the Man Booker Prize for that work.
Sure, the focus has always been on the soldier, Odysseus, who went away to a foreign war, took a long time to get back home due to numerous pleasant and unpleasant distractions, and received the classic “bad homecoming” when he arrived. With a bit of gender-empathy, it was only natural for Atwood to reflect upon that “ever-faithful” wife, as well, as the author says, the fate of the 12 maids that Odysseus hanged – the “collateral damage.”
In the introduction, Atwood calls her work an “echo” to the sixth power… an “echo of an echo of…” etc. First, you had the original event… the siege of Troy, somewhere in the 12th or 13th century BCE. Then you have Homer’s telling of the story, some four centuries later… Atwood says: “Penelope is perhaps the first desperate housewife to appear in art.” Atwood’s “Penelopiad” is a play, an additional four “echoes” later, that was first performed at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 2007.
Penelope is in Hades, with the Maids that have been hanged. Ah, the truth can now come out. Indicative of Atwood’s more modern, “hip” style, she has Penelope declare early on: “For hadn’t I been faithful? Didn’t I wait, and wait, despite the temptations – almost the compulsion – to do otherwise? And yet what have I amounted to, now the official version has gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with. Why can’t they be as considerate, as trustworthy, as all-suffering as I was? That’s the line they take, the singers, the yarn-spinners. Don’t follow my example, I want to scream in your ears…” It’s brilliant. “A stick used to beat…”
There were aspects of my reading of Odyssey that I had forgotten, perhaps because at the time they seemed like minor points. Penelope was the daughter of King Icarius, of Sparta, who feared that she might kill him when she grew up, due to a prophesy, so he ordered her drowned, which did not, obviously work out. Penelope was a cousin of Helen, yes, the face that launched those proverbial 1000 ships, and Atwood plays on that relationship. “They were all staring at Helen, who was intolerably beautiful, as usual. Like every other man on earth, Odysseus had desperately wanted to win her hand. I was at best only second prize.” Atwood empathetically describes the lives of the Maids, who are only “deep background” for Homer.
Indeed, what is the appropriate conduct for an “ever-faithful” wife when she knows her husband has been servicing the goddess Calypso for several years? Atwood hints at the answer towards the end. “The two of us were now proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said. But we did. Or so we told each other.”
A 5-star spin of a classic myth.
That Atwood is a gifted writer is obvious, however The Penelopiad seems a rather short and fast work on these themes. I could imagine them drawn out and explored in much greater detail, though perhaps not while maintaining the lightness of tone. The chorus sections, those of the hanged maids, provide a verse burlesque complimenting and contrasting against the prose of Penelope. These chapters provide a welcome counterpoint, and often heighten the impact of the satire. But the verses, themselves, sometimes seem unpolished and dashed off.
The Penelopiad is an slight novel by a great writer, and perhaps re-reading will reveal the novel as something grander and richer than petite four that it appears to be.
The reader will find that the meter and rhythm of the choruses bleeds over into the text that follows them. This is delightful use of prose. All-in-all, it is Atwood's fruitful imagination that wins the day here. This is a spell-binding read, well worth the reader's time. Enjoy!
She tells her side of the story of Helen of Troy, what Odysseus was up to, her maid's actions, and the suitors who
tried to woo her during Odysseus' absence. Overall an entertaining twist on the myth.