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Penelope with attitude: a retelling of Homer overshadowed by indignation.

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus Margaret Atwood Knopf 200 pages, hardcover ISBN 067697418X

Mythical figures are Houdinis. No sooner have they been padlocked inside some airtight text than they wriggle free. Achilles, Hector, Helen of Troy and even such later creations as Hamlet or Don Quixote live and move in our imaginations as much as in books. Of these immemorial escape-artists, none is more slippery than Odysseus. His peregrinations after the fall of Troy pale beside his posthumous wanderings through western literature, from Virgil and Dante to Tennyson, Joyce and Cavafy.

Of his faithful wife we hear less. Penelope abides merely as a watchword for patience. But her errant husband's roamings take on meaning only against her rootedness. Without her, Homer's Odyssey would be little more than a fantastic picaresque; she is the lodestone of home that gives purpose to his rambles. Odysseus fought for ten years at Troy and spent another ten reaching Ithaka while Penelope waited, discouraging importunate suitors by a wily Odyssean ruse: by day she wove a shroud that by night she unravelled, declaring that she could accept a new husband only when the shroud was finished. Her weaving forms a tacit parallel throughout The Odyssey to her husband's weaving journey home.

The most famous modern Penelope is bawdy Molly Bloom. Joyce threw patience and fidelity out of the window when he created her. It takes audacity to reimagine Penelope after Joyce, but now, in The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood takes up the challenge. Her Penelope is a muted figure, neither ribald nor stately, but bemused. Atwood has taken her cue from Homer, who consistently characterizes Penelope as "thoughtful" (periphron in Greek). Because The Odyssey, despite some pretty grim scenes, is a comedy--as against the unremitting tragedy of The Iliad--Atwood adopts a whimsical tone. This affords opportunities for wit but wit comes at a cost, for nothing of Homeric grandeur survives it.

This might seem a small price to pay; grandeur is not much in fashion nowadays. But grandeur of vision allied with the marvel of Homeric language makes the frequent brutality of the ancient tale bearable. Only a fool--or a Kazantzakis--would attempt to rival Homeric hexameter; only a Joyce could devise a comedic alternative equal to that ancient majesty. Between such extremes the wisest--the truly Penelopeian--course for a novelist remains the meticulous creation of a believable character.

Atwood presents her Penelope in first-person monologue from the "fields of asphodel." Like all shades she is disembodied (although she does nibble the occasional asphodel) and her musings range in time from her childhood to the far future. Her tone is studiously even; she displays a refreshing bitchiness only toward Helen of Troy, her cousin, whom she calls "poison on legs." Into this stream of consciousness Atwood weaves her own loom of legend and supposition, giving us Penelope's life (cribbed from Homer and Robert Graves) in straightforward fashion but threading within it various strands of editorial and conjecture. The Penelope that emerges is less a living breathing woman--well, she is a shade--than a ragged tapestry of opinion.

Atwood places the horrific episode of Penelope's hanged maids, from Book 22 of The Odyssey, at the heart of her narrative. By contrast, their killing occupies less than a dozen lines of the original. Not one of Homer's protagonists finds it worthy of comment; even Penelope fails to lament it. No reader today can help but flinch at the cruelty of the scene. Telemakhos strings the women up on a single rope, so that the twelve dangle "like doves or larks." Homer adds the heart-wrenching line (in Robert Fitzgerald's translation), "Their feet danced for a little, but not long."

What was their crime? The twelve had slept with the suitors who were eating Odysseus out of house and home; one had betrayed the secret of Penelope's weaving. Guilty of disloyalty, they stand in abject contrast not only to the old nurse Eurykleia but to Penelope herself.

Atwood will have none of this. Of course, it is her artistic prerogative to reimagine the scene but she twists the story, not in accord with its own internal logic but in keeping with present-day attitudes. Thus, she sometimes describes the maids as "raped" by the suitors though there is no evidence for this. Odysseus characterizes them as dreaming of "sweet Aphrodite under the rutting suitors," hardly a scenario for rape. But for Atwood, even if they were not raped--she waffles on this--their crime lay in having "sex without permission"; again, nothing in Homer supports this. In her effort to exculpate the maids she has Penelope herself put them up to sleeping with the suitors. At her hands the poor maids turn into puling victims without any dignity of responsibility for their acts.

The ten lines of Homer that describe the atrocity contain more tacit compassion for the maids than all of Atwood's contrivances. The likening of the women to birds caught in a thicket conveys their haplessness; the awful detail of their twitching feet constitutes a palpable elegy for their deaths. Homer, whoever he (or she) was, does not editorialize; he makes us witnesses to the horror. The maids were guilty of dishonouring the hearth and paid the penalty; but for Homer they are still frail, tremulous beings whose punishment evokes pathos. No one who reads these lines will ever forget them.

The Penelopiad is structured around this episode. Atwood intersperses poems amid her chapters, all in the imagined voices of the maids, whom she tells us she has "always been haunted by." This emphasis skews her book; to make matters worse, the poems are all quite mediocre. Atwood simply lacks the verbal skill to carry off light verse-forms (ballads, shanties, an envoi) successfully. Others have been haunted by the maids to better effect. The Irish poet Michael Longley based his superb poem "The Butchers" on it and his cold fury shakes the reader. But Atwood reduces it all to opera bouffe. The maids are innocent victims of some archaic machismo but they are also chorus girls piping out ditties. This is just weird enough to have worked in the right hands.

The Penelopiad has its moments. Penelope's description of her honeymoon, although quaintly Victorian--she was "comforted in ways that were suitable for a wedding night"--offers us the droll spectacle of Odysseus winning her affection by storytelling. Atwood has a lot of fun too with the gods, having Penelope remark, "I picture the gods, diddling around on Olympus, wallowing in the nectar and ambrosia and the aroma of burning bones and fat, mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands."

Atwood tells us that "any close reading of The Odyssey" must prompt two questions: "what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?" We never learn the answer to the second question and, after reading The Penelopiad twice, I am not sure what Atwood herself is up to. The narrative is clogged with potted opinions--consummation of marriage as "sanctioned rape," museums as "palaces of trash"--and obsessive leitmotifs, such as constant harping on the Greek love of meat. (Is the implication that Telemakhos would have been kinder to the maids if he had been raised on tofu and bean sprouts?)

Had Atwood followed her novelistic instincts, The Penelopiad might have given back to us the lost voice of an ancient woman in convincing accents. What we have instead is a small jeu d'esprit, shot through with flashes of wit but oddly hollow at its heart.

Eric Ormsby is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Daybreak at the Straits (Zoo Press, 2004), and of Facsimiles of Time (Porcupine's Quill, 2001), a collection of essays.
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Title Annotation:The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus
Author:Ormsby, Eric
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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