Elly McDonald

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Review: The Silence of the Girls (2018) by Pat Barker – “I heard him before I saw him”

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“You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. “With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. “ ‘Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles… Beginning where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.”

The Human Stain, Philip Roth – as quoted in the frontpiece of The Silence of The Girls

Why did Pat Barker not title her intelligent, engaging and troubling novel The Silence of the Women? Because she tells a tale of girls, mostly, young girls taken as war trophies and held in sexual servitude by the killers of their families.

I’d heard [the enemy commanders’] plans for Troy […]. Every man and boy killed […] pregnant women to be speared in the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy, and for the other women, gang rape, beatings, mutilation, slavery. A few women – or rather a very few girls, mainly royal or of aristocratic birth – would be shared out among the kings […] I might easily end up living the life of the common women, dodging blows by day and sleeping under the huts at night […]

Briseis

Pat Barker, Man Booker-winning author of the Regeneration Trilogy, which tells of the human damage wrought by WW1, is not the first author to retell Homer’s Iliad in the imagined voice of Briseis, the young girl at the centre of the rift between Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Achaeans (Bronze Age Greeks) and the armies’ most feared warrior, Achilles. Daughter of Troy, by Sarah B Franklin, precedes The Silence of The Girls, but I haven’t been able to find information about that book.

Other authors have deployed Briseis as a character in their fictions: Christa Wolf, in her novel Kassandra; Judith Starkston, in Hand of Fire (2014); Madeline Miller, in The Song of Achilles (2011).

The Song of Achilles – which missed the mark for me so completely I couldn’t read far enough in to meet Briseis – represents Briseis as being in love with Achilles’ loved companion, Patroclus. Best-selling author Marion Bradley Zimmer had a stab at Achilles’ story in Fire Brand (1987), where she presents Briseis as in love with Achilles.

Possibly the most widely recognized representation of Briseis in contemporary English-speaking culture is actress Rose Byrne’s film portrayal of the character in the Brad Pitt vehicle Troy (2004), where, again, Briseis is shown as being in love with Brad-Achilles. The 2018 BBC TV series Troy: Fall of a City features a Rose Byrne look-alike playing Briseis (I don’t who Briseis loves in this one).

In The Silence of The Girls, Pat Barker’s Briseis wonders “What will they make of us, those people of [the far future]? One thing I do know: 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. A love story, perhaps?”

Pat Barker tells the story of living in a rape camp.

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I’m impressed by this novel on multiple levels, although it took a while to grab me. The language is plain. So much literary writing at present is ambitious in its use of language and form, but Barker, speaking as Briseis, keeps it straight. Sometimes that can read flat. It also serves to make the occasional excursions into the supernatural – the appearance of gods, the workings of gods – startling, at first seeming incongruous. But Homer’s language is stark, and incursions by the gods are a fact of life in The Iliad, so: so be it.

I’ll say only that I’m unused to magical realism where the realism so lacks in magic and the magic is so matter of fact.

Another thing that startles is Barker’s occasional references to northern European physical attributes: Achilles’ silver hair, his cousin Ajax’s blondness, a doctor’s green eyes, a king’s grey eyes. Ethnicity in the ancient world is a contested area, but the Achaeans as described by Homer are not the dark-eyed, olive-skinned peoples of the later Mediterranean worlds. That said, it’s curious Barker chooses to introduce this element, particularly since the language her characters use is neither archaic nor contemporary but instead, faintly anachronistic, as if the writer is still immersed in the world of the Great War 1914-18 and British Imperialism, or perhaps is suggesting analogies.

Barker doesn’t describe Briseis’s appearance directly. From the comments of others, its plain she’s very beautiful: elegant but with (sorry) huge knockers. Her breasts announce her. (Really. It’s in the text.)

Homeric legend is more explicit: Homer’s Briseis is lauded for her golden hair, blue eyes and fair skin.

I found, when I did some research after reading, that the name “Briseis” simply means “daughter of Brisis”, just as the name of Agamemnon’s girl, Chryseis, means “daughter of Chrysis”. To borrow from Margaret Atwood, and The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s like calling a character “Offred” (‘Of Fred’), except with reference to the father as patriarch rather than the sexual master. Briseis could equally be “Ofachilles”, Chryseis “Ofagamemnon”.

Briseis’s actual given name, according to legend, was Hippodameia. My Greek is rudimentary, but I believe that might translate as “Horsegoddess”, which casts a wholly different light on Briseis’s symbolic role in The Iliad. (I see, too, that the Trojan hero Hector’s wife Andromache might translate as “man killer”, which likewise positions her differently, as a kind of Amazon – the Amazons came to Troy’s aid as allies. It could also translate as “manly fighting spirit”. After Achilles killed her husband, and her infant son was flung from the walls of Troy, Andromache was given as a sex slave to Achilles’s adolescent son.)

This is such an interesting book, and I do not want any comment of mine to denigrate it, but I think what I took away that troubled me most is this:

Briseis is attempting to author her own story. She is represented as telling the tale of her captivity many years later, having turned her back on the sand dunes of the Greek camp as a 19 year old, boarded a ship to a new life, and made that a full and fascinating life (by her own account): “Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now, my own story can begin.”

Good for her.

My problem is this.

Pat Barker tells most of The Silence of The Girls in Briseis’s voice. But there are things Briseis cannot know and cannot tell. So in the second half of the book, there are sequences told in the third person from the point of view of Achilles. These sequences are for me the most compelling and effective parts of the novel. These sequences – not least the visit by King Priam of Troy to Achilles to ransom his son Hector’s body – have an emotional charge that leaves much of Briseis’s narrative pallid by comparison. (Briseis’s voice does share the telling the Priam episode. But it’s Achilles’ perspectives that carry the charge.)

Is it the age old problem that the Devil has all the best tunes? That sociopaths are more compelling than victims? That the sins and sufferings of violent men are stories we are acculturated to attend to, that we can’t look away from violent men, though we turn away, time and again, from beaten women?

After an entire novel that purports to be a platform for Briseis to speak for herself, and her sisters, is this, in the end, what’s meant by The Silence of The Girls?

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Last word:

My favourite paragraphs from The Silence of The Girls:

There’s a story he once chased the god Apollo all over the plains of Troy. Cornered at last, Apollo is supposed to have said: “You can’t kill me, I’m immortal.” “Ah, yes,” Achilles replied. “But we both know if you weren’t immortal, you’d be dead.”

Nobody was ever allowed the last word; not even a god.