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A change of perspective

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MAITREYEE SAHA GANAPATHY

Penelopiad takes Homer's Odyssey and gives the epic a female voice.

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus, Margaret Atwood, Penguin India, p.184, Rs. 225. MYTHS and legends are powerful stuff. They are part of any cultural psyche, shaping not only its popular notions of good and evil, of what is moral and what isn't, but also reflecting its desires and fears. As compelling subjects, writers have often been drawn to them — not only to dwell on what has been but also to the possibility of what could have been. Penelopiad takes Homer's Odyssey and gives the epic a female voice. It is Penelope, the very symbol of the "good woman" and epitome of wifely virtue who gives a first-hand account of her travails at Ithaca and the adventures of her husband, the wily Odysseus. Now dead for over a thousand years, she speaks from the world beyond, recalling her birth, marriage to Odysseus and her life at Ithaca up to the time when her husband returns from his wanderings. In the fields of Asphodel where she roams around, she often meets her cousin, Helen, whom she holds partly responsible for her miseries. A seemingly inconsequent and unexplained incident in Homer's Odyssey is the story of the 12 maids who were hanged during the general slaughter of the suitors that followed on Odysseus' return. In fact, in many versions of the epic, the hanging of the maids is omitted altogether. Margaret Atwood, who highlights the narrative with chorus in the fashion of Greek plays, assigns the task of the chorus to the maids. In giving them the gift of voice, she empowers them. Towards the end of the book, Odysseus is made to stand trial for the murders and killings that he participated in. The judge sees the defendant's point in dismissing the case but the maids who are sitting in the courtroom protest. Their hangings have not been mentioned. "Standards of behaviour were different then. It would be unfortunate if this regrettable but minor incident were allowed to stand as a blot on an otherwise exceedingly distinguished career," opines the judge, dismissing the maids' case as well.

Wry sense of humour

In the hands of Atwood, Odysseus' wife not only finds herself a more worthy and powerful figure than Homer or other legends deemed her to be but also one with a sense of humour. A definitely more interesting than the waiting, weeping and weaving figure we know her to be. Penelope's narration is full of wry comments, about herself, her husband and men in general, the times she lived in and on women like Helen. Penelope does not want to drink the waters of forgetfulness and go on "little excursions" into earthly life like Odysseus or Helen do. Her cousin would fill her on the details of her latest conquests and changes in fashion. "It was through her that I learned about patches, and sunshades and bustles, and highheeled shoes, and girdles and bikinis... Even with my limited access I can see that the world is just as dangerous as it was in my day, except that the misery and suffering are on a much wider scale. As for human nature, it's as tawdry as ever," says she.

Superficial effect

If you are expecting too much from this work by Atwood, you will be disappointed. Despite its experiment with form and its supposed concern with the dark side of the epic, its effect is rather superficial. The hanged maids will not be remembered better than they were after Homer. But go ahead and enjoy Atwood's witty descriptions, particularly those of the Netherworld. She is her best at bringing out the rivalry (if it could be termed that) between Penelope and Helen. Atwood casts her in the mould of a typical school-type bully, full of herself, confident of her sexual allure and continually dismissive of the plain-Jane Penelope. Atwood's Penelopiad, along with Karen Armstrong's History of Myth, are the first books in the new "Myths" series, commissioned by Canongate — in partnership with a dozen other European publishers. Authors have been invited to take a myth of their choice and rework it in a contemporary way. Some of the other authors to look forward in the series are Chinua Achebe, A.S. Byatt, David Grossman, Milton Hatoun, Su Tong, and Victor Pelevin.


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