My book group’s last read was Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic. We like to follow some thread from one book to the next; we got to Mary Stewart from Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn by way of romantic suspense, and decided to make Greek islands our next connection. The obvious choice would have been Zorba the Greek (and I wouldn’t be at all sorry if we read that next), but we were also looking for something relatively short this time, and so we fixed on Alexandros Papadiamantis’s novella The Murderess. (I blame Tom.)
If the setting of This Rough Magic is, as I proposed, the Greece of tourists, the setting of The Murderess is the Greece of your nightmares. Not that it’s ugly — quite the contrary! The beauties of the scenery are lovingly evoked by Papadiamantis (via his translator, Peter Levi):
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.
But this beauty only makes the harshness of the story more shocking. Though not a mystery novel, The Murderess is definitely a crime story, and this aspect of it reminds me of P. D. James’s comment that setting “enhances the horror of murder, sometimes by contrast between the beauty and outward peace of the scene and the turbulence of human emotions.”
The turbulent emotions in this case are those of Hadoula, known also as Frankojannou, and the plot is what a canny publicist might describe as “Hardy meets Gissing meets Stephen King.” Like Father Time’s in Jude the Obscure — and with a similarly parable-like resonance — Hadoula’s crimes are “Done because we are too menny”; as in Gissing’s The Odd Women, it’s women who are present in excess, their value as individuals weighed as nothing against the burden they represent to the families that must struggle to marry them off and maintain them if this effort unsuccessful. Add in the pressures of the Greek dowry system and a general climate of ignorance and superstition, and you have the ingredients of a real witch’s brew of cynicism and desperation. Thus Hadoula, sleep-deprived from tending to her infant granddaughter, reflects, “The minute girls are born a person thinks of strangling them!’ “Yes,” says our narrator,
she did say it, but she would certainly never have been capable of doing it. Not even Hadoula herself believed that.
After all, Hadoula is a healer, a brewer of ‘medicines,’ someone whose mission is to sustain life, not destroy it. But just as Hadoula does not really believe in the remedies she peddles, she is inconsistent about whether the right thing is to nurture or murder little girls:
But I ask you, do there really have to be so many daughters? And if so, is it worth the trouble of bringing them up? ‘Isn’t there,’ asked Frankojannou, ‘isn’t there always death and always a cliff? Better for them to make haste above.
It only makes sense to hasten girls out of life: after all, religion teaches that “grief is joy and death is life and resurrection, that disaster is happiness and disease is health. . . . Would it not really be right,” she plausibly argues,
if only humans were not so blind, to assist the scourge that fluttered in the angels’ wings, instead of trying to pray it away? . . . Ah, the more one works things out, the more one’s brain goes up like smoke.
And sure enough, overcome by the imponderable cruelty of a world in which wanted sons die and unwanted daughters give their parents “a forestaste of hell in this world,” Frankojannou’s brain does “go up in smoke,” and, “out of her mind,” she begins her career as a murderess.
If only she clearly were out of her mind, The Murderess would be a simpler novel and the judgments it brings to bear on its protagonist would be easier to identify and take sides on. The Murderess is not a simple book, though. The murders are shocking, no question, but they make perfect sense, not just in Hadoula’s crazed mind but as a literalization of the many ways in which (according to her own life story and experiences) women are degraded and devalued by the world they live in. Hadoula is wracked by her conscience, tormented by “the lamenting voice of the infant, the tiny girl unjustly slain”; she runs from man’s justice “but prison and Hell were within her.” At the same time, at the next opportunity she finds herself once more with her hand’s at an infant girl’s throat and remembers the context of her cruel acts:
Then the baby daughter began to cry very softly, moaning unbearably. Frankojannou forgot all the remorse she had felt so deeply under the black wings of her dreams. Once again she was torn by the claws of reality, and began to think inside herself,
‘Ach, he’s right, poor Lyringos . . . ‘all little girls, her bad luck, all little girls!’ And what a consolation it would be for him now, and for his unhappy wife, if the Almighty took her straight away! While she’s small, and leaves no great sorrow behind her!’
Is it Hadoula who is really murderous? Or does the blame go to a society that has made such reasoning plausible? Why should she be held accountable for her attempt to short-circuit the tragic cycle these little girls, by their very existence, perpetuate?
But Frankojannou’s own despair at her actions is enough to show us the inhumane flaw in her reasoning — which is in any case more unreasoning intuition than logic, maybe even (as the narrator has said) madness. She seems ultimately, to be running from herself as much as from the “regulars” who pursue her; the voice that haunts her with the cry “Murderess! Murderess!” is as much hers as anyone else’s.
The final sequence of the novel is an extraordinary set piece as we follow her to her death “midway between divine and human justice.” Was she in some sense an agent of justice? Is she herself a victim? Or is she only an unleashed terror, acting on hatred in the guise of mercy? I am caught, myself, in this ambiguity, unsure of my interpretive footing. I expect our discussion next weekend will be a lively one!
You can read more about The Murderess from Steve here and from Tom here. Iagree with Steve about the effectiveness of Levi’s translation: at first I found the book uncomfortable and stilted, but it finds its rhythm, and there are many grimly, hauntingly unforgettable passages. Tom calls it “a hardboiled feminist crime novel.” I think I agree that it is feminist, even though witch-like homicidal Hadoula plays into misogynistic stereotypes: perhaps (as with some women in the original hard-boiled tradition) she upsets those stereotypes even as she inhabits them. Like Tom, I couldn’t resist looking up something about Skiathos: it looks beautiful.
The book just seemed to fit your request so closely.
My understanding is that tourism in Greece is relatively cheap right now, since their economy is such a mess. Tempting.
It’s a fascinating novella, isn’t it?
I agree with the content of your review. I’ve read it in French, so I can’t say anything about the English translation. The descriptions of the landscape are marvellous. You can really picture the Mediterranean countryside, the blue of the sea.
It’s terrible to imagine that society has given birth to a Hadoula. What kind of suffering can bring a healer to choose death over life? What she does is unforgivable of course but like you say, she’s not clinically insane and her twisted logic is painful but implacable.
I’m amazed at how much he managed to wrap into such a slim book.