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Alexandros Papadiamantis: The Murderess

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 (1903; tr. from the Greek by Peter Levi, 1983) — 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.

13 thoughts on “Alexandros Papadiamantis: The Murderess

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Well, it’s an NYRB Classic, so I need no persuading! Although this does look particularly intriguing. Surely someone, somewhere affords the opportunity to buy these NYRB books in bulk/sets? I’ve got a fair few and can see no good reason not to have the lot.

  2. Trevor says:

    Well, Lee, if you’ve got the money, here is the tenth anniversary set at Amazon (which has 250 books): click here. I’d love it myself, but I suspect I will have to keep chipping away little by little!

  3. Lee Monks says:

    Alas, I can’t get away with that! But the thought is a fine one…

  4. Dwight says:

    Chipping away here at the NYRB stack as well, and you’ve added another I’d love to read. Too bad the anniversary set doesn’t qualify for free supersaver shipping. That might be a dealbreaker for some.

    My wife got me “Kaputt” for Christmas, so I’ll get to another in their set soon. Thanks for the review.

  5. Nasty stuff. And as Lee says, one really needs no recommendation beyond that its NYRB.

    It does sound good though. It’s nice too to see some Greek literature in translation. I’m not sure (unless we count classical Greek) I’ve ever read any.

    A nice find Trevor. Intriguing. I’ll keep an eye out for it. How did you find the language? Did the translation modernise it or keep it fairly in period or is it hard to say (I appreciate you probably don’t speak Greek which limits what one can say)?

  6. Trevor says:

    How did you find the language? Did the translation modernise it or keep it fairly in period or is it hard to say (I appreciate you probably don’t speak Greek which limits what one can say)?

    As you surmise, I don’t speak Greek, Max, but I did like the translation. It felt right for the time period, both formal and lyrical. I seem to remember (and I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment to check) marking a few passages that looked like poor translations.

    However, I know I marked with much more frequency passages that I thought were great. And, for what it’s worth, some of the style hearkened back to my readings of The Iliad and The Odyssey, with their hyphenated adjectives and the like. The landscape certainly comes through.

    I don’t rate this book as highly as I do the Denon, but, from your tastes, I think you’ll enjoy it.

  7. cbjames says:

    I’m intrigued, but them I usually am with NYRB titles.

    Does a male author make the book a bit problematic? It strikes me that this is a story/theme men and women might handle differently.

    This is one I’ll be on the watch for at the second hand stores.

  8. Trevor says:

    Does a male author make the book a bit problematic? It strikes me that this is a story/theme men and women might handle differently.

    It worked for me, cb. I know that I thought about the male author writing about a female character when I read the book, but it was only a passing thought. I usually don’t note such things, though.

    That said, I am working on my review (to be posted on Thursday) of Hannah Pittard’s debut novel where she assumes the first-person plural voice for a group of men. It doesn’t come off at all. Then again, that was only part of that book’s problem.

  9. It’s an interesting question that one about gender. Many authors are fine writing from the perspective of either gender. I tend to think it’s more noteworthy when they can’t than when they can.

    Two examples that strike me are Le Carre who I think is pretty poor at writing female characters and a play I saw called Cloaca featuring a group of middle aged men talking among themselves who wholly failed to persuade as actually being men. They felt like women in drag. I forget the playwright’s name but she clearly couldn’t write men any more than Le Carre could women.

    Those are the outliers though. I suspect for most writers it’s not an issue. If we accept writers imagining what it’s like to be Alexander the Great, or a starship pilot in the 51st century, or an old man dying of cancer and suffering memory loss as he looks back on his life, imagining being the other gender really shouldn’t be too much of a stretch…

  10. Trevor says:

    I can come up with a few women who have written great men: Marilynne Robinson has perfected John Ames in Gilead and Cynthia Ozick has a wonderful Joseph Brill in The Cannibal Galaxy. But I’m like you, Max. I didn’t note that fact in my reviews because I don’t often consider it an issue. It sure does stand out when it is, though.

  11. Emma says:

    Hello,
    Max left a comment saying you had reviewed it too, so here I am.
    I really enjoyed this book, it was my first Greek novel.
    He does make the unthinkable logical, doesn’t he? I agree with you, he never excuses what she did but he perfectly explains why.
    I also thought that the descriptions of the mountains where vivid, quickly described but I was there in my mind. (Though I don’t know how they sounded in English since I read the book in French)
    The last paragraph of the book is brilliant, the perfect ending.

  12. Trevor says:

    I’m glad you helped me remember this book, Emma. It is still vivid in my mind, and one I can see myself rereading sooner rather than later — very good signs!

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