Tag Archives: Canongate Myth

The Goddess Chronicle (2008) – KIRINO Natsuo

作家:桐野 夏生

Many creation myths rely on a man. Those that don’t—like the one laid down in the Kojiki—requires the woman to know her place: subservient to the man. Indeed, in the text of the Japanese creation myth itself, the woman is punished for speaking out of turn. She literally is not allowed to have thoughts or ideas before the man does. Needless to say, this has informed a great deal of contemporary Japanese society. In The Goddess Chronicle, Natsuo Kirino interrogates this tale: what’s in it for the woman?

On a tiny teardrop island in the middle of the ocean two sisters are born. The older, Kamikuu, is destined for great things, while the younger, Namima, must live her life according to a strict set of rules laid down for women. But when one terrible event splits the two sisters forever, Namima finds herself in a place quite unlike anything she has ever known.

Nanima’s discovery that her older sister is the embodiment of purity, coincides with her realising that she is destined to be the representation of impurity. Without any action from her, society has forced her into a role she has no desire to play. From a young age, she is reminded that she is impure and dirty—an ugly woman with no place in polite society. Though, at first, she accepts her lot, as she grows older, she begins to rebel. In a neat flip of the Christian creation myth, it is a man—actually, a boy—who encourages her to rebel, to eat the forbidden food, and to reject her societal rules. Quickly, the two fall in love.

When Namima is (inevitably, perhaps) killed by her husband for his own selfish purposes, she is transported to the underworld, where she finds herself in the company of Izanami, the original female god who, with her husband, Izanaki, created the world. Izanami is filled with bitterness and rage at the world of men. For Izanami, this rage comes from being treated so poorly by both her husband and the creation god itself. Killed for speaking out of turn, she must now tend to the underworld as the goddess of death. Meanwhile, her husband is allowed to continue to wander the earth, sleeping with women and populating the world. Understandably, pain and anger infuse every single one of her actions.

By placing these two women next to each other, Kirino invites us to consider the pain women face at the hands of men. For Nanima, the pain is physical—her man saw her only as a biological tool, a vessel for his child to continue the family line. For Izanami, her crime was thinking outside the box. Both of their lives have been ruined by gender constructs beyond their control, by a world that sees women having a specific purpose and place. Any deviation from that line will quite literally result in a hell beyond anything on this earth.

This is a novel about violence against women, both physical and psychological. Kirino reminds us that, though this may be a myth, it is a myth that has shaped so much of what we believe today. It is a message to anyone who is listening: women have, since the beginning of creation, had to carry a burden far beyond what should be allowed, and perhaps this should be examined more closely by those in power.

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The Hurricane Party (2007) – Klas ÖSTERGREN

Borders has closed in Australia (woot!), and in their final days, they were basically giving books away, and The Hurricane Party was one of them. It is a part of the Canongate Myth Series, which I think is a fantastic concept. Perhaps the best thing about this novel is that, even though it’s from Scandinavia, it’s not a gritty, confronting crime novel, which is a nice change from what we all think about when the phrase “Scandinavian literature” is mentioned.

The future of Sweden is not pretty. The world has barely survived an apocalyptic event, and those left are eking out an existence among the rubble. Hanck Orn is among the living, as is his son, Toby, the product of an awkward one night stand. But when something happens to Toby, Hanck must travel to the depths of the world to find out who did this, and why. His quest will lead him to places he never thought existed, and he will meet people not even of this Earth.

Hands down, the best part of this novel is the world evoked by Östergren. I’ve read a fair amount of dystopic fiction, but this is up there with the best. The acid rain that falls constantly means you must always cover up, and the sun is so bright, the phrase “no hat, no play, no fun today” takes on a whole new meaning. Some of the lucky people get to live in the City Under the Roof, but for the rest of the population, they must make do in a society that has no discernable government. Instead, order is kept by the Clan, whose rules are not necessarily binding, but it is for the best to follow them anyway. There’s a beautiful scene where Hanck goes to talk to the head of the Clan, the Old Man, but he has to join a queue. This queue has been standing for generations, waiting to tell their problems to the Old Man, seemingly unaware that they will never see him. It’s not just a scene about how ridiculous banks are, it’s a touching look at faith, and what we put ourselves through when we believe.

