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 […]

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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.


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Review: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018) by Andrew Miller

English-hussar_Elly_McDonald-WriterOn March 16 1968 Lieutenant William Calley ordered the men of 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the 23rd Infantry Division of the United States Army to kill every person in the Viet Cong village My Lai.

At his court martial nearly three years later he claimed he acted on orders from his superior officer, Captain Ernest Medina.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is set in 1809 and centres on a massacre in the Spanish village Los Morales by British troops retreating from Napoleon’s forces. One key character is called Corporal Calley. Another is named Ernesto Medina.

The My Lai massacre trial caused a sensation in the United States, with some senior military personnel vehemently condemning Calley and Medina as rogue elements bringing the U.S. Army into disrepute; others, including conservative politicians, insisting Calley and his unit were justified in their actions; and yet others arguing Calley was symptomatic of American policy and was scapegoated as an individual.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is a meditation on the morality of war, the circumstances in which such a massacre might happen, who might perpetrate war crimes, and who should be held accountable.

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It is also a poetic and mystical travelogue. The Hebrides, the islands off western Scotland, were in ancient times reputed to be a place of sorcery and magics; a tradition presenting the islands and the Highlands, the Gaelic realms, as supernatural lives on in popular culture from Brigadoon to Local Hero to the contemporary hit TV series Outlander. The Scottish west coast is a portal, the Hebrides another world, its islands akin to the island in The Tempest, where strange music is heard: this is the dreamworld of Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

In this novel, the British cavalry officer who is held responsible for the Los Morales massacre is Captain John Lacroix. John Lacroix barely survives the retreat and evacuation to England. He suffers what we’d now call PTSD. Long before he has any inkling retribution is pursuing him (“I am the War”, says Corporal Calley), Lacroix flees further, to Scotland, to the islands. In the islands, he encounters forms of healing magic: music, friendship, love.

Can John Lacroix be redeemed? Does he deserve to be? Did he deserve to be condemned? Is justice, what’s ‘deserved’, even relevant? Is fate random? Or supernaturally determined?

This is a tale where I genuinely could not predict the ending. I don’t normally spend a lot of energy predicting how narratives will resolve, but with this novel, I fretted. And I got it wrong.

“[H]e saw things etched on the sea. A woman in a white dress, turning like a star”, a woman who is a seer, a prophetess, a blindfolded goddess of judgement, who “dreamed her bed was on the sea and that she had looked back at the island and seen the house”.

I was taken by the leitmotifs the author embraces. The sound of the sea. The sound of singing. The constant references to singing, to the sea, to music, to language as song. Lacroix reflects that all Gaelic is one long conversation with the sea. He reflects that “these people, the Gaels, were a curious mix, rooted and practical, but living easily among dreams and stories and superstition, one ear always pressed against the night-world, or whatever it was, the correct name for that part of life people were forgetting how to address.”

The spiritual, the fantastical, death. The new gods – technologies, surgery, populism, the cults that spring up as conventional religion fails – and the old gods, the gods who ride sea cows, walk across waters, speak through waves and await in currents.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free looks towards the modern, but does not forget the old forms of address.

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On Borove Forest, and elsewhere.

When I was a child my sister and I bought my father a large glossy coffee table volume, a history of World War 2 in photographs.

Two images shocked me more than all others. I encountered one of those images again today.

Today my Facebook Newsfeed popped up a Daily Mail article on “Ukraine’s shameful Holocaust of Bullets”, the systemic execution of up to 1.6 million Jews, resulting in around 2000 mass graves located so far, with up to 6000 further sites believed yet to be identified.

A French Catholic priest, Father Patrick Desbois, made it his mission to uncover the human stories behind massacres that took place at four sites near Rava Ruska (Rawa Ruska), near the Ukraine-Poland border, where about 18000 Jews were murdered, and a further 14000 political prisoners and Romanies. Father Desbois’ grandfather Claudius Desbois was a prisoner of war at Rava Ruska. He’d said little except that outside the camp was worse than inside.

His grandson was moved to investigate. According to Father Desbois, as reported in the Daily Mail,

People who were present at the killings wanted to speak before they die.

