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The Si­lence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Circe by Made­line Miller

The Si­lence of the Girls by Pat Barker.

Doubleday, 293 pp., $27.95

Circe by Made­line Miller.

Lit­tle, Brown, 393 pp., $27.00

The Si­lence of the Girls, Pat Barker’s un­sen­ti­men­tal and beau­ti­ful new novel, tells the story of the Iliad as experienced by women cap­tives, from in­side the Greek camp over­look­ing the walls of the be­sieged city of Troy. They are the Greek he­roes’ prizes, taken from con­quered out­ly­ing towns and vil­lages to be pros­ti­tutes, do­mes­tic work­ers, and, on oc­ca­sion, wives. Herodotus, in his His­to­ries, tells of the Io­nian Greek cus­toms with re­gard to their cap­tured women: they

mar­ried Car­ian girls, whose par­ents they had killed. The fact that these women were forced into mar­riage af­ter the mur­der of their fa­thers, hus­bands, and sons was the ori­gin of the law, es­tab­lished by oath and passed down to their fe­male de­scen­dants, for­bid­ding them to sit at ta­ble with their hus­bands or to ad­dress them by name.

The novel is told, mostly in the first per­son, by Bri­seis, the cap­tive queen awarded to Achilles, the Greeks’ great­est war­rior. She be­comes the mo­tive for the quar­rel be­tween Achilles and Agamem­non, the com­man­der of the Greek troops, and the re­sult­ing de­struc­tion their troops suf­fer, caused by the two men’s per­sonal feud.

Homer’s epic opens as Agamem­non, who had his daugh­ter Iphi­ge­nia sac­ri­ficed as an of­fer­ing for good sail­ing con­di­tions to Troy, en­coun­ters an­other kind of father in the Greek camp, a priest of Apollo, who has taken an un­prece­dented risk and come to the en­emy camp to ask for his beloved daugh­ter, Chry­seis, to be re­leased from Agamem­non’s house­hold. Agamem­non re­fuses. In the coars­est speech of the epic, he in­sults the priest and gra­tu­itously, porno­graph­i­cally, forces on the father a haunt­ing vi­sion of his daugh­ter’s fu­ture as the king’s sex slave and house­hold drone. She will never again be free or safe, since Agamem­non’s im­pulses are sov­er­eign; she is his to beat or to kill, if he wants. The priest be­seeches Apollo to pun­ish the Greeks, and the god re­sponds, send­ing a dev­as­tat­ing plague. Achilles calls an as­sem­bly to find its cause. Un­der his pro­tec­tion, the di­vin­ing priest Calchas re­veals that the plague is of di­vine ori­gin, and that Agamem­non’s prize, Chry­seis, must be re­stored to her father in order to ap­pease Apollo. Though Agamem­non is fu­ri­ous with the priest’s as­sess­ment (and in­sults him in the style of Trump’s at­tack on the CNN re­porter Jim Acosta—“Prophet of evil, never yet have you spo­ken anything good for me”), he has no choice but to as­sent. How­ever, while Achilles is the Greek’s great­est war­rior, Agamem­non is his su­pe­rior in rank. The com­mand struc­ture is an iron hi­er­ar­chy, and to re­store his pres­tige, Agamem­non de­mands Achilles’s own prize, Bri­seis, as a sub­sti­tute, hu­mil­i­at­ing his most valu­able war cham­pion. Bri­seis is taken from Achilles’s tent and led to Agamem­non’s. Achilles then re­fuses to use his ex­tra­or­di­nary mar­tial pow­ers to fight for the Greeks, al­low­ing them to be slaugh­tered and brought to the brink of de­struc­tion over the two men’s strug­gle for pres­tige.

This is the scene painted circa 480 BC by an artist known as the Bri­seis painter on a red-fig­ured kylix, or round two-han­dled wine cup, ex­hib­ited at the Bri­tish Mu­seum: on one side, Bri­seis, wear­ing a grace­fully draped chi­ton and veil, is led by a bearded her­ald to Agamem­non’s tent. On the other side, Bri­seis, in the same el­e­gant drap­ery, is led back to Achilles’s tent. If you look only at the painted fig­ures, you will see noth­ing but beauty, order, and the time­less rhythms of cer­e­mony—but the ves­sel is a bril­liantly de­signed im­age of per­pet­ual cap­tiv­ity. It is a cup with a dou­ble life, one story con­cealed in­side the dec­o­ra­tions of an­other, like the design of Pat Barker’s novel.