Unfortunately, this beautiful dystpoian story comes to a halt about halfway through the novel, when Östergren realises that he’s actually writing a Myth, and realises he’s forgotten to include any mythology. And so we . It fails to bridge the gap between myth and reality, creating a disconnect between the two stories. In all honesty, I think the main story would have been stronger, and better off, if the myth hadn’t been crowbarred into it. The biggest problem is that the two aren’t integrated enough. The eponymous hurricane party is, in fact, the incident that causes Toby’s death, and other than the fact that Loki is the one that kills him, it seems pretty arbitrary. Östergren spends about 50 pages talking about what a terrible person Loki is, and the events leading up to the party, but it doesn’t seem to add to anything to the heart of the story. Maybe it’s just my own unfamiliarly with the Norse mythology, but it rapidly turned into a list of names doing things to each other, seemingly with no bearing on the story of Hanck and Toby.

This is, above all, a novel about loss. What do we do when we lose the person we love the most? How do we deal with the fact that we may never see them again? Östergren shows us that, in fact, these people can always be with us – by telling stories. Storytelling is an important theme here – the stories we tell to other people, and the way we tell them. Many people in this world cannot read and write, seeing it as unnecessary, but somewhat ironically, Hanck is a typewriter seller. It is up to him to tell the story of his son through words, both written and spoken, and only through this can he ever achieve happiness. Or, at the very least, closure.

There are two stories in The Hurricane Party, and perhaps somewhat ironically, I think this would be a much better book if it weren’t a part of the Myth Series. Östergren spends too much time dealing with the Norse gods, and Loki, detracting from the reather wonderful story of a father and son trying to stay together in one of the best dystopian futures I’ve read in a long time.

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The Penelopiad (2005) – Margaret ATWOOD

When I read Salley Vickers’ entry into the Myths series, I was expecting some kind of topsy turvy postmodern reconstruction of old tales. I was disappointed. So when I picked up The Penelopiad, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read any Atwood, so I had no idea what might happen as I started reading.

Penelope – Odysseus’ wife – is dead. But she lives on in the underworld, and wants to tell us her story. The story of what she did while her husband went to fight the Trojan War, and took a twenty year detour to get home. This is the story of a young girls trying to grow up quickly as the world around her becomes nothing. More than that, though, it is the story of those twelve maids who are killed as soon as Odysseus returns from his rather extended holiday.

It’s a very postmodern thing, this filling in the gaps of famous stories – looking for gaps in the grand narratives, and trying to fill them up with smaller mini narratives that tell stories of those people to whom history did not give a voice. And what a voice Penelope has been given. She is unbelievably average, and I think that’s her weakness. She is the everywoman, the best kind of narrator, because we feel for her. Her cousin, Helen, is not necessarily unlikeable, but she certainly is annoyingly beautiful, and the somewhat sarcastic tone Penelope takes with her is quite funny, particularly since Helen causes no small amount of trouble in her life.

Also important, though, are the twelve voices of the maids. I must confess, I haven’t read The Odyssey, but I do know what happens (who doesn’t?). But I didn’t know about the maids – when Odysseus finally comes home, after killing all the suitors banging on Penelope’s door, he also kills twelve of her closest, and youngest, maids. This is never explained by Homer, but here, Atwood goes out of her way to give these maids a voice. They become the chorus of this Greek tragedy, interrupting the flow of Penelope’s story with their own songs and skits, some of which are excellent. I particularly like the court scene, which is their last aside – with a modern judge trying to rule over a courthouse full of Greek gods and mythical creatures, Penelope trying to give her evidence. It’s funny, but more than that, it’s wickedly good satire.

Is this a feminist novel? Atwood herself has claimed that it is not, citing the only reason people label it feminist is the fact that a woman is the protagonist. And I think in many ways she is correct. This is not a tale of a strong, independent woman in charge of everything around her, but of a woman who is constantly being attacked emotionally from every angle – and she does spend a fair amount of time crying. Not that strong women don’t cry, but, you know.

But if we define feminism as a framework for highlighting the stories of women in history – no matter what they are – then we can definitely take The Penelopiad as a feminist text. Because that is almost all this novel focuses on. Instead of the manly battles of ancient Greece to which we have become accustomed, Atwood gives us the stories of Penelope, of Helen, of Anticlea, of Eurycleia – these sidelined women of history that do have stories to tell.

