‘Cassandra’ is the second Christa Wolf novel that I decided to read for Christa Wolf week which is part of this year’s German Literature Month. (You can find more information on Christa Wolf week in Caroline’s post here.)
‘Cassandra’ is a retelling of the events surrounding the Trojan war. It is told from the perspective of Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam, who is also a prophet and prophesizes that things are not going to go well for Troy, but no one believes her. Things, of course, go as she predicts – that is what happens with good doomsday prophets. The story starts at the end of the war in which Cassandra has been captured with her children and other Trojan women and is taken to Mycenae by Agamemnon. Her future is uncertain but being a good doomsday prophet, she knows that it is not going to be good. As she narrates the story, she looks back to the time before the war started and tries to see how it all started. She describes her relationships with her father King Priam and her mother Queen Hecuba, with her many brothers – Hector, Troilus, Aisakos (these three are her favourites for different reasons), Helenus, Paris – and her sister Polyxena, her lover Aeneas, Aeneas’ father Anchises (one of my favourite characters in the book), the Greek priest Panthous, her stepmother and Aisakos’ mother Arisbe, her maid Marpessa and many other fascinating characters who form a part of her life. Later, when the war has started, she describes her relationships with the Amazons, particularly Penthesilea (another of my favourite characters from the book – in the description of her fight with Achilles in the battlefield when I read the lines – “A woman – greeting him with a sword! The fact that she forced him to take her seriously was her last triumph” – it gave me goosebumps) and Myrine (who is loyal to both Penthesilea and Cassandra till the end).
Cassandra narrates the story from her perspective – that of a Trojan woman who is privileged because she is from the royal family, but who is also at many times ignored and treated not as an equal because she is a woman and she speaks the truth and gives logical arguments which men in the war council, including her father, find it hard to hear, because it is contradictory to their own narrative of the war. Cassandra also describes the status of the women of her own time and discovers to her surprise that sometimes women from poor families have more freedom than women from the royal household, because women from the royal household have to keep up with their appearances. At one point during the war, Cassandra joins a community of women from different walks of life (but none of them from the royal family) who get together and spend time in the evenings talking, singing, dancing, weaving and doing what they want to without being judged or without being compelled to do something else. Cassandra says this about that community –
“We did not see ourselves as an example. We were grateful that we were the ones granted the highest privilege there is : to slip a narrow strip of future into the grim present, which occupies all of time.”
I learnt many new things from Christa Wolf’s retelling of the Troy legend. For example, during schooldays when I first read the story, the way it was told was that Menelaus and Helen were happily married and Paris suddenly came on the scene and kidnapped Helen and so the Greeks went to war with the Trojans because of that. In that simplistic version of the story the Trojans were the bad guys and the Greeks were the good ones. Then I discovered that things were not so black and white. To my surprise, I discovered that Helen and Paris fell in love and Helen eloped with Paris. That was a twist to the story. Now the story got a big shade of grey. Christa Wolf’s version says that King Priam’s sister Hesione was the one who was originally abducted by the Greeks and one of the Greeks, Telemon, married her (and Hesione chose to stay with him and not come back) and when the Trojans asked the Greeks to send Hesione back, the Greeks laughed at them and that is how the whole Paris-abducting-Helen story started as revenge for the Hesione abduction. This adds another layer of murkiness to the whole story and we don’t know now who are the good guys and who are the bad ones – like in any real-life story, everyone is flawed and complex and there are only shades of grey. At one point Cassandra says –
Ten years of war. That was long enough to forget completely the question of how the war started. In the middle of a war you think of nothing but how it will end. And put off living. When large numbers of people do that, it creates a vacuum within us which the war flows in to fill. What I regret more than anything else is that, in the beginning, I too gave in to the feeling that for now I was living only provisionally; that true reality still lay ahead of me: I let life pass me by.
Another interesting thing that I learnt from the book was about Achilles. The popular description of Achilles is that he was a great hero. If you have read Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of the Greek legends (or for that matter anyone else’s) that is what you would be led to believe. But when we read Wolf’s ‘Cassandra’ that is not the impression we get. When we look at Achilles from Cassandra’s point of view, it is hard to like Achilles. Actually, it is hard not to hate him. He chases Cassandra’s brother Troilus into the temple and kills him in the temple (which is against the rules of war as a temple is neutral ground and a sacred place). And, of course, there is that famous scene where he drags Hector’s body around and around in the battlefield. And the way he treats the Amazon Penthesilea’s body after he slays her. And the way he lusts after the Trojan princess Polyxena and demands her brother Hector to hand her over. And the way he treats Briseus, the fiancée of Troilus, after he takes her as a slave. He comes through as a brute and a barbarian. Did Homer and the other Greek minstrels get it wrong or am I seeing things wrong? I don’t know. Whatever the truth is, that guy Achilles – as far as I am concerned, he is blacklisted now.