Barker’s work is in­ex­tri­ca­bly as­so­ci­ated with her ex­am­i­na­tions of the ex­pe­ri­ence of war. She is most fa­mous for her great World War I Re­gen­er­a­tion tril­ogy, a study, among much else, of how states cre­ate men as war­riors, but her Union Street tril­ogy, about the lives of work­ing-class women, might also be de­scribed as war nov­els, fo­cused on class war­fare and the char­ac­ters’ en­durance of the per­va­sive vi­o­lence in­te­gral to poverty.

The Si­lence of the Girls, like the Ger­man writer Christa Wolf’s 1984 novel Cas­san­dra, is a fic­tion that acts as what we might think of as a séance in re­verse: these nov­els do not use the liv­ing to sum­mon the dead, but the dead to sum­mon the liv­ing. Wolf’s Troy evokes the op­pres­sion of East Ger­many, while Barker’s brings us vi­sions not only of the women cap­tured by ISIS but, for ex­am­ple, of the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of the 1.5 mil­lion do­mes­tic work­ers in Saudi Ara­bia. Among those work­ers was Tuti Tur­sili­wati, who was be­headed in Oc­to­ber, the pun­ish­ment for killing her em­ployer in self-de­fense dur­ing one of his re­peated at­tempts to rape her. While Wolf’s Cas­san­dra is the very archetype of the si­lenced woman, Barker chooses to in­car­nate per­haps the most over­looked woman named in Homer.

In the Iliad, Bri­seis isn’t de­scribed as “silent.” She doesn’t need to be. Although we see her in Book 1, she doesn’t speak un­til Book 19. It is not un­til then, in her mourn­ing speech for Achilles’s beloved friend Pa­tro­clus, that we are told anything about her other than that she has beau­ti­ful cheeks and that she leaves un­will­ingly to be trans­ferred to Agamem­non. At last we learn that she is the prize of the man who killed her hus­band, her father, and her brothers— and yet her only hope for safety for her­self and any chil­dren she might have is what Pa­tro­clus once promised her: mar­riage to Achilles. Barker skill­fully shows us what ac­tive po­lit­i­cal strate­gies the women con­struct in their cap­tiv­ity, pro­tect­ing one an­other, shar­ing use­ful ru­mors, shrewdly as­sess­ing the men’s char­ac­ters. Their camp life re­minds me of the World War II di­ary A Woman in Ber­lin, the anonymous ac­count by a Ger­man woman of the Rus­sian army’s mass rapes at the end of the war.* She de­scribes how safety lay in form­ing an exclusive re­la­tion­ship, so as to be less vul­ner­a­ble to gang rape. In Barker’s scene of Chry­seis’s de­par­ture, some of the cap­tive women fan­ta­size about taking her place: “To be Agamem­non’s prize...It didn’t come more com­fort­able than that.”

In The Si­lence of the Girls, Bri­seis lives the full range of mean­ings of the Greek verb damazo, to tame, to do­mes­ti­cate, to sub­due, to over­power, to se­duce, to rape, to kill. Homer’s Bri­seis

*The au­thor was later re­vealed to be the jour­nal­ist Marta Hillers.

doesn’t de­scribe Achilles slaugh­ter­ing her male rel­a­tives be­fore her eyes, but Barker’s Bri­seis does. Her eye­wit­ness ac­count is as de­tailed as a war cor­re­spon­dent’s dis­patches. The novel opens with the women of the out­ly­ing Tro­jan town of Lyr­nes­sus, Bri­seis’s town, crowded into their ci­tadel, know­ing that within hours it will fall. They hear Achilles’s bat­tle cry, “in­hu­man as the howl­ing of a wolf.” Bri­seis, re­mem­ber­ing those hours, re­cites some of Achilles’s Homeric ep­i­thets: “Great Achilles. Bril­liant Achilles, shin­ing Achilles, god­like Achilles...How the ep­i­thets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher.’” To the women wait­ing in the ci­tadel, he is what rhetoric would call a hero, but his acts are the acts of what we would call a war crim­i­nal:

For once, women with sons en­vied those with daugh­ters, be­cause girls would be al­lowed to live. Boys, if any­where near the fight­ing age, were rou­tinely slaugh­tered. Even preg­nant women were some­times killed, speared through the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy .... The air was heavy with the fore­knowl­edge of what we would have to face. Moth­ers put their arms round girls who were grow­ing up fast but not yet ripe for mar­riage. Girls as young as nine and ten would not be spared.

The women’s sit­u­a­tion be­comes even more ex­cru­ci­at­ing as Barker de­vel­ops the ac­count of their lives in cap­tiv­ity; they not only have to serve their cap­tors sex­u­ally, but face, with their dif­fer­ing re­sponses, what it’s like to be­come the moth­ers of chil­dren by their rapists. Barker es­tab­lishes her reg­is­ter at the out­set: there is beauty as well as ter­ror in her lan­guage, in the phys­i­cal world she cre­ates, in the chang­ing, un­pre­dictable re­la­tion­ships and sit­u­a­tions for the cap­tive Bri­seis, but Barker keeps her Bri­seis and Achilles alive in time, not in time­less myth. Barker doesn’t want her read­ers daz­zled or de­luded, in the po­si­tion of the Tro­jans when Pa­tro­clus wears Achilles’s ar­mor into bat­tle: “Once they see the ar­mour, they won’t be able to see past it.” Achilles, like Bri­seis and Pa­tro­clus and the rest of the cel­e­brated epic fig­ures, is seen here not only as a se­ries of em­bod­ied ac­tions and achieve­ments, but as some­one with a lived past, sculpted by child­hood as well as po­etry. Barker’s por­trait of his re­la­tion­ship with his god­dess mother, Thetis, has an edge of dark com­edy as well as poignancy: she ac­quires for him a luxe set of ar­mor made by the god Hephais­tos (Agamem­non him­self car­ried a Hephais­tos-crafted scepter), but is never there when he needs her. To be the son of an im­mor­tal is a bit like be­ing the son of a movie star who gives her child the best of ev­ery­thing but re­mains a re­mote fig­ure, an ob­ject of long­ing and of re­sent­ment.

Bri­seis could be com­pared to King Lear’s Cordelia; she is com­mit­ted to truth, with­out which she can­not be her­self. She hero­ically—and silently—re­fuses to con­cur in the lie Agamem­non tells Achilles, that he never touched her, even though the false­hood would be to her ad­van­tage. But un­like Cordelia, she feels com­pas­sion with­out deny­ing her ha­tred: Though I sym­pa­thized, al­most in­vol­un­tar­ily, with men hav­ing their wounds stitched up or claw­ing at their ban­dages in the in­tol­er­a­ble heat, I still hated and de­spised them all . . . .

It would have been easier, in many ways, to slip into think­ing we were all in this to­gether, equally im­pris­oned on this nar­row strip of land be­tween the sand dunes and the sea; easier, but false. They were men, and free. I was a woman, and a slave. And that’s a chasm no amount of sen­ti­men­tal chit-chat about shared im­pris­on­ment should be al­lowed to ob­scure.

Barker keeps us grounded in the phys­i­cal re­al­i­ties of war, not just the ob­vi­ous ones, like the dirt and blood of bat­tle, or the bawdy, drunken chants of men who have sur­vived an­other day of killing, but in the re­la­tion­ships war un­veils: the en­coun­ters be­tween pa­tients and doc­tors, who have to cause pain, and who lie about their pa­tients’ chances, or the way moth­ers are a ghostly pres­ence on the bat­tle­field, as present as the male an­ces­tors the war­riors in­voke.