Even here, Atwood’s penchant for science fiction-ish ideas does not go unassauged. Penelope is telling us this story from beyond the grave, in the underworld of Greek myth. And it’s not much, but it is nicely done, with her meeting people who are already dead, including Helen, and Eurycleia, and even manages some interaction with the present time.

There is quite a lot going on here, and in some ways that works to Atwood’s advantage. But the time shifting that takes place means that you can’t settle into one period for very long, and the whole thing moves along at something of a breakneck speed – particularly the beginning, which doesn’t help set up the growth of Penelope into a young woman, from the timid girl she once was. But this is my only complaint, which I think stems from my wanting more. Because this is a short novel, but it left me wanting much more. If there were more, though, I feel it might drag. So there’s a conundrum for you.

Actually, interestingly enough, there is almost no plot to speak of here. Everyone already knows the conditions under which this story is to take place, so all Atwood has to do is colour by numbers. It’s the way she does it – with such verve, such sympathy for Penelope – that makes this an excellent retelling of The Odyssey, and a good novel in its own right.

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Where Three Roads Meet (2007) – Salley VICKERS

We’ve been talking about myths, folk tales and fairy tales in English this semester (I’m doing a thoroughly pretentious creative writing course), and I’ve always meant to get around to reading the Canongate Myths series. I love the idea of retelling famous old stories in new, exciting ways, which is pretty much the brief of the series. So now is as good a time as any. Picking the ones off the shelf at work I could find, this one was the top of the list.

Sigmund Freud is dying. While lying in his bed, waiting for the pain to end, a blind man appears, and begins to tell him a story. A story about his life as a seer in ancient Greece, and the events he saw unfold before his blind eyes. This man is no ordinary seer, though. This is Tiresius, the blind seer who was so closely involved with the tragedy of Oedipus. And so the life of Oedipus begins to unfold, but from a different point of view.

This is, I’m going to be honest, not the most exciting retelling of the Oedipus myth you’ll ever get. It’s got everything you want from the story – mother incest, father murder, terrible eye stabbing out scenes – but other than that, not that unique. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. Vickers instead chooses to focus much more on the last days of Freud, which are actually thoroughly interesting. I suppose Freud’s work has become such a figure in psychoanalysis, it’s easy to forget the man himself. There’s a small historical note at the beginning describing his last days (in which this novel is set), and it turns out he died of terrible, terrible mouth cancer. Thank you, smoking. So, while his body degrades, his mind is still as sharp as ever. And the marriage of Freud and Oedipus is an obvious one – though, as Freud himself points out at the end, Oedipus himself never had an Oedipus complex. He never wanted to sleep with his mother, it just kind of happened.

The tragedy of Oedipus, then, is his desire to know what he must never know. Had he never wanted to find out about his real parents – something that is here presented as an unconscious desire, tying in with Freudian ideas – then none of this would ever have happened. What is even more tragic in this retelling is that he had in fact already fulfilled the maternal half of the prophecy – as a child, he had slept in his mother’s bed. Nothing funny, he was just a crying baby. His quest for knowledge eventually destroys what he has built.

Phrophecies are tricky things – as Professor Trelawny has taught us. Do they really tell the truth? Or do they simply plant an idea in our minds that slowly makes itself become true? This latter idea is an interesting one, and not dissimilar to predestination time paradoxes – that is, you create something that you then experience later, and nothing can change it. In essence, then the myth of Oedipus is one giant predestination paradox – once his father goes to Delphi to decide whether or not to have a child, he has set in motion events that will almost certainly happen, because the people involved will only act in one certain way – it is in their nature.

I should probably talk about Tiresias, too. I like him. As a character, he is here sympathetic and interesting enough to not only tell the main story, but his own as well. His tragedy is that he, too, is destined to become what he becomes, and indeed, his family background is not too dissimilar from Oedipus himself. He, too, has a dysfunctional family, and his time as a seer and oracle has changed him – he often doesn’t like the visions he has, particularly the ones about Oedipus. Indeed, for a while, he’s not even sure what he really saw.

I’m not sure Vickers has brought a whole load to her retelling of her chosen myth. This is a solid novel, but I’d be reading it more for Freud’s last days, and the charming narration and philosophy from Tiresias than any exciting new theories or angles on the tragedy that is Oedipus.

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