And Cassandra’s sister Polyxena – I always thought that she was a nice, gentle person and loved Achilles (from the way she is depicted in Roger Lancelyn Green’s ‘The Luck of Troy’). Well, Polyxena turns out to be a more complex character than that – she has a complex relationship with Cassandra, she has an affair with a man far below her station, she says that she will marry Achilles to give pain to everyone.
And Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter. The story says that he sacrificed her before the war started as other Greek leaders and the priest demanded it. What kind of man does that? (And if you like pop-culture, you probably know that Callie from ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ is Calliope Iphigenia Torres – that is two Greek names there)
And King Priam and Queen Hecuba. I always thought that they were minor characters in the original story, but in Wolf’s retelling they are complex, fully-fleshed out characters with strong opinions on everything.
The book’s depiction of the Greeks – well, if we believe that, it is hard to like the Greeks. Most of them are brutal, they don’t follow the rules of warfare or treat their prisoners with dignity, they don’t treat women and children well, they don’t even seem cultured. It is hard to believe that our modern world arose from the cultural and political legacy of the Ancient Greeks. Of course, things are never black and white – the Ancient Greek world also had Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sappho, Hippocrates, Archimedes, Pythagoras, Aeschylus, Diogenes, Sophocles. Achilles is not the only Greek guy out there.
I don’t think I can do justice to ‘Cassandra’ in a short review. As you can imagine, I loved this beautiful book. It is epic, insightful and rich in the themes it covers – from the grand ones to the everyday ones – and it is also the right size (two hundred pages) and so it is not so intimidating. Christa Wolf’s prose dazzles in every page – it is what we have to come to expect from the finest vintage German literature – there are beautiful sentences and passages in every page and I couldn’t stop highlighting. I can’t remember the last time I highlighted so many passages in a book. Which presents a big problem now, because I don’t know which passages to quote here, because there are so many beautiful ones. Here are some of my favourites.
You could not help but look at his hands, which were almost always working a piece of wood, or atleast feeling it, while his eyes might suddenly listen to find out what quality or form was hidden in the wood. He never had a tree chopped down without first conferring with it at length; without first removing from it a seed or a twig which he could plant in the earth to ensure its continued existence. He knew everything there was to know about wood and trees. And the figures he carved when we sat around together, he then gave away like a prize; they became a sign by which we could recognize each other.
I could not say for how long I had been an unbeliever. If I had had some shock, an experience resembling conversion, I could remember. But faith ebbed away from me gradually, the way illnesses sometimes ebb away, and one day you tell yourself that you are well. The illness no longer finds any foothold in you. That is how it was with my faith. What foothold could it still have found in me? Two occur to me : first hope, then fear. Hope had left me. I still knew fear, but fear alone does not know the gods; they are very vain, they want to be loved too, and hopeless people do not love them.
Words and Pictures
If I grope my way back along the thread of my life which is rolled up inside me…here I am caught by the very word ‘girl’, and caught all the more by her form. By the beautiful image. I have always been caught by images more than by words. Probably that is strange, and incompatible with my vocation; but I can no longer pursue my vocation. The last thing in my life will be a picture, not a word. Words die before pictures.
Penthesilea : The men are getting what they paid for.
Arisbe : You call it getting what they paid for when they are reduced to the level of butchers?
Penthesilea : They are butchers. So they are doing what they enjoy.
Arisbe : And what about us? What if we became butchers, too?
Penthesilea : Then we are doing what we have to do. But we don’t enjoy it.
Arisbe : We should do what they do in order to show that we are different?
Penthesilea : Yes.
Oenone : But one can’t live that way.
Penthesilea : Not live? You can die all right.
Hecuba : Child, you want everything to come to a stop.
Penthesilea : That is what I want. Because I don’t know any other way to make the men stop.
I haven’t read the other two great retellings of the legends of the ancient world – Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’ and Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Lavinia’ – and the more recent ‘Memoirs of a Bitch’ by Francesca Petrizzo (the story told from Helen’s perspective). But having read Christa Wolf’s masterful rendition of the classic tale, I think Atwood and Le Guin might have a tough act to follow.
‘Cassandra’ is one of my favourite books of the year, a book I will be reading again, probably more slowly and lingering over every sentence. My alltime favourite German novel is Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’. Christa Wolf’s ‘Cassandra’ is up there with it – probably a close second, but definitely in the same zone. It is no longer lonely at that top for Haushofer as she has company now and that makes me very happy.
Have you read Christa Wolf’s ‘Cassandra’? What do you think about it?