Friday, December 3

Pat Barker’s Trojan Women: Grim and Impressive | Pat barker


TRoy has fallen. Their warriors, even their unborn baby boys, are all dead. The mutilated body of the king of the sacked city, Priam, has been dumped in the dunes of the Greek camp, reeking and covered everywhere, as Pat Barker’s narrator hideously points out, with “flies, thousands of them … like one black bristle fluff ”.

Now someone has tried to bury Priam. The Greek Pyrrhus, who beat him to death at the foot of an altar, is disgusted. He wonders who could have attempted this act of respect. It must have been a Trojan. But which? Alcimus, Pirro’s deputy chief, notes that “there are only two Trojans in the camp.” Think of Calchas, the priest, and Heleno, the Trojan prince who, under torture, revealed the information that allowed the Greeks to enter the city. But Alcimus is wildly and blindly wrong. There are many other Trojans in the Greek camp, hundreds of them. These other Trojans, however, are of no consequence. For Pyrrhus and Alcimus they are doubly invisible because they are slaves and because they are women.

Posted in 2018, Pat Barker’s The silence of the girls It was a rewrite of the plot of the Iliad from the point of view of a captive queen, Briseis, upon whose possession Agamemnon and Achilles fell. It was not an easy task that Barker had set himself. Achilles, terrifying, charismatic and doomed to an early death, is hard to put aside. Through Briseida’s clear eyes, the Greek base, populated by male combatants and female captives, was revealed to be a “rape field.” But, as Briseida herself comments, “a song is not new simply because a woman’s voice is singing it.” The story stubbornly remained mostly about men. In this sequel, however, Barker has broken free from the masculinist epic tradition. Briseida is still the narrator, but Barker has left the Iliad behind, with his insistence on the glory and pathos of war. The women of Troy is mainly based on a very different source: the tragedy of Euripides Trojan women. This is a story not of conflict but of its aftermath.

It’s awful. The words “dirty” and “stained” are repeated. Even the sea is disgusting, yellowish gray and full of dead things. War is dirty, ugly, and smelly, and Barker never lets us forget it. Men may go out in the morning greased and glorious like Phoebus Apollo with his gleaming chariots, but at nightfall “ash-gray men riding dirty horses emerge from the clouds of dust.”

Pyrrhus in a hand-painted engraving.
“According to Barker, he is a nervous 16-year-old sociopath.” Pyrrhus in a hand-painted engraving. Photograph: North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy

Barker has been examining human remains from the war for decades. In Regeneration, set in a psychiatric ward during World War I, observed the psychological damage caused. In Life class she wrote about the gruesome facial wounds that marked former military personnel. Although in this new novel he is primarily concerned with the women of the losing side, he is also aware of the legacy that the victors pass on to their children. Pyrrhus is the son of the great Achilles. He is best known to English-speaking readers from Hamlet’s speech to the Player King, in which Pyrrhus is a hulking ogre described as “hideous” and “hellish”, bulging from the “coagulated blood” of sacrificed innocents, with eyes like carbuncle. By Barker’s account, he is a much smaller and ridiculous figure, a nervous 16-year-old sociopath whose gross cruelties are driven by the knowledge that he can never live up to his father’s reputation. Inside the wooden horse, Pyrrhus is horrified to feel his insides loosen. “Oh my gosh, he needs shit.”

Several writers have revisited Troy in recent years. Madeline Miller spoke of the love between Achilles and Patroclus; Natalie Haynes wrote about mortal women but also about female gods. In Barker’s account there is no romance, only more or less bearable connections between a slave and her owner, and there is no divinity. When the characters talk about how Greek warriors, raping the Trojan woman on altars, have desecrated the temples of Troy, Barker’s Briseis thinks, “Fuck the temples. What about women? This is the Trojan War, not only demystified, but stripped of all vestige of the heroic or numinous.

Barker’s language in this new book is simple, crude, and modern. Occasionally it turns into baths, as when Briseida comments that the teenage slaves in the Pyrrhus compound “had gathered as a group”, as if they were reporting on the morale of a netball team. However, mainly its rawness generates energy. On Pallas Athena: “Guardian of the cities? Is that a joke? Let’s hope she’s not protecting this city. “On Briseida’s wedding to Alcimus:” a semen-stained sheet wrapped around my shoulders, breadcrumbs in my hair, discomfort, the smell of sex. “About Helen, and the necklace of bruises Menelaus had given her: “He strangled her while he was fucking her. As he would do it.”

This blunt and brutal kind of language fits in with the intention, shared by Barker and his spokesperson, Briseida, to speak truths about violence and slavery without the loveliness of costume theater or the soothing veneer of a high literary style. Briseis only cries once, not in a moment of exalted drama or noble grief, but when she comes across the never-finished lunch of a dead Trojan: “the teeth marks of an unknown man on a slab of stinky aged cheese.” Only by realizing the natural world does he approach a kind of raw poetry. “The sun comes out, small, hard and cold as a stone.”

The plot revolves around the final cremation and not burying King Priam. The person who tried to bury him in the sand is a character invented by Barker, a Trojan woman, religious in a way that Briseis is not, who courts martyrdom. It is discovered that Pirro has offended the laws of hospitality and receives a kind of deserved. Calchas, the priest, whose point of view we sometimes share, loses his privileged position as reverence for the gods is undone along with military discipline. A slave is pregnant and her baby boy must be in hiding. Helen, in a surprising and effective change from legend, is reinvented as an artist, with the necessary ice chip at her heart, living solely in and for her upholstery work. The main narrative thrust, however, is towards the fated end, when the wind turns and the Trojan women leave, loaded along with the “other cattle” on their owners’ ships.

These novels began as a fictional treatment of genocidal rape. Barker wrote aware of the tens of thousands of women raped during the Bosnian conflict. For them, as for the women of Troy, the assault was not only on their bodies but on their nation. Their babies would be the children of their enemies. Briseida comments that the Greeks “intend to erase an entire people.” In this second volume, as Barker takes us further into the feminine world of the Greek countryside, the topic of sexual assault takes second place after that of slavery. Briseida remembers lying with her legs spread under Achilles, just a few days after seeing him kill her brothers, and she thought this was the worst: the bottom of the well. Now, she says, she knows there is much, much worse. She is a trophy woman. She has courage. Compared to old ladies who are not accepted by slave traders, those who dig around campfires to cook in competition with wild dogs, you are lucky. But when a person becomes a commodity, he runs the risk of becoming as close to nothing as a chewed bone.

Told clearly and simply, with no obscurities of vocabulary or allusions, this novel is sometimes read like a children’s retelling of the Trojan legend, but its conclusions are for adults: ruthless, devoid of consoling beauty, breathtakingly bleak.


www.theguardian.com

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