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?"