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The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Hamish Hamilton, 2018, 331 p.

The epigraph quotes a character from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain about the urtext of Western literature. “All of European literature springs from a fight.” And what is the quarrel about? “A woman. A girl really.”

That woman, that girl, is not Helen, proximate cause of the Trojan War as she was. Instead, the object of the fight and so that well-spring of Western letters is Briseis, narrator of this novel (most of it anyway,) torn from the life and comfort she knew as wife to Mynes, king of Lyrnessus, to a reduced existence as slave to Achilles and the unwitting pivot on which the outcome of the Trojan War hinged. This novel is an attempt by Barker to retrieve the memory and experience not just of Briseis, who, after all, like Achilles, Hector, Ajax et al, may be no more than a myth, but of all the women whom myth and history have traditionally made incidental.

The novel is made up of Briseis’s recollections and thoughts with occasional interpolations as if from a reader asking her questions. There are some sections which initially seem like missteps on the author’s part when we shift to a third person focus on Achilles at times when Briseis is not present to observe him but they are there to nudge us in the direction of whose story this really is.

The book starts with Briseis and the women of Lyrnessus waiting for their city to fall to the Greeks, the great war cry of Achilles ringing in their ears. They know what is to come, their men and boys killed, visibly pregnant women speared in the belly on the off-chance they are carrying a son, their futures cut off, any semblance of autonomy erased, taken over as chattels at best and in any case degraded to sexual playthings.

Possibly to bring myth down to Earth Barker occasionally deploys anachronisms. The Greek soldiers sing rugby songs around their tables. When the captured women are paraded before them Briseis hears one of them say, “‘Look at the knockers on that.’” Achilles greets his award of Briseis with the words, “‘Cheers, lads. She’ll do.’” From then her life becomes one of service, and she a thing, not a person; a drudge and object of sexual release. Her only solace is to immerse herself in the sea every evening but she finds the smell of seaweed on her skin and hair arouses Achilles. (His mother was a sea-goddess after all.) There and back, she wanders through the Greek camp in all its rat-infested squalor.

Though Briseis doubts the efficacy of prayers she nevertheless implores Apollo to bring down pestilence on the camp. Whether this is an attempt by Barker to give Briseis some agency is left open but one day a priest of Apollo arrives to plead for the release of his daughter, Chryseis, now Agamemnon’s slave. He refuses. A subsequent outbreak of plague in the camp leads the superstitious sodiers to believe it is Apollo’s revenge for his refusal and Achilles is forced to demand Agamemnon give Chryseis up. He will do so only if Achilles yields Briseis to him. This is the source of their quarrel. An enraged Achilles says to his closest friend Patroclus, “He hasn’t earnt it.” Briseis focuses on that one word: “it. It doesn’t belong to him, he hasn’t earnt it.” Achilles is talking about the honour he’d gained by fighting but she experiences the phrase as being about her. And of course it was. She was the embodiment of that ‘honour’, its symbol, a prize – however unwilling – won for being able to kill people. Achilles cries as she is taken away – but it isn’t for her.

Briseis frequently reflects on the lot of women. “There was a legend – it tells you everything really – that whenever Helen cut a thread in her weaving, a man died on the battlefield. She was responsible for every death.” A slave called Tecmessa relays to Briseis what Ajax said to her when he won’t speak about what’s causing his recurring nightmare, “Silence becomes a woman,” and Briseis tells us, “Every woman I’d ever known was brought up on that saying.” A few days after Achilles kills Hector on the battlefield, the Trojan King, Priam, secretly makes his way into the Greek camp to plead for his son’s body for burial. Kneeling before Achilles he says, “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” Briseis can only think, “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.” She realises though that Trojan songs and stories would survive since their Greek sons would remember what their Trojan mothers had sung to them. (Curiously daughters are not mentioned here, yet they would surely also pass on those tales and songs.)

For this story, however, the pull of myth is too powerful, the legend of Achilles too strong, “make no mistake, this was his story, his anger, his grief, his story…. I was still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.”

As for posterity, “They won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No. They’ll go for something altogether softer.”

This is not a book I’m likely to forget.

Aside: I suppose this is all moot if we’re dealing with myth but I have mentioned before the problems I have with the concept of a ten year long siege of a Bronze Age city. Here they are compounded by the fact that the men go off to fight during the day – seemingly with mayhem occurring, certainly lots of bloodshed (so where do the reinforcements come from?) – leaving a few behind to guard the ships. But the soldiers return to their huts in the evening to eat, to drink, to argue and to do the other things soldiers do. The text does imply the use of sentries but no consideration seems to be given to the possibility of a concerted night attack.

