The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Pat Barker is famous for her brutal depictions of the realities of war, n essence making her books anti-war narratives. In the past, she has written about the First World War (the Regneneration trilogy), but on this occasion she turns her hand to the Trojan War, that ten year stand-off between the allied Greeks and the probably Asia Minor city of Troy (and its allies). It is essentially a retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of the women. So that we no longer only hear the deafening silence of the female perspective.

I beg your pardon, the title is ‘girls’, not women, and this is probably deliberate. Many of the protagonists are very young, but all of them, even the older ones, the noble ones, the wives of great rulers, are little more than objects to be used, cast aside, bartered over, plundered – a bone that dogs fight over. ‘Girl’ is used pejoratively by their captors, it diminishes them.

The events Barker recounts stick pretty close to the Iliad and traditional Greek mythology. The main protagonist is a lesser-known secondary character, however, which means that we have little knowledge or preconceptions about her and her role in the war. She is Briseis, wife of Mynes, king of one of the lesser Trojan city states, Lyrnessus. Her husband and brothers are slaughtered and she is given to Achilles as a prize after he conquers her city. The author has some leeway with where she takes her character, because by and large her fate is unknown.
She disappears from the story after the arrival of Achilles’ son to fight in the final days of Troy, which is precisely when the author tells us that her ‘own story’ finally starts.

At first I thought: ‘What a novel concept! How refreshing to hear about the futility and tragedies of war from women, and to have these heroes like Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon discussed with refreshing candour of a woman forced to have sex with them. Very much like prostitues might discuss their clients’ foibles with disdain.’ These women are victims, but they take revenge too on these powerful men, albeit with the weapons of the weak, i.e. gossip.

But as I read on, two things struck me. First of all, the concept is not all that novel. It has all been done before, above all in the tragedy by Euripides Trojan Women – the final chapters about the fall of Troy and the fates of Andromache and Polyxena directly reference that work.

Secondly, I became somewhat annoyed by the Stockholm syndrome that Briseis seems to display towards her captor. While I appreciate that the author is trying to convey the complexity and charisma of Achilles as a character, show that he was not all bad (although stupidly stubborn and brutal), Briseis’ ambiguous feelings towards him did jar. (It worked better in her relationship with the more gentle and empathetic Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend and possibly his lover.)

Typical representation of Achilles, here in a painting by Franz von Matsch.

Where this book does excel is in the sharp-tongued, zingy cutting down to size of abstract concepts such as heroism and glory, friendship and love. So perhaps it felt wrong to me that Achilles is still too heroic and larger than life in this story. The change of voice from first person Briseis’ account to something approaching the omniscient third person didn’t quite sound right to me either.

But here are some of the quotes which did strike me:

Nothing happened. Well, of course nothing happened. Isn’t nothing what generally happens when you pray to the gods? (and yet plague like symptoms decimate the Greek camp very soon)

Yes the death of young men in battle is a tragedy. I’d lost four brothers, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. A tragedy worthy of any number of laments – but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave (and see her child slaughtered), and I thought: We need a new song.

Finally, let me end with this quote about Agamemnon, who duly sacrifices Polyxena (Priam’s daughter) to ensure a safe journey home for the Greeks.

Though on second thoughts I doubt if Polyxena’s death affected him much. This was a man who’d sacrificed his own daughter to get a fair wind for Troy. I looked at him as he turned and walked away and I saw a man who’d learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, a coward without dignity or honour or respect.

Collective Artistes performing Trojan Women, directed by
Femi Osofisan

This reminds me of the puzzled hatred I’ve felt since I was a child for Agamemnon, Oedipus, Jason and so many other so-called Ancient Greek heroes, and the poor women who have to suffer their crassness, obstinacy and stupidity but end up getting the bad rap. Surprisingly, there is a lot of reading between the lines that you can do with all these ancient tragedies, which makes me think the Greeks were very subtle and good at psychology, or else that women were involved in the writing too somehow. Anyway, here is an earlier poem I wrote about that.

Most Obscure on My Shelves – Non-Fiction

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I have always found more comfort in fiction and poetry than in self-help books or true stories. Most of the non-fiction books I own are professional books used during university or business days. If I ever do have a craving for a biography or a memoir, I borrow it from a library. However, since I started book blogging, I have made more of a conscious effort to read at least the occasional non-fiction book. Some of them have been so enlightening and have completely changed my way of thinking about the world.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Smile or Die (published in US under the title of Bright-Sided)

A lucid analysis and full-frontal attack on the reductionist thinking that has taken over not just the US but most of the Western world in recent years. Ehrenreich looks at the myth of ‘thinking yourself well’ when you have cancer, the Puritan work ethic which has led to the American dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps if only you want it badly enough, the ‘attraction’ philosophy of books like The Secret and so on. As someone who has both given and received coaching, I have seen first hand the real power of placebo (which is what positive thinking is to a certain extent), but also the ways in which it can be misinterpreted and lead to a downward spiral when the world refuses to live up to your personal hopes and values. Or how it can be used to justify someone’s unfortunate circumstances (‘he brought his misfortune upon himself, she can’t see the silver lining’).

Above all, this book (published in 2009) shows that critical thinking and reasoned debate have been demoted in the media, which has led to the vicious popularist rhetoric and partisanship which we all deplore at present.

James Davidson: Courtesans and Fishcakes

First of all: how can anyone resist this intriguing title? It’s about the culture of consumption of Ancient Athens: food, drink, sex, gambling and political manoeuvring. It makes the ancient world really come to life and it’s the book I always recommend to people who want an ‘anthropological study’ of Classical Greece. It’s a book about gossip, written in an accessible style, but based on careful research. It also shows what remarkably advanced thinkers those Athenians really were (despite some inevitable shortcomings regarding gender and slavery). We could learn something from them today.

This view of wealth as something changeable and fragile and rather separate from the men who owned it and this view of consumption as a warning of an individual’s dangerous appetites rather than as a sign of elite membership… is clearly related to Athens’ peculiar democratic system with its horror of internal division, its symbolic appropriations, its suspicion of riches, its weakened sense of family or clan identity… In Athens politics effectively was society.

Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

I’ve written about this before and I’ve said it before: this is the book I am most jealous of as an anthropologist, the book I wish I had written. It gives voice to the residents of Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai Airport, and it is written in language so vivid, with so much empathy, that it feels like fiction. It does not reduce people to numbers and facts, but neither does it romanticise their virtues and dreams. It is a story of those left behind by India’s economic boom, the exploitation of the weak by those slightly less weak. Much has been made of Boo’s status as an outsider (although she lived with the people she describes for three years), but this seems like a very fair, powerful and morally thoughtful book. Perhaps my favourite non-fiction book of the last decade or more.