REVIEW: The Murderess By Alexandros Papadiamantis

Editor’s Note: This is the next installment in Wythe Marschall’s novella project. See his thoughts on the project here.

The Murderess
By Alexandros Papadiamantis
Translated by Peter Levi
New York Review of Books Classics, 2010

The Murderess does not look like a novella. Its central character — an old woman named Hadoula — is portrayed realistically; its structure is familiar — short, action-filled chapters; and it has an ending, which falls into place inexorably after several characters’ deaths.

The typical question (“what happened?”) seems either not to apply — too obvious; Hadoula is the titular killer — or to apply multivalently. From the first murder onward, many lines of flight unfold out of many centers of action.

But our character is a stock “lonely old woman.” All she does is wash clothes and complain and pray. Her son-in-law drinks at dawn each day; her sons have taken jobs on ships and will never return to Greece. In her stock-ness, Hadoula serves as an efficient means for the reader to experience the book’s dreamlike action, all of which unfolds from the single putting-into-effect of Hadoula’s ancient, nihilistic, mirror-glass version of Christianity:

Because “nothing is exactly what it seems… grief is joy and death is life and resurrection,” Hadoula kills a young girl, only a few weeks old — her own granddaughter.

This “what happened” leads to the killings of more girls, all young, none suspecting that Hadoula has made a final break with the ethics of her society.

The Murderess is at once difficult and easy to read. Its prose is lyrical and languid: Greece’s tiny islands come alive, and an impoverished, moral sense of community suffuses the lonely seaside cliffs and montane goat-runs where Hadoula wanders and — eventually, as her work is revealed for murder and not a series of grotesque accidents — where she hides. (Where “she carried her wound with her.”)

We all feel Hadoula’s inborn, human pain of self-blame, of looking-in-any-incident-for-a-story, looking-for-a-moral.

(Is this the pain of the novella?)

But The Murderess is hard to read when intellectualized:

As Bad Nature is a meditation on the hunt, set in a wonderfully absurd pocket-world within Mexico City that is created by the alchemical combination of Elvis and his sphere of handlers and his translator’s moral mistranslations; — as No Tomorrow is a meditation on desire, set in a pocket-world created by outright lies and an Epicurean commitment to play, to following an adventure through, enjoying a ramble into the unconscious, by both narrator and reader; —

— so is The Murderess a meditation on murder, on the compassionate act of release from the misogynistic brutality of coastal-urban life in Greece in the first years of the century of Hitler and Stalin.

This meditation is set in a real-feeling world that is continually elided in favor of mountain peaks so olive-lush, so remote, so dotted over with the cells of eremites that, in them, it seems not only immoral but impossible that Hadoula’s brazenness — pushing girls down a well only a few yards from the house where their dying mother lies asleep, dreaming of them; strangling the child of a goatherd who helps her avoid the “regulars,” the police sent to question her after a girl falls into a well — seems an affront both narrative and ontological.

…In the forest that crowned all the western slopes… there it was said that a sea-eagle had nested for three human generations… In its abandoned nest was found an entire museum of monstrous bones of sea-snakes, seals, dogfish and other marine monsters, which the huge, powerful bird, with its blue hooked beak and is vast cinder-coloured wings, had picked out of the seas…

With language such as this, we must flatten the olive trees onto the same painting as the murders. But Hadoula is the real link. We become complicit in her nihilism, and — because this is a novella — we never finally reach a resolution, even when Hadoula is forced into the reach of the law. She is finally not a character at all, but the narrative shadow of her actions — the gravity of murder, rolling through the idyllic island, distorting it, deepening a brutal, unseen dimension to which we cannot deny existence:

Would it not really be right, if only humans were not so blind, to assist the scourge that fluttered in the angels’ wings…? But look, the little angels take no sides and make no favours. They take away boys and girls alike into Paradise. In fact all the more boys. So many precious only sons who died utterly… Girls have seven lives, the old woman reflected.

The world is righteously hard for little girls, certainly in the Greece of the first years of the twentieth century. Here Papadiamantis’s book resembles a grim Realist version of A Modest Proposal. The Swiftian gag is Surreal (“more than real”), however, because Hadoula’s logic is not satire, and her invocations of deadly angels dredge up our own maltheism, or at least our Malthusianism.

Papadiamantis (1851–1911, “The greatest Modern Greek prose writer,” Milan Kundera) forces us to question and to affirm what is absolutely essential about life, and he does this cunningly, by forcing us into the consciousness of a woman for whom maltheism has become absolute, rigid.

But was she genuinely second-sighted? She whose dreams… had often foretold something… or left some strange impression. Even her lies when she told them became the truth against her will.

Lies, moral lies. We may want to test our moral positions by announcing or even acting on our convictions before we feel them. Perhaps the ultimate fear is that we will do so as does Hadoula.

-Wythe Marschall can be found here.

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