Many people were requisitioned to dig the mass graves, to fill them, to bring the Jews in horse drawn carts, to bring back their suits, to sell the suits, to put ashes on the blood. Fifty different jobs.

Thirteen German private trucking companies came to work at Rava Ruska.

The Daily Mail reports that eventually, hundreds of eye witnesses provided testimony to Father Desbois, extending beyond the killing centre Rava Ruska to neighbouring towns like Belzec ten miles away and cities like Lvov (Lviv), 31 miles away.

Looking at the photographs that have survived begs the questions, “Who took these photographs? For what purpose? Why were they retained?”

Some of the photos are now part of the Yad Vashem collection, Yad Vashem being Israel’s official memorial to victims of the Holocaust. When I started to write this piece my intention was to comment closely on specific images. But the images largely speak for themselves, so I’ll keep comments brief.

This is the image that first hooked me today. (It’s not the one that shocked me as a child. Fortunately I never saw it as a child.)

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She’s young. She’s beautiful. She could be any of the young, beautiful women I see every day. She could be myself younger, or any of my friends. All her clothes have been torn off, except for her rather stylish shoes, and fully-clothed adult men are standing over her, cuffing her on the head, ahead of whatever happens next.

I think she’s been knocked down. I think this because in another photo she’s trying to fend off those hostile adult men. Look at their faces.

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This girl could be any girl, any girl in a combat zone, throughout human history. I worked with Bosnian refugees after the Bosnian conflict. I saw photos of women dragged onto the streets, pushed down on the street, raped in Bosnia. Every victim of wartime rape and murder is this girl’s kin.

She’s a hero, but it couldn’t save her. Being young couldn’t save her. Being beautiful did not.

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But

But the crime is not despoiling the young and beautiful. All victims of war are owed their dignity, in memory, even when dignity was taken from them at death.

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Here is a mother trying to protect her daughter. Her daughter’s clothes are already partly ripped away.

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Here is a group of people, apprehensive, knowing nothing good can happen. Look closely at the woman third from the left. She could be your colleague, couldn’t she? Your sister? Your friend?

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You might ask, are there no images of men being brutalised? Yes, there are. They’re excruciating. And boys being dragged down and beaten, and old men, too. But these images of women spoke to me most strongly, just as all those years ago one of the two images that spoke to me as a child was an image of a French female sexual collaborator being publicly humiliated.

(No, this is not that image. This one has the same emotional tenor.)

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(You ask, am I drawing an equivalence between Jewish women raped and murdered in Ukraine and French women whose heads were shaved as punishment for consorting with Germans?

I answer: Not an equivalence. But I do see a relationship, as victims of misogyny fuelled by wartime hatreds.)

These images of women being brutalised speak so powerfully it’s almost overkill (boom boom) to quote the eye witness testimonies:

One account from Rava Ruska was of a Nazi officer who spotted a young Jewish woman running out of the ghetto to buy butter at the market. He ordered her to be stripped naked, and demanded the trader smear her with butter after which he decreed her beaten to death with sticks.”

Nikola Kristitch was aged 8 in 1942 when he witnessed a day-long massacre:

“I remembered one of the girls, a young girl. Her panties were around her ankles.

“A German fired at her and her hair caught fire. She screamed and he took an automatic rifle, got into the grave and fired.

“The bullet ricocheted off his knee and he bled everywhere. He bandaged his knee, he was half undressed and then he emptied his round. He even killed Jews who still had their clothes on, he couldn’t wait he was so crazed with rage. He fired at everybody, he was crazy.”

These accounts would be merely pornographic if it were not so crucial to remember.

Father Desbois has established a foundation called Yahad and has worked to ensure a memorial was raised in Rava Ruska and Jewish graves are protected. He says,”Why do we come back to Ukraine? Because one day we will have to go back to Iraq, because one day we will have to go back to the last mass grave in Darfur.

“Tomorrow will be the same story.”

I don’t know if it was seeing those photographs back when I was a child that led 30 years later to me working with post-Bosnia refugees, or that led me to attempt to write a speculative fiction novel on these themes.

The image I will never forget from that book in my youth? This one. It was this one.

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(Content credit to Will Stewart and the MailOnline, 24 August 2015 8:12pm)