Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Penelopiad and an American Dream

Review: The Penelopiad.

First glimpse: American Dream

Michael Sedano

Review: Margaret Atwood. The Penelopiad. NY: Canongate, 2005. ISBN 1-84195-717-8.

Devotees of the great writers of American literature may find it unseemly to say someone "stumbled across" a Margaret Atwood title, but that's what I did recently when I picked up the north-of-the-border novelist's The Penelopiad.

Atwood nearly always leaves me reeling in delight, as she did in The Handmaid's Tale and The Robber Bride. But because I had not much enjoyed Oryx and Crake–found it obscure and a small deviation from the writer's usual quality–I wasn't looking for another title of hers when my eyes caught the thin (198 pages) spine's almost illegible title, then noted the writer's name.

What a grand idea, telling Penelope's story! For thousands of years, people have celebrated Odysseus. The Iliad's nine years fighting the Trojan war, then the trickster's own story of the long sail home, only to find his household in thrall to treasure-seekers.

Penelope's is the backstory. Crafty Odysseus' equally crafty spouse spinning a cloak during the day, then unravelling it during the night as a strategem to hold off the greedy suitors' demands. Atwood will have none of this backstory stuff, starting the tale with the 15 year old girl on her wedding day wondering which of the contestants would win her, then fleshing out the story of a lonely girl in a foreign city, an uncaring suegra, a bossy handmaiden and a chorus of the hanged.

Homer's story winds to a close with Odysseus and Telemachus wreaking revenge on the suitors. After the slaughter, twelve slave girls, identified as collaborators, are assigned to clean up the blood and gore, then taken outside and hanged. But the story of the hanged slaves intrigues Atwood and she builds the tale around them. As the writer observes in her foreward: "the maids form a chanting and singing Chorus which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of The Odyssey: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story as told in The Odyssey doesn't hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I've always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself." (xv)

The heuristic of building a novel from a cherished myth is the idea behind the publisher's myth series. In addition to Atwood's work, Canongate recruited Chinua Achebe, AS Byatt, and others to delve into old stories in new ways.

Atwood relishes the retelling. There's Penelope in Hades, remembering various heroes trekking in search of answers, blooding a beast into a trench, then, "Once the right number of words had been handed over to the hero we'd all be allowed to drink from the trench, and I can't say much in praise of the table manners on such occasions." Pity the reader devoid the classics, they'll miss so much fun: "Odysseus had been in a fight with a giant one-eyed Cyclops, said some; no, it was only a one-eyed tavern keeper, said another, and the fight was over non-payment of the bill."

The story of the twelve--thirteen, actually, according to Atwood--hanged slavegirls, along with Penelope's satisfaction hearing that Helen looked old during a visit by Telemachus to Meneleus' court, shows the fun a writer can enjoy when imagination runs freely through classic texts, plots, and characters.

Artemio Rodriguez. American Dream.

I have just received a beautiful collection of Artemio Rodriguez' linocuts, assembled in a volume the artist calls American Dream. Rodriguez' work has appeared in Dagoberto Gilb's collection of stories, Woodcuts of Women, as well as several other volumes. An emerging master in the tradition of Jose Guadlupe Posada, Rodriguez' work is beautiful and so completely affordable that it makes a notably memorable gift for exceptional recipients--I gave my daughter Rodriguez' La Gran Boda as her wedding gift, for example.

What busy, busy months winter brought. I'm so glad it's Spring. Let's get ready for the cruellest month by celebrating "Give a Friend a Book Month." Hopefully you've heard about that giveaway month. If so, please post details at La Bloga--who's getting what!

Uau, that's it for another week. Already past middle March. Pues, hasta entonces, hay les wachamos,

No comments: