What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.
Over the past 24 hours I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions. Both are short, sharp reworkings of ancient literature that grapple with the violence of war and the subjugation of women. Both are also on sale in the U.S. Kindle store at the moment, and come highly recommended.
The Penelopiad is more obviously contemporary and ironic, somewhat in the same vein as Atwood’s very short story “Gertrude Talks Back.” It’s quite a lot of fun, especially the glamorous, catty Helen of Troy, and I appreciate the ways Atwood tweaks myth to give Penelope greater agency. At times the playfulness cuts against dramatic effect. Envisioning the slain maids as a collective that communicates principally through burlesques makes it harder to highlight the horror of their execution. Acknowledging that Penelope, though vulnerable as a woman in a patriarchal society, is in a position of privilege compared to her maids presents an opportunity to deepen the narrative, but I’m not sure the novella does all that it might with the resulting tension.
Until the Lions, a poem cycle set at the margins of the Mahabharata, uses modern forms but doesn’t shy away from the strangeness and ferocity of its setting. I’ll confess that I knew very little about the Mahabharata or ancient Hinduism before reading. There’s a dramatis personae at the front of the book, but I still spent a fair bit of time filling in some gaps. Working in a variety of different styles and voices, Nair focuses on the cyclic, self-sustaining nature of hate and the awful power of violence. Like Atwood, she grants women more centrality and agency than in the source material, but the emphasis on suffering is greater, almost unrelenting. Whether it’s highly-structured work, prose poetry, or free verse, there’s a rawness to the language that captures the constant pain of living with unimaginable loss. Until the Lions is, despite or because of its ancient milieu, one of the most powerful anti-war statements I’ve ever read. I’ll pay it one of the highest compliments I can give a book: right now, some six hours after finishing it, I already wish I could read it again for the first time.