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The Murderess , by Alexandros Papadiamantis

The Murderess - Alexandros Papadiamantis, Peter Levi

When I learned that C.P. Cavafy and Odysseus Elytis both admired the prose of Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911), I knew I had to read some of his work. Advised that his shorter pieces are much better than his novels, I read the collection Tales From a Greek Island and then the novella The Murderess, held to be his best work.  


In light of Elytis' leftist leanings, I was more than a little surprised to find that Papadiamantis was a religious reactionary, who objected to the emancipation of women and bewailed democracy and other European habits as unsuitable for the Greeks. In one of his stories he appears to regret that Greek women no longer wore veils, which they had been obliged to do under the Ottoman occupation. Nonetheless, he was no misogynist; he was well aware of the complete lack of freedom of women in 19th century Greece, and he portrayed this fact in many of his stories with complete sympathy for the women, who quite often are the main characters.(*) And he was no elitist - his stories are generally set in the lowest economic strata.


Since he was so conservative, it was not surprising to find that he wrote much of his work in the antiquarian katharevousa Greek, which harkens back to the Greek spoken in Athens in the 4th century BCE, though apparently he leavened it with his own idiosyncratic diction. In his dialogues, however, he used contemporary colloquial speech, even dialect when appropriate. The translator, Elizabeth Constantinides, of Tales From a Greek Island assures us that his diction is completely unique and that a page of his prose can be immediately identified. Unfortunately, there is nothing linguistically notable about her translations, just a very few half-hearted gestures towards slang in some of the dialogue. Nonetheless, something else does come through - a combination of  empathy, watchfulness, and relaxed patience - which I have not encountered before.


The short stories in Tales are set on the island of Skiathos, where Papadiamantis was born and raised, and with empathetic, if sometimes sardonic humor provide a rather grim picture of 19th century Greek island life. Though Papadiamantis never married, nearly all of these stories revolve around marriage, one way or another.(**) If not about marriage in the offing - the dream of a marriage - or about a marriage being lived, then about the onerous dowries families needed to pay to marry off their daughters(***) and the extremes to which this custom forced them to go, such as marrying their daughters to extremely unsuitable men in order to reduce the dowry, or waiting 20 years for a son to return from America with enough money to allow his younger sister to marry. Just two of many. 


Inevitable consequences of this custom are the regret and resentment parents experienced when a daughter was born. Needless to say, in some parents this found rather extreme expression - murder; or, if not murder, then murder just barely averted, stayed in the last moment, as evidenced in this collection.  


But in The Murderess (1903), one strides directly to multiple murder. With such a title I am hardly spoiling the story if I reveal that a grandmother, a herbalist and healer by trade, again on the isle of Skiathos, reviews her harsh life and the prospects of her daughter and newly born, sickly granddaughter and decides that girls would be better off dead.(****) Remarkably, Papadiamantis is able to make this most unappealing premise into a powerful little book by combining Raskolnikovian self-laceration with a touch of Medean madness in the idyllic setting of an Aegean island and using finely judged flashbacks to fill in background and change the pace and mood. Very nicely done all around. 


I share now Cavafy's and Elytis' admiration for Papadiamantis' work, but it is high time to leave behind the sad and claustrophobic society of 19th century Skiathos. Aποχαιρετιστήριος !


(*) In The Murderess all the main characters are women, while the men are jokes or monsters.


(**) At this time, in this place - a small island where everyone knew everybody's business - marriage was the only possibility for a man and woman to ease their passion. With all of the narrow minded busybodies poring over other people's lives, even the innocent were in trouble...


(***) In one story the parents of the bride signed over to the groom their house and furnishings and paid cash! In another, the family signed over half their property and mortgaged the rest to provide cash.


(****) Her parents solved the dowry problem by marrying her off to a simpleton who was satisfied with a perfectly worthless dowry...