The Murderess
by Alexander Papadiamantis (1903)
translated from the Greek by Peter Levi (1983)
NYRB Classics (2010)
144 pp

Well, here we go with the second NYRB Classic in a row. Because they are always refreshing and always interesting, I often crave NYRB Classics, and neither this one nor the last one have disappointed (though, be careful, they only make the craving stronger). I’m always shocked because I cannot believe the book I’m reading once languished out of print. This one was no exception. Despite the title — The Murderess — I was for some reason not expecting quite the chilling read this little book provided.

The title character is introduced with three names. She is “Hadoula, or Frankissa, or Frankojannou, [. . .] a woman of scarcely sixty, well built and solid, with a masculine air and two little touches of moustache on her lips.” Frankojannou’s daughter has just had another child, and — horror of horrors, is there no mercy? — the baby is yet another girl. And she’s sick! Besides the father, no one is getting any rest in this new infant’s household.

For many nights Frankojannou had permitted herself no sleep. She had willed her sore eyes open, while she kept vigil beside this little creature who had no idea what trouble she was giving, or what tortures she must undergo in her turn, if she survived.

In the first few chapters, as she sits caring for her new granddaughter, Frankojannou’s consciousness wanders, and Papadiamantis describes her life in small episodes. The portraits of the underclass in nineteenth-century Greece are wonderful because we quickly understand — we can feel — why Frankojannou at sixty, caring for her granddaughter, would lament, “O God, why should another one come into the world?” And so we readers go back and forth in time: at one moment Frankojannou is sitting up in that night trying to quiet an infant; in another, she is a young woman getting swindled by her own mother (who, in turn, she steals from); in another, her son is threatening to kill her in the street.

As Frankojannou gets more and more tired and agitated, her reason starts to warp in a terrifying way:

Ah, look . . . Nothing is exactly what it seems, anything but, in fact rather the opposite. Given that grief is joy and death is life and resurrection, then disaster is happiness and disease is health. So are all those scourges that seem so ugly, that mow down ungrown infants, the smallpox and scarlet fever and diphtheria and the rest of the diseases, are they not really happiness? Loving gestures and wingbeats of the little angels who rejoice in the heavens when they receive the souls of children? And we humans in our blindness think of these things as unhappy, as the strokes of heaven, as an evil thing.

The astute reader (who merely needs to read the title of the book) knows where this is going, even if Frankojannou does not. It’s just off the edge of her reasoning at this point.

Her accustomed prayer for little girls was ‘May they not survive! May they go no further!’

On occasion she went so far as to say:

‘What can I say to you! . . . The minute girls are born a person thinks of strangling them!’

Yes, she did say it, but she would certainly never had been capable of doing it, Not even Hadoula herself believed that.

The unthinkable happens, and happens again (and again . . .). Soon in the novel, quite a lot of damage is done to the community, all absolutely inexcusable and yet understandable. In other words, never does Papadiamantis excuse Frankojannou’s actions, but the road to those actions is sadly plausible. It’s a brutal look at a society where a woman was a utility, where both anger and compassion can drive someone to kill.

We spend the last half of the book following Frankojannou’s sixty-year-old frame as she desperately tries to survive in the Greacian hills while the law pursues her through days and nights. The scenery is beautiful, with its echos of Homer, and enriches the pursuit as well as the complicated look at justice, both from below and above.

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