Pedant’s corner:- Time interval/within minutes count: at least ten. Otherwise; Mynes’ (Mynes’s; all names ending in ‘s’ – Patroclus, Achilles, Odysseus, Chryseus, Alcimus, Peleus etc, have their possessives rendered as s’ rather than s’s,) “around out feet” (our feet,) ceasefire (x2. It’s an odd word to describe an agreed temporary interruption to a war in the Bronze Age, carried out in the main by hand-to-hand combat, ‘truce’ would have jarred less.) “The sound rose to a crescendo” (no it didn’t; it rose – crescendoed – to a climax.)

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times Again

And so, back to the beginning of Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times, which started with Judith at Reader in the Wilderness but is now hosted by Katrina at Pining for the West.

These books sit on the very top of that bookcase I featured in the first of these posts, above the shelves that contain all my (read) Scottish books.

Books Once More

They’re here because they fit into the space – at least in the case of the three “What If…” books, What If?, More What If? and What If America? – anthologies of Altered History stories – and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Then there is Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Colin Greenland’s excellent Finding Helen, a Paul Torday, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Marina Lewycka’s A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian, non-SF works by SF writers Brian Aldiss and Norman Spinrad, Robert Standish’s Elephant Walk and three books by Erich Maria Remarque including the incomparable All Quiet on the Western Front.

If I were filing my books thoroughly systematically these would all have to be moved.

Philip Roth

I heard on the radio news this morning that Philip Roth has died.

I must confess I have not read much of his work, apart from the (ahem) seminal Portnoy’s Complaint – which I was moved to sample partly because of the attention it received – and My Life as a Man which covered much the same ground. Anything you ever wanted know about living as a young(ish) male Jew in the USA was here.

I do remember being intrigued by a long ago television programme about him which featured, as I recall, his creation Nathan Zuckerman fantasising about Anne Frank surviving the Holocaust and making a new anonymous life for herself in (I think) the US, which may have been another spur to reading him.

I can’t say I much took to what seemed from the evidence of those two books to be his perennial subject matter but he was obviously an important US novelist of the second half of the twentieth century whether I favoured his work or not and his ability as a writer shone through in any case.

Much later I read his Altered History novel The Plot Against America which I reviewed on this blog here. The impulse behind his decision to write it was admirable – and arguably necessary – but I felt that overall it was an opportunity missed, that the punches the book threw were somewhat pulled.

Sadly that impulse might be even more necessary in today’s political climate than it was when he published it thirteen years ago.

Philip Milton Roth: 19/3/1933 – 22/5/2018. So it goes.

Speculative Fiction Not SF Shocker

They give with one hand and take away with the other….

Also in Saturday’s guardian review was the first part of the Guardian Book Club feature on Robert Harris’s Fatherland, wherein John Mullan says “Speculative fiction” might once have been synonymous with SF but now more strictly refers to an alternative, but plausible, historical scenario.

More strictly? There is a definition of speculative fiction which excludes SF?

This seems to me to be a dismissal of the more explicitly SF altered histories. Is Mullan attempting to distance his preferred examples from what he sees as less worthy; or am I too sensitive?

Nevertheless I had to laugh when Mullan immediately wrote that a modern classic of speculative fiction is Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. That book not only failed as a novel, it failed as an Altered History (for my review see here). Can a story where history is restored swiftly to the “right” path really be considered speculative? Is it not then an author’s ill-thought out musings, onanistic even?

I’ve not read Fatherland but from the description it seems to invest more into its scenario than Roth ever did in his.

In that extent Fatherland is SF, and Roth’s book isn’t.

Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumey

Picador, 2008. 553 p.

In the first part of the novel a shy boy called Robbie Coyle is growing up in a village called Kenzie in 1960s Scotland with the ambition of going into space. Since his father is an ardent socialist and anti-American Robbie therefore wants to be a cosmonaut. A frequent attender at his local library, he devours knowledge about the Soviet Union and discovers that “Russian is a language where some letters are written back to front and others are completely made up.” Quotes such as this display Crumey’s excellent ability to inhabit the world of a pre-adolescent. As he matures he starts to hear a voice in his head. The section ends with that voice saying, “I guess we’re not in Kenzie any more.”

The story then flips into a scenario of a Soviet-style Britain where a young adult Robert Coyle has been recruited into a space project to reach, before the wicked capitalists do so, what is possibly a black hole travelling through the solar system. The secret “Installation” where Robert is in training is suitably grim, the illustrations of the many compromises people have to make in such a society convincing, though whether dissidents could flourish there is another question. Perhaps this exists in the same British Democratic Republic which featured in the author’s Mobius Dick.

This central section could be considered an Altered History novel where the Jonbar Hinge lies in whether or not a man named Deuchar died while trying to rescue twins from drowning many years before the time the action is set. Yet its juxtaposition with the preceding and following parts, set in the “real” world, argues against this. And Crumey’s treatment of his subject matter does not have the feel of SF. The Soviet section can be read to be implicitly a figment of Robbie’s imagination. The subtlety of the point of divergence also marks this out from SF treatments of Altered Worlds. While Crumey pushes credibility a little by having characters in the central section behave and speak, or have the same names as, those in the book-end segments he does certainly avoid the trap into which Philip Roth fell in The Plot Against America of restoring the altered world to normal by the end.

