In The Iliad, a poem about the terrible destruction caused by male aggression, the bodies and pretty faces of women are the objects through which men struggle with each other for status. The women are not entirely silent, and goddesses always have plenty to say, but mortal women speak primarily to lament. They grieve for their dead sons, dead fathers, dead husbands and dead protectors; for the city of Troy, soon to fall, and for their own freedom, taken by the victors of war. Andromache pleads with her Trojan husband Hector not to leave her and their infant son to go back to fight Achilles. She has already endured the sack of her home city by Achilles, and seen the slaughter of her father and seven brothers, and the enslavement of her mother. If Hector dies, their child will be hurled from the city walls, Troy will fall and Andromache will be made the concubine of the son of her husband’s killer. Hector knows this, but he insists that his own need to avoid social humiliation as a battle-shirker trumps it all: “I would be ashamed before the Trojan men and women,” he says. He hopes only to be dead before he has to hear her screams.
Pat Barker’s brilliant new novelistic retelling of The Iliad puts the experience of women like Andromache at the heart of the story: the women who survive in slavery when men destroy their cities and kill their fathers, brothers and children. The central character is Briseis, the woman awarded to Achilles, the greatest Greek fighter, after his army sacks one of the towns neighbouring Troy. Agamemnon, the most powerful, although not the bravest, of the Greek warriors – a character whose downright nastiness comes across beautifully in Barker’s telling – has lost his own most recent female acquisition and seizes Briseis from Achilles. Achilles’ vengeful rage against Agamemnon and his own comrades, and the subsequent vast death toll of the Greeks and Trojans, is the central theme of The Iliad.
Homer’s poem ends by foreshadowing the fall of Troy in the death of its greatest fighter, Hector. Barker’s novel begins with the fall of another town: Lyrnessus, Briseis’ home, destroyed by Achilles and his men. We then see that the fall of a city is the end of a story only for the male warriors: some leave triumphant and others lie there dead. For the women, it is the start of new horrors.
Barker keeps the main bones of the Homeric poem in place, supplementing Homer at the end of the story with Euripides. His heartbreaking play The Trojan Women is, like Barker’s novel, a version of the story that shifts our attention from the angry, des-tructive, quick-footed, short-lived boys to the raped, enslaved, widowed women, who watch their city burn and, if they are lucky, get a moment to bury their slaughtered children and grandchildren before they are taken far away. One of Barker’s most tear-jerking sequences is lifted straight from Euripides: the teenage daughter of Priam and Hecuba is gagged and killed as a “sacrifice” on the dead Achilles’ tomb, and then Hecuba is presented with the tiny corpse of her dead grandson, a toddler with his skull cracked open. The girl’s gagged mouth and the child’s gaping brains conjure a gruesome twinned image for the silenced voices that should tell of the horror and pity suffered by the victims of war.
For most of Barker’s novel, Briseis is the first-person narrator, but in the final part, the narrative is intercut with third-person chapters told from the point of view of Achilles. We never get as close to Achilles as we do to Briseis, but he is a compelling figure in his fascinating combination of brutality and civility. Like Siegfried Sassoon in Barker’s 1991 novel Regeneration, this Achilles has the soul of a poet as well as of a killer and hunter: he is a man whose physical courage and compulsion to fight sit uneasily with his clear, articulate awareness of the futility of war.
But Achilles, however fascinating he may be, is not at the centre of this story. The novel provides a moving, thought-provoking version of what is perhaps the most famous moment of The Iliad: when the old king Priam makes his way, alone and unarmed, through the enemy camp, to plead with Achilles to give back the mutilated body of his son, Hector. Barker twice quotes Priam’s Homeric words to Achilles: “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” Barker lets us feel the pathos and pity of this moment, as well as the pathos of all the many young men who die violent deaths far from home. We glimpse, too, Achilles’ alienation from his own “terrible, man-killing hands”, which have caused so many deaths. Briseis has a powerful riposte to Priam’s words, weighing this unique encounter between men against the myriad unremembered horrors suffered by women in war. “I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”
Barker’s novel has a very clear feminist message about the struggle for women to extricate themselves from male-dominated narratives. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have felt preachy. The attempt to provide Briseis with a happy ending is thin, and sometimes the female characters’ legitimate outrage seems a bit predictable, as when we hear Helen thinking: “I’m here. Me. A person, not just an object to be looked at and fought over.”
The novel has some anachronisms, such as a “weekend market” (there were no weekends in antiquity), and a reference to “half a crown”, as if we were in the same period as Barker’s first world war novels. One wonders if any woman in archaic Greece, even a former queen, would have quite the self-assurance of Barker’s Briseis. But, of course, there is no way to be sure: no words from women in this period survive but Barker is surely right to paint them as thoughtful, diverse, rounded human beings, whose humanity hardly ever dawns on their captors, owners and husbands. This central historical insight feels entirely truthful.
Barker has a quasi-Homeric gift for similes: “that shining moment, when the din of battle fades and your body’s a rod connecting earth and sky”, or Achilles’ friend Patroclus dying, “thrashing like a fish in a pool that’s drying out”. There is a Homeric simplicity and drive in some of the sentences: “Blood, shit and brains – and there he is, the son of Peleus, half beast, half god, driving on to glory.” She is Homeric, too, in her attentiveness to what happens between people, and to the details of the physical world: the food, the wine, the clothes, the noise and the feel of skin, blood, bones, crackling wounds and screams. Barker, like Homer, understands grief and loss, and sees how alone people can be even when they are crying together. Loneliness in community is one of the major themes of this book, as it is of The Iliad. The gods remain mostly off stage but they are present in the background, magically restoring the mutilated dead body of Hector. The sea goddess Thetis, Achilles’ mother, is a briny, frightening presence, as are the dark shore and the waves by which the whole horrible story takes place.
This is an important, powerful, memorable book that invites us to look differently not only at The Iliad but at our own ways of telling stories about the past and the present, and at how anger and hatred play out in our societies. “The defeated go down in history and disappear, and their stories die with them.” Barker’s novel is an invitation to tell those forgotten stories, and to listen for voices silenced by history and power.
• Emily Wilson translated The Odyssey (Norton) and The Trojan Women and other plays by Euripides for The Greek Plays (Modern Library). The Silence of the Girls is published by Hamish Hamilton. To order a copy for £13.99 (RRP £18.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian