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Woman's body as colony: Impossible Saints.

Michele Roberts, Impossible Saints. (London: Virago, 1998), 308 pages ISBN 1860494560

Michele Roberts's novel, translated and published by Imge Yayinevi into Turkish (Kutsanmamis Azizeler), is so rich a novel that it virtually provides material for several courses such as the instruction of one-semester-history-of-Middle Ages, Sociology, Political Science and Feminist culture. There is no need to talk about Literature. It is already there.

In one of her interviews Michele Roberts says that because she had been "a Catholic and the body is very scorned in Catholicism-particularly the female body-(she) wanted to rescue the body and cherish it and love it and touch it and smell it and make it into language" with "a feminist urge" and that has become her sole "political reason" to write. That is to say, like Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels, Roberts too, applies a method which makes use of the human body as an object as a means of analysing the social order. She is one of those writers who can look accurately into human anatomy while seeing a parallelism between social and sexual politics and therefore opens up the human body for discussion. Like Swift, Roberts is a satirist whose work is marked with farcical comedy. The strategy of her satire is based on religious fanaticism and sexual degradation of women.

At this point, however, one has to remember her catholic background: as is the case with every other writer whose writing becomes a product of his/her past. Roberts is also a product of her own Catholic past no matter how much she rebels against it. Like a good Catholic, she cannot help giving that gloomy, fatalistic message to the world that a woman can only work out her own salvation, like a saint through suppressing the needs of (and thus killing) her body, in this male dominated world. It may be just that Michele Roberts is only making and formulating an observation for all of us. Now that there has not been any progress made in the way of equalizing the sex-roles of man and woman since Roman times, then, renouncing your body and thereby your life, may only be taken as a form of liberation on the part of a woman whose resistance will necessarily be done away with in the end. It may be why Roberts's women die, one after the other as "accidental saints", putting an emphasis on male domination and the traditional sex roles that victimize them. (Each one dies in a particular social atmosphere; it may be an English pub of our time as well as a Monastery in Dark Ages). And as they die, they also show us clearly that the sex roles that are dictated to them are nothing but various ways of enslaving women for men. As for the men, on the other hand, as they play the father, the lover, the husband, these men in the novel only act to ensure the maintenance of the status quo so as to guarantee the maintenance of their self-interests: They do not get punished in any sense in return for the crimes they commit against women while the women pass away, one after another leaving behind fragrant of flowers as the signs of saintliness.

Michele Roberts uses the method and strategies of "Magic Realism" in Impossible Saints which can be defined as a work of fiction that combines a rational view of reality with fantastic and dreamlike elements with its material derived from myth and fairy tales. In fact, Magic Realism is characterized by the cultural manifestations of colonization as an endless struggle between the colonizer (who imposes upon the political and social systems of the colonized country his own authoritarian sense of order) and the colonized, offering a world view which transcends natural or physical laws of objective reality -an amalgamation of realism and fantasy. Magical Realism as Ray Verzasconi sees it "is an expression of the New World reality which at once combines the rational elements of the European super-civilization, and the irrational elements of a primitive America." Thus, magic realism attempts to "defamiliarise" the culture described in a text, or rather attempts to create an atmosphere of temporary detachment from cultural and intellectual domination of the Western thought on part of the reader. The reader, as a result of this defamiliarisation is led to do, what might be called, an intercultural reading preparing him to deal with the fabulous, inconceivable, phenomenal events as commonplace and routine. Magical realists incorporate indigenous elements (myths, folklore) into post-colonial culture, hybridizing a world of ever-changing reality. The plots of magic realists amalgamate not only cultural opposites, but also that which is serious and trivial, overstated and understated, tragic and comic. In this sense it serves double purposes: it helps the "oppressed" raise his voice and cope with the "oppressor" and at the same time, by distancing the oppressed from objective reality of everyday life, manipulates him to make a compromise with his oppressor because the world of magic realism characterizes itself with lack of clear opinions about the accuracy of events:
 Each girl held out her left hand. Each one wore, on her wrist, the
 tight handcuff to which was attached the long chain whose other end
 was fixed to the pillar in the middle of the room. Christine cut off
 the others' left hands one by one, letting the severed and bleeding
 chunks drop to the floor, the cuff and chain with them. They left
 these in a gory heap for the doctor to find on his return from

 The snakes knotted themselves together to make a ladder from the
 window down to the garden. One by one the girls slithered down.
 Girls and snakes leaped onto the back of the lorry. The driver
 roared them away into town. (p. 123)

