Some time ago, I had read the opening paragraph of this book but I hadn’t bought it. I received it on January second, started reading it in the afternoon and next morning January the third, I had finished it. It is a small book mind you, but it is a beautiful book too, well written and full of wisdom.
As the title suggests it’s the story of Penelope the wife of Odysseus. For anyone who has heard of the Iliad and Odyssey, Odysseus is a mythical hero, a king who went to Troy to fight with his fellow men and then, when the war ended, took ten years of adventures before going back to his wife and home.
This is a well-known story, a myth, Odysseus is a prototype of a hero, a model for men all over the world, what with his wit or shrewdness, his trouble with monsters and gods and goddesses, his renowned affairs with beautiful women.
But what about Penelope? She is also a role model for women, at least that’s what they were telling us at school, “Look at Penelope, for twenty years she was waiting for her husband and didn’t betray him, didn’t sleep with anyone although there were many suitors”. Well, already in the first pages of this book, Penelope has a message for us: “Don’t follow my example”. The rest of the book is an effort to say the story from a different point of view, the view of someone who has been left behind, someone who is alone in a strange place, far away from family or friends.
It’s also the story of some other eminent figures like Beautiful Helen, Helen of Troy, and most importantly it’s the story of the twelve maids of Penelope, who were murdered by Odysseus because they had been disloyal and had slept with the suitors. Now, no matter how much I search my memory I can’t remember this. The “Odyssey” is a standard school text in the second year of junior high school and it was one of my favourite readings. We used to read ahead of the teacher and find the extracts that had more love and sex and we used to send notes to each other reading “go to page 125, verse 12”. But I don’t remember this. Maybe it was out of curriculum and we never read it in class, maybe I wasn’t interested in such an atrocious murder. But the truth is it is a story in the story that calls our attention.
Everything in this book is actually deconstructing the myth as we know it. Odysseus married Penelope because she was a Spartan princess not because he loved her so much. Helen of Troy was a beautiful woman who would do anything to get the attention she wanted, including to go away with the enemy. And on top of that the people who have hurt other people so much never get punished because they are beautiful or witty, while on the other hand the most innocent ones are the ones who suffer most. Isn’t that what always happens?
The book becomes therefore the version of the weak. The version of the domestic ones, the less visible ones, the story of the maids who were brought up to serve and wait for others and then they were executed. It becomes the version of the betrayed wife who pretends not to have heard the stories about her husband, who pretends to believe him, and on top of that has a son who wishes to see her dead. It’s also the story of the plain woman in contrast to the beautiful one. The plain one does the “right” thing but even then people spread rumours about her, nevertheless the beautiful woman is forgiven everything, the murders, the pain, the betrayal. But there is another story too: maybe Penelope wasn’t as faithful and pious as we think her. Maybe she was actually sleeping with some of the suitors. And maybe that’s why she had the maids killed so that they wouldn’t tell on her.
Which story are you going to believe? It is your choice. At the end of the book when both Penelope and Helen are long dead they are having a little discussion in Hades:
“I understand the interpretation of the whole Trojan War episode has changed’ I tell her, to take some of the wind out of her sails. ‘Now they think you were just a myth. It was all about trade routes. That’s what the scholars are saying.’
‘Oh, Penelope, you can’t still be jealous,’ she says. ‘Surely we can be friends now! Why don’t you come along with me to the upper world, next time I go? We could do a trip to Las Vegas. Girls’ night out! But I forgot – that’s not your style. You’d rather play faithful little wifey, what with the weaving and so on. Bad me, I could never do it, I’d die of boredom. But you were always such a homebody.”
I choose Helen hands down (this way the person who keeps googling me with the word “unfaithful” will feel vindicated).