We have just recently launched our reading theme on crime and thriller, mysteries and puzzles in literature. While I have read this novel a few months back for Litsy’s #ReadAroundTheWorld Challenge (not to mention our very own Literary Voyage Around the World Reading Challenge), I deliberately saved my reflections about it until now.
Written by: Akexandros Papadiamantis Translated by: Peter Levi
Published by: NYRB Classics (2010, first published 1903). Original Title: Η φόνισσα
ISBN: 1590173503 (ISBN13: 9781590173503). Book was borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
THIS, I believe, is the first classic fiction novel that i have read from greece, not counting the greek mythology that i am familiar with. I did not really know what to expect as I started reading the book, but there was a distinct sense of place with the evocative descriptions as could be found in the first few pages:
They had driven her from the crest of Saint Thanasi down to the plateau of Prophet Elias, with its enormous plane trees and abundant springs, and from there to Merovili on the mountainside, through brushwood and mountain thickets. She tried to hide herself in the deep thicket, but they were not fooled. The rustle of leaves and branches, and her own trembling which made the bushes and the briars shake, betrayed her.
I suppose it is also fitting that the end of the novel ran through a similar vein, with the protagonist, the Murderess herself, Hadoula, or Frankissa, or Frankojannou being chased in a mountainous area, as she flees for her life.
The entire novel is written from Hadoula’s perspective and from the onset, there is the underlying current of self-loathing with the fact that she is born female, the plight of girl-children in general, the burden they place on their families with the dowry that need to be arranged just to get a fairly decent man to marry them.
The setting is in a small, rural town in Skiathos, possibly in the late 1800s, where life is simple and the days virtually interchangeable. When the story begins, Hadoula is described to be a grandmother, taking care of her sick granddaughter. As she stays up late into the night, exhausted, she begins to recall her own miserable childhood, her miserable mother who hid money from the family, and her miserable daughters – a few of them unmarried.
Girls have seven lives, the old woman reflected. Not much makes them ill and they seldom die. Should we as good Christians not help in the work of the angels?…
The only ones with seven lives are the girl children of the lowest Class! They seem to have been multiplied on purpose, to punish their parents with a foretaste of hell in this world. Ah, the more one works things out, the more one’s brain goes up like smoke
Her sons, whom she hoped would somehow ease the family’s financial burden somewhat, had escaped into the United States never to be heard from again – while another one is a murderous, violent bully of a man who ended up in jail.
There is this gradual build-up of resentment, seething anger, and resignation about the inevitability of a woman’s lot in life. Hence, the reader is not surprised any longer when Grandmother Hadoula finally ended her little granddaughter’s suffering. She is even able to justify what she does as a form of Christian duty.
This is not a novel where the reader is kept guessing about who the criminal or the killer is. It is explicitly articulated in the beginning. But what the reader is privy to is the gradual unraveling of Hadoula’s mind as she, on the one hand, is driven by enormous guilt by the murders she has committed (and are yet to commit), yet on the other hand, she is able to clearly justify her murderous rage towards young girls, whom she feels does not deserve to be born in the first place.
Even education is not perceived to be an indication of social progress, at least during this period. In fact, it may even be seen as somewhat of a nuisance. There is a disconnect with what the school teaches and the set of values the young children were being taught in their homes:
Since the foundation of a girls’ school in the village these little girls had been very much awakened. The lady teacher did not teach them a lot of reading and writing, and still less of handicraft. She only taught them ‘to take confidence’ and not ‘act terrified’ or ‘like mountain girls’, and proclaimed that it was time for them to be ’emancipated’. (p. 65).
As the authorities begin to suspect that Hadoula is involved in the fatal accidents of young girls around wells, Hadoula escapes into the woods – only to be helped by neighbours whom she has also given assistance before in the past, in her capacity as a healer. Hence, she is put in this strange position of being both healer and murderer in one of the homes that provided her refuge. This compulsion within her to kill girl children can not be ignored, she simply has to do it, regardless of the consequences. She was fearless in the act itself, convinced that she is in the right. There also seems to be some perverse satisfaction as she does it, notwithstanding the quiet voice of reason within her that grows fainter and more muted, each time she finds an opportunity to commit the murderous act.
This book has definitely expanded my reading horizons a fair bit. The language is a bit archaic, which is understandable, given the year this was published. It also reminded me a fair bit of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, a satirical essay which I read as a college undergraduate. Swift’s recommendation was for the poor people (mainly the impoverished Irish) to sell off their children as food for the wealthy. While The Murderess did not really have that sense of satire, there is a sardonic, matter-of-fact acceptance at the twists of events in the novel that made Hadoula even more reprehensible as the story progresses.
Reading this classic novel gave me an insight into the kind of literary authors celebrated in Greece, which fearlessly tackles femicide, the perception of womanity, and the small-minded, parochial mentality that sees killing off girls by another woman as a form of community service. This is a disturbing, slim novel that raises a lot of questions at a time, perhaps, when feminism is only just about to be born.
#LitWorld2018GB Update: 41 of target 40: Greece