Monday, May 14, 2012

Catch her!... Catch her! She’s done us a murder! - The Murderess, a modern Greek feminist crime novel from 1903

The Murderess, Alexandros Papadiamantis, 1903, translated by Peter Levi, published nowadays by NYRB Classics.  That’s the book I planned to write about – review, even – but why bother.  Other people have done it pretty well.  See Steve Donoghue, where a commenter calls the book a “ten best” novel.  Or see Orthofer at The Complete Review.  His summary is “B+: Stark.”  I call that an accurate summary.

I have no good answer to the “why bother” question.

Old Hadoula, “scarcely sixty,” “with a masculine air,” is a no-so-kindly granny who lives on an Aegean island just off the east coast of Greece.  As a result of the oppression of women, particularly the terrible burden of selling off daughters in marriage, she becomes a psychopathic serial killer.  Honestly, a lot of horrible things happen in this novel.  It is only about 120 pages, so the horrible thing per page ratio is quite high.

It was a sweet May dawn.  The blue and rose clarity of heaven shed a golden colouring on plants and bushes.  The twitter of nightingales could be heard in the woods, and the innumerable small birds uttered their indescribable concert, passionately, insatiably.

When [Hadoula] had got some way, she heard a harsh scream behind her.  It was the old grandmother; out of her mind, tearing her hair, she had run out of the cabin and shouted:

‘Catch her!... Catch her!  She’s done us a murder!’  (114)

Yes, the title of the novel provides some warning to the faint-hearted.  Still, I was not expecting to find a hard-boiled feminist crime novel.  This passage catches two of the three modes of the novel (sweetly descriptive, chillingly brutal), omitting only all of the time we spend in Hadoula’s head as she keeps herself alive and justifies every crime, minor and major.*

To rub in the irony, the killer granny is also a healer, a collector of medicinal herbs and maker of poultices, but also a con artist, perfectly aware that most of what she sells is worthless.  When the novel begins, she is already pretty bad, but it is still pleasingly shocking to see her crack and shatter.  Or perhaps an ethical reader should not find the novel so pleasing.

Skiathos, the island, sounds like a nice place to spend a week.   Hadoula spends about half of the novel on the lam, hiding out in the island wilderness.  Papadiamantis grew up on Skiathos, so much of the novel’s terrain, the caves and cliffs and hideouts, is likely described accurately.  I am imagining tourists carrying the novel up the mountain, retracing Hadoula’s steps.  Perhaps there is a tour.

* See the review at Mookse & Gripes for a fine example: "So are all those scourges that seem so ugly, that mow down ungrown infants, the smallpox and scarlet fever and diphtheria and the rest of the diseases, are they not really happiness?"


  1. Nothing much to say about the novel - I haven't read it but will certainly add it to the list (I'm reminded of a passage I can't find now from Paddy Fermor's Mani that has to do with killings and the related ritualistic aspects of Greek women pulling out their hair) - but how about Greek literature for your next challenge? The Greeks could use a little attention these days.

  2. This novel is easily worth filling out the inter-library loan form (that's how I got it). For many people it might well be worth reading just for the unusual setting, but it surpasses that reason in a couple of directions, the feminist one that I mentioned but also another I did not, a blend of some kind of pagan Christianity that may well have some relation to what Fermor writes about.

    Modern Greek literature seems to barely exist in English in prose, with the exception of Kazantzakis. For some reason the poets get the attention; thus, the 500 different translations of Cavafy.

  3. The poets are tremendous. But there are quite a few novelists available (albeit in limited selections) in English: Margarita Karapanou, Vassiiis Vassilikos, Pavlos Matesis are three I've either read of have on my wish list. There must be many others. No?

  4. I have no idea if there are others. Those writers you mention - I had not heard of any of them - are contemporary! A couple of them even seem to be alive!

    1. Tom - my bad. I completely forgot for a moment which site I was visiting.

      BTW, just picked up The Murderess, which looks like it may benefit from being accompanied by copious amounts of tsipouro.

  5. I have a book of short stories by Papadiamantis, called Tales From A Greek Island, and another general book of Greek short stories, called Modern Greek Short Stories, both of which I must get around to reading.

    Another Greek novelist who is reasonably available is Stratis Myrivilis. I have a few of his novels (even read one of them).

  6. The issue is as much - I need a metaphor - mental space as anything else. Does this next thing I want to do follow from what I have been thinking about, or is it a wild leap? Mostly I try to work on the former, although the occasional wild leap is necessary, too.

    Modern Greek literature would be a wild leap, although a promising one, clearly.

  7. It's a great book,so much in a few pages. I read it last year for my EU book tour
    It's horrible and very feminist at the same time.

    Thanks all for the ideas of Greek novelists.

  8. I wonder why I do not remember your review of this book. Well, I had just gotten back from France. I was probably racing through my RSS reader.

    Horrible and feminist - exactly! It is a combination that surprises.

    And I want to echo Emma - thanks to Scott and obooki for the Greek fiction recommendations. I was completely ignorant.

  9. Well, this one definitely sounds like something I should investigate. Perhaps it has some kind of place in my 'women and detective fiction' seminar.

  10. Rohan, yes, at 120 pages worth a look. Even though it presumably falls under the Naturalism label, it contains so many elements I associate with, I dunno, noirs. What's the movie where Cagney is gunned down on the rooftop? Except all built on extreme social injustice for women.

  11. The only publisher here in Greece who also publishes their books in English is Kedros:

    There are many good books, but I would definitely recommend Drifting Cities, a trilogy (in one volume in English) which has often been compared to The Alexandria Quartet

  12. Thomas, thanks, that is fascinating. HEROES' SHRINE FOR SALE OR THE ELEGANT TOILET is an indisputably great title.