Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

Book Description from Amazon:
Margaret Atwood returns with a shrewd, funny, and insightful retelling of the myth of Odysseus from the point of view of Penelope. Describing her own remarkable vision, the author writes in the foreword, “I’ve chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids. 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.” One of the high points of literary fiction in 2005, this critically acclaimed story found a vast audience and is finally available in paperback.

To be honest, I can't say I ever really cared about the hanged maids, I was always much more interested in the tale of faithful, waiting Penelope and how she kept the suitors waiting, and wily Odysseus returning and dispatching them readily after disguising himself as a begger, sizing up the territory.

This is a witty satire and I liked it. A short book, part of the "Myths" series, it's really a novella that can be read in a few hours at most. I really like Atwood's Penelope and her take on things which is all reminiscences of her past after she has been long dead and is "living" in the afterworld. Her take on Helen is just as I'd expect and it's funny - I couldn't help thinking of self absorbed, vain Helen of Troy as some sort of Paris Hilton nowadays. She was pretty funny with her snide comments and put downs of Penelope. I don't blame Penelope for hating her and blaming her for ruining her life. (I would too!)

I also enjoyed the way the many tales and exploits of Odysseus trying to find his way home after the Trojan War (as in The Odyssey) were simplified and explained. Were the tales of Odysseus true or just exaggerations of what really happened? Were the Sirens that called to his men truly irresistible or just 'a high-class Sicilian knocking shop--the courtesans there were known for their musical talents and their fancy feathered outfits?'

Atwood concentrated a large part of the end of the book on the doomed maids who trail after Odysseus in the afterlife forever blaming him for killing them unjustly. Atwood would like us to believe that Penelope told them to act rudely and bed the suitors and act as if they were betraying her so that they could learn the Suitors secrets and report back to her. By not telling anyone of her plan, Odysseus killed them in cold blood not realizing that they had been obeying Penelope's orders all along. A plausible reason for them to resent Odysseus forever, but frankly, why blame Odysseus? I'd blame Penelope! She was the one that got them into the mess and they were obeying her, not Odysseus! If they want to dog someone for eternity, make it Penelope who should have told someone that they were in cahoots with her. Still, the whole misfortune of the maids is one that doesn't bother me in any event - it's just a myth - right?

I recommend this book, especially if you're a fan of Homer, it made me laugh in parts, and it's a pleasant diversion and a quick read. Read it (if you can get your hands on it.)


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