Michele Roberts does more than the world of magic realism offers. She locates her novel within the borders of the Roman Empire during the period of the first Christians spreading the new religion and, she captures (as the nonverbal equivalent of defamiliarisation) that which does not change ever since those days: woman's status and her conditions. Starting out from this observation she is able to make an analysis with universal implications. She displays the sexist's policies, male domination and sexual exploitation of women by means of an exaggerated stereotype, "the saint" which she uses as a sign-post to indicate the forms of overt and covert oppressions applied to the women in patriarchal societies. Women as saints are rendered and formed into one metaphor of exploitation based on sex-differentiation.

Thus, in Roberts's novel, a man in the form of father/husband/lover, is no more than a colonist who is out to colonize the woman's only possession that is her body. Roberts brings together small parts of a large-scale map of exploitation of woman's body in the anecdotes of fathers who attempt to rape their daughters; husbands who torture their wives and mistresses and priests who volunteer to be the tools of these tortures; punishments (like confinements in the towers or thrown into wells) designed to devastate women's sexuality. The theme of sexual discrimination underlies Roberts's novel.

Along with the sexual exploitation of a woman's body, numerous responsibilities of motherhood and housekeeping such as cleaning, cooking, and childcare, many forms of domestic slavery serve in the maintenance of "inequality" between man and woman. The patriarchal system seems to derive its strength from religion all the time: the myths, male discourse that despise woman, institutions of control (that oppress women) are either created or supported by religion. Nuns, priests saints, virginity, self-denial, fasting as well as other forms of physical restrictions, punishments, tortures, a world shaped and controlled by religion, Roberts seems to say, will never allow woman to enjoy privileges of power that men enjoy.

Beginning with Saint Josephine, who is also a writer, all the women saints in the book, namely Paula, Petronilla, Thecla, Christine, Agnes, Thais, Dympna, Uncumber, Marine. Barbara and Marina are, at the beginning of their lives, inspired by hope because they are born into favorable conditions. However, all of them end up in despair after they become exposed to a ritualistic public humiliation either by their fathers or by men they fall in love with and they find themselves morally ruined because loss of honor and identity destroy their lives.
 Through the town they carried her, like a prize fish to be put on
 show in the marketplace. Inside the net she kicked and fought, she
 scratched and spat, but to no avail. Out of the centre of town they
 went, and into the suburbs. The asylum that they had found for
 Christine was on the very edge of town. A tall sturdy tower. Not at
 all an unpleasant place. (p.117)

After public humiliation and shameful treatment, having suffered profound pains, these women are left to die either in a cold room of a monastery or in a deep well they are thrown into. This final stage of each of their stories symbolizes the potential for perversion of justice in patriarchal societies and abnormalities of male domination. Patriarchal societies are hierarchical systems functioning on the basis of "might makes right", a formula which always works against women.

That is why in Roberts' Impossible Saints miracles, as part of the strategy of satirical irony, always turn women around. The miracles which befall great leaders, as a proof of their greatness, befall women of inconsequential, insignificant achievements. Just to give an example, women who clean toilets die filling their graves with inviting smells of various kinds of flowers. The people do not leave their dead bodies alone and they begin to bite pieces off the corpses to take home as they worship the new saints.

Consequently, in the close of the novel, the bones of an army of women saints (of eleven thousand plus two) are put in a hierarchical order to be displayed in the Golden House to serve as an example to living women. The Cardinal then begins to wait for the new victims to arrive from the world of men who live very far away from his world of the saints; the last thing being to sanctify the writer Saint Josephine whose bones get (unfortunately) lost. Anyway, the Cardinal thinks "Josephine's modest vanishing was typical of her unobtrusive sort of sanctity, and that it would do her cause no harm, in the rigorous and searching canonization process, for her to be recognized as amongst the must humble and self-effacing of her sex." (p.308)

"My theory is that inspiration is born of loss" says Michele Roberts, "so that if there is an empty space inside you, something can come and fill it. Something can be born inside you." This inspiration is what makes her a distinguished woman writer, a winner of many prizes; her ability to perceive the losses and sufferings of many women and transform them into inspirations to fill the hearts and minds of her readers.

Sevinc Ozer

Department of Western Languages and Literatures

Pamukkale University

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Author:Ozer, Sevinc
Publication:Kadin/Woman 2000
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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