The coda, a (present day?) exploration of the situation of Robbie’s ageing parents and a young boy who meets a mysterious stranger on a mission (which he is unwilling to explain) provides counterpoint and a resolution of sorts.

Sputnik Caledonia is excellently written and engaging, with convincing characters, but not quite as full of verve as Mobius Dick. I will look out for more Crumey, though.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Vintage, 2005

The Plot Against America cover

This is Roth’s Altered History, set in a 1940s America where Charles Lindbergh became President – apparently mainly as a result of taking to the air on the campaign trail in the Spirit of St Louis – then forged an understanding with Hitler and so kept the US out of World War 2. Given Roth’s lineage the book unsurprisingly deals with the implications of this outcome for America’s Jews, who are increasingly made to feel alien in their own land. As a result, the Roth trademarks from the other books of his that I have read (Portnoy’s Complaint and My Life As A Man,) viz masturbation, obsessive sexuality and male angst, are muted, if not absent.

The story is rendered more rooted than it might have been otherwise by the fact that our narrator is named Philip Roth. We are hence invited to believe that the family depicted is the author’s own from his youth, reimagined in the changed circumstances. This allows Roth the author, through the medium of Mr Roth the character, to express more forcibly the anger that any citizen must feel in being deprived arbitrarily of the benefits of citizenship.

Coming from a mainstream literary perspective Roth’s handling of this material is distinctive. A Science Fiction author would likely have approached the scenario from a completely different direction. And Roth does that rather annoying mainstream thing of giving us a potted biography of every character who happens to pop up whether we need this information or not. In this case it may be of everyone whom the actual young Roth met in the 1940s. There are also longueurs in the narrative which would be absent in a more plot driven Altered History.

At times, too, so much background is loaded into it that the novel reads more like a history book. Roth presumably believes that his setting is too far removed from the present day to be accessible without it. This approach culminates in the penultimate chapter where the book ceases to be a novel at all and instead descends into a – nevertheless thoroughly readable, Roth’s prose easily encompasses exposition – recitation of events and a farrago of ever wilder conspiracy theories all told by Philip at one remove, rather than experienced by him at first hand. The unlikely heroine of the piece (and this is not really a spoiler as there’s nothing there to spoil) turns out to be Mrs Lindbergh. That the impact of these events is brought home to Philip in the final chapter, through the medium of his fellow-travelling Aunt and some former neighbours, in no way remedies the egregiousness of this colossal info dump. Quite simply this is not the way to write a piece of fiction; high- or lowbrow.

It has to be said that not much in the way of jeopardy ever befalls the Roth family, most of it lies in Mr Roth’s mind. Yes, Mr Roth has to change his job to a poorer one; but there are no outrageous restrictions on civil liberties, no concentration camps – only the intermittent attentions of an inquisitive FBI man and a later series of riots spilling over into pogroms which don’t affect the Roth family directly.

Ultimately the book is really a long discourse on what it means to be American (that is, I feel obliged to say, being a citizen of the US rather than born in the continent in which that country lies) and the inclusiveness that entails. Here is where more of the doubts creep in. Whatever Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic views may have been – and Roth goes some way to exculpate his Lindbergh from them – a fascist takeover in the US would surely have had other, more obvious, targets for dehumanisation. In the end, perhaps because he is unwilling to believe the worst of his fellow countrymen or else as a sop to their sensibilities Roth rather lets the US off the hook. This, I note, is in stark contrast to what the English SF writer Keith Roberts did for the UK in his excellent short story of a Nazi-dominated Britain, Weihnachtsabend.

Is The Plot Against America a commentary on the recent Bush administration? On how easy it is for freedoms to be subverted; how the price of freedom is eternal vigilance? If so, it is rather too diffuse to be effective.

I was so, so disappointed in this book. Its central idea has the potential to be huge but in his tight focus on the family Roth the author renders it far too small. Mainstream literature sometimes prides itself on illustrating the universal by anatomising the particular. In this context choosing as the narrative voice a boy between the ages of 7 and 9 is too limiting. The themes simply cannot be dealt with adequately from the young Philip’s perspective.

Before reading this I would have contended that Altered History in and of itself is always a subset of Science Fiction. The Plot Against America, however, is not SF, since Roth, within his plot, falls too short, even implicitly – never mind explicitly – of contrasting his scenario with what actually happened, and the book is the poorer for it.

But after the novel finishes we are provided with postscripts on the actual lives of historical characters mentioned in the text. Part of the joy of reading Altered History is in recognising figures such as these in their new context; one of the drawbacks is you might miss a few in the passing. Roth’s end notes can only be there to bolster his fiction; to say, “Look at the research I did – or the prodigious memory I have.” Had the novel been written halfway adequately these notes would be superfluous.

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