Barker bril­liantly sets against Homer’s list of war­riors and the glos­sary of wounds with which Achilles kills them a cat­a­log of their moth­ers’ ef­forts to bear and rear them, the strug­gle to sus­tain life that also fin­ishes in the dust with their sons’ bod­ies, with­out even the com­pen­sa­tion of glory. Nor is there any at­tempt at ro­mance in the phys­i­cal re­la­tions of cap­tor and cap­tive. The men are not trans­formed any more by de­sire than by bat­tle; they re­main ex­actly who they are in their sex­u­al­ity. Achilles isn’t cruel, but “fucked as quickly as he killed, and for me it was the same thing,” as Bri­seis says.

When Troy falls, Bri­seis is sent to the same hut where she was cap­tive, now the hold­ing prison of women of Troy. She looks at An­dro­mache, whose small son has been hurled from the city bat­tle­ments by Odysseus. She will now be the slave of Achilles’s son—the pros­ti­tute of the war­rior son of the man who killed her hus­band. See­ing her, Bri­seis re­flects: “Yes, the death of young men in bat­tle is a tragedy... wor­thy of any num­ber of laments—but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at An­dro­mache, who’d have to live the rest of her am­pu­tated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.”

Herodotus opens his His­to­ries with a brief ac­count of the ori­gins of the Greek and Tro­jan war:

Ab­duct­ing young women, in their [the Tro­jans’] opin­ion, is not, in­deed, a law­ful act; but it is stupid af­ter the event to make a fuss about it. The only sen­si­ble thing is to take no no­tice; for it is ob­vi­ous that no young woman al­lows her­self to be ab­ducted if she does not wish to be.

Barker’s novel has been called a “fem­i­nist Iliad”—and, of course, it is, un­mis­tak­ably; but it can­not be con­ve­niently rel­e­gated, as some­times hap­pens, to a niche of fic­tion, a genre of retellings by women. It is not only about women’s ex­pe­ri­ence, but about slav­ery too. And it is also about the na­ture of knowl­edge, an ex­plo­ration of the ways we per­ceive, and refuse to per­ceive, re­al­ity. The novel de­serves to be called an ar­chae­ol­o­gist’s Iliad: it is as if Barker had found an ar­ti­fact with an as yet un­de­ci­phered al­pha­bet among the glit­ter­ing grave trea­sures of Homer’s epic.


Miller’s novel Circe draws on the Odyssey rather than the Iliad; her book re­flects its source. It is a ro­mance, an ad­ven­ture story, and like the Odyssey, the story of a quest to find a home, this time a woman’s in­stead of a king’s. Miller’s novel of­fers a more am­ple bi­og­ra­phy of the mi­nor god­dess fa­mous in the epic for her love af­fair with Odysseus, and for her be­witched wine, which trans­forms the in­cau­tious men who visit her island into pigs. In

Miller’s story, this is an ironic trans­for­ma­tion, since Circe’s power is in­fused with help­less­ness: her magic can trans­form its ob­jects only into their truest selves. Her first ef­fort, with Glau­cus, a mor­tal sailor with whom she falls in love, re­sults in his be­ing re­vealed as a mi­nor di­vin­ity, petty, vin­dic­tive, and con­ceited. Mor­tals are cor­rupted by as­sum­ing di­vin­ity, like medi­ocre politi­cians who ac­quire too much power.

