AlexandrosPapadiamantis’s The Murderess, translated from the original Greek by Peter Levi, is afolktale, but not a simple one. It is a fairytale without a princess, a tragedywithout a heroine and a morality play without a moral. This is all to say thatthe novella, deemed Papadiamantis’s masterpiece by many, draws upon a range ofgenres, bends to none, and proves complex and beautiful in its own right.
Levi’s translation, originallypublished in 1983, was reissued last month. In his introduction, Levi arguesthat The Murderesscaptures an important crisis of the past in a way that helps us understand ourpresent. The crisis at hand in The Murderess is at once local and universal.It is the story of a damned, damaged family on the Aegean island of Skiathos,where Papadiamantis was born in 1851 and where he set many of his works — the most famous of which were short stories andserialized novels (such as The Gypsy Girl and Merchant of Nations), and which featured tales ofMediterranean adventure, provincial portraits, and legends of religioussignificance.
In The Murderess, Papadiamantis fuses portrait andlegend in his knowledgeable, intricate depiction of Skiathos, a poor place,strict in its adherence to local customs and stagnated by its own traditions.The implied and stated dangers, both tangible and intangible, of thisparticular breed of provincialism give heady subtext to a simple foreground:the story of a struggling family in a struggling community.
At the novella’s beginning, wemeet protagonist Hadoula, who sits hearthside at home keeping watch over hersickly newborn granddaughter. Papadiamantis grants the reader almost immediateaccess to Hadoula’s inner life:
Hadoula, or Frankiss,or Frankojannou, was a woman of scarcely sixty, with a masculine air and twolittle touches of moustache on her lips. In her private thoughts, when shesummed up her entire life, she saw that she had never done anything exceptserve others. When she was a little girl, she had served her parents. When shewas mated, she became a slave to her husband, and at the same time, because ofher strength and his weakness, she was his nurse. When she had children shebecame a slave to her children, and when they had children of their own, shebecame slave to her grandchildren.
On the heels of a thumbnail sketchof his main character, Papadiamantis reveals this dark realization of Hadoula’s — not a sudden realization but one that has plaguedher for some time. She can imagine no escape from her perpetual state ofservitude. And, worse yet, she knows well its cyclical nature. She is Hadoula,daughter of Delcharao; and mother to a second Delcharao; and grandmother to asecond Hadoula, “In case the name should die out,” she scoffs. To Hadoula, there’s noromance in the passing down of family names, only a reminder of the endlesscycle of suffering and want in which she is just a temporary player.
All are poor in Skiathos, but theworst financial burdens fall on families whose women bear girls. At the core ofthe island’s poverty is its longstanding dowry system. Even the poorest offamilies must provide for their daughters in marriage— or continue to provide for them into old age. In Hadoula’s mind thedowry system takes on monstrous dimensions:
… And every family inthe neighborhood, every family in the district, every family in the town hadtwo or three girls. Some had four, some had five. … So all these parents, thesecouples, these widows, faced the absolute necessity, the implacable need, tomarry off all those daughters… And to give them all dowries. Every poor familyand every widowed mother with half an acre of land, with a poor little house,was living in misery, and going out to do extra work. … And what dowries, bycustoms of the island! ‘A house at Kotronia, a vineyard at Ammoudia, an olivegrove at Lehouni…’ Everyone had to give in addition a dowry counted in money. Itmight be two thousand, or a thousand, or five hundred. Otherwise, he could keephis daughters and enjoy them. He could put them on the shelf. He could shutthem up in the cupboard. He could send them to the Museum.
In his translation, in excerptslike the one above, Levi captures Papadiamantis’s dichotomy of tone, a cleverfusion of the orally driven language of fairytale and the darker-edged languageof satire (as in the lines, “He could shut them up in the cupboard. He couldsend them to the Museum.”). We see this playful mix-and-match style throughout thebook, most notably in introducing Hadoula’s personal past:
For a long time[Iannis] had been an apprentice and assistant to [Hadoula’s] father … When theold man noticed the young man’s simplicity, his economy and modesty, herespected him for it and resolved to make him a son-in-law. As a dowry, heoffered him a deserted, tumbledown house in the old Castle, where people usedto live once upon a time, before the ’21 revolution.
But the whimsical quality of thelanguage is in direct and jarring opposition with the sinister advancement ofplot, as Hadoula comes to terms with the idea that the best daughter is a deaddaughter — and as she begins, almostmindlessly, to act on this realization.
The strength of The Murderess lies in its treatment ofcharacters, through skillful employment of tone and voice, as three-dimensionalindividuals rather than folkloric archetypes. We see Hadoula set out to murderthe burdensome, sickly baby girls of Skiathos. But we do not see her as amonster. Because we also see her intentions, we know her repentance; weunderstand her descent into madness. We experience the frightening burden ofher guilt-driven nightmares. And ultimately we feel remorse for Hadoula in herattempt to escape punishment, swimming across a too-rough sea, catching a lastglimpse of the deserted field that was her own dowry.
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