Her second at­tempt is with her cousin Scylla, who has in­dif­fer­ently stolen Glau­cus’s af­fec­tions. Circe per­forms this trans­for­ma­tion out of jeal­ousy, too in­ex­pe­ri­enced to un­der­stand the con­se­quences. The sex­u­ally vo­ra­cious, amoral Scylla turns into the dreaded sea mon­ster who de­vours un­lucky sea­men as they sail the pas­sage be­tween her cav­ern and the deadly whirlpool Charyb­dis. But Circe’s own venge­ful mo­ti­va­tion for Scylla’s meta­mor­pho­sis means that she shares re­spon­si­bil­ity for the many men who die to sat­isfy Scylla’s ap­petite. By con­trast, Circe’s mix­ture of herbs and wine later finds its mark with­out guilt when a sea cap­tain and his crew land on her island and vi­o­late her sin­cere hos­pi­tal­ity by plan­ning a gang rape of a lone woman they be­lieve to be pow­er­less. It is not Circe who makes them pigs. Miller’s novel charms like a good bedtime story; she un­der­stands our in­ex­haustible ap­petite for myths star­ring our fa­vorite char­ac­ters, and that we don’t want these stories to end. Her first novel, drawn from the Iliad, was The Song of Achilles, an un­abashed cel­e­bra­tion of ho­mo­sex­ual love whose fo­cus was on the ro­mance of Achilles and Pa­tro­clus. She also wrote a de­light­fully eerie novella about Galatea and Pyg­malion, rem­i­nis­cent of an Edgar Al­lan Poe tale. In Circe, she fleshes out fa­mil­iar and less fa­mil­iar myth­i­cal fig­ures by set­ting them in fairy-tale sit­u­a­tions, giv­ing them do­mes­tic lives (we see Daedalus as a de­voted fam­ily man in thrall to his adorable small son, Icarus, and are in­tro­duced to Scylla when she was still a lovely nymph). Miller’s tech­nique echoes Circe’s al­chem­i­cal pow­ers, as she makes these mi­nor char­ac­ters more than mere ref­er­ences. She per­forms a sleight of hand on the gods; in­stead of fig­ures of am­biva­lent and shift­ing grace, fa­voritism, and de­struc­tion in re­la­tion to hu­man­ity, Miller’s gods for the most part hold hu­man be­ings in con­tempt. The gods are chilling: their im­mor­tal­ity makes them in­ca­pable of love. They are su­per­hu­manly nar­cis­sis­tic, con­cerned only with be­ing wor­shiped and sat­is­fy­ing mo­men­tary lusts at any ex­pense. The god Her­mes ex­plains to Circe that only mis­er­able men give of­fer­ings worth hav­ing:

Make him shiver, kill his wife, crip­ple his child, then you will hear from him. He will starve his fam­ily for a month to buy you a purewhite year­ling calf .... In the end, it’s best to give him some­thing. Then he will be happy again. And you can start over.

Miller has a gift for cre­at­ing set­tings that sum­ma­rize their in­hab­i­tants, along with swiftly brush­stroked traits and habits that de­fine char­ac­ters. Circe’s father is the sun, He­lios, who lives in an un­der­ground palace with ob­sid­ian walls. He “liked the way the ob­sid­ian re­flected his light, the way its slick sur­faces caught fire as he passed. Of course, he did not con­sider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imag­ine the world with­out him­self in it.” Her aunt, Se­lene, the moon, is a vul­gar ro­man­tic, roam­ing the earth at night to spy on lovers and gos­sip­ing about them to the gods. Circe, a very low-rank­ing god­dess, is given not a palace but a house on an island that does its own house­clean­ing and washes its own dishes, a sort of cot­tage-shaped di­vin­ity.

Circe her­self is a com­pound of Cin­derella and Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen’s Lit­tle Mer­maid—she is the scape­goat in her di­vine house­hold, with her ex­otic, bird-like eyes and mor­tal-seem­ing voice, teased by her ra­di­ant sib­lings for be­ing stupid and back­ward, never as at home at the gods’ ban­quets as they are. And like the Lit­tle Mer­maid, she is fas­ci­nated by hu­man­ity and the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing hu­man. She is the only di­vin­ity we en­counter, aside from her un­cle Prometheus (pun­ished for teach­ing men the na­ture of fire), who has a moral task to ac­com­plish. She must re­deem the de­struc­tion her trans­for­ma­tion of Scylla has caused; she must be­come a good witch. And in choos­ing to learn the arts of sorcery, she is sep­a­rat­ing her­self from the gods: sorcery re­quires pa­tient work; it can be taught to hu­mans. Witch­craft

is not di­vine power, which comes with a thought and a blink . . . . For a

Achilles de­liv­er­ing Bri­seis to Agamem­non’s her­alds; bas-re­lief by An­to­nio Canova, circa 1787–1790

John Wil­liam Water­house: Circe In­vid­iosa, 1892

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