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The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood
Weight, by Jeanette Winterson
What kind of a hero chases after fruit?
Sunday 27 November 2005
In the mischievously titled The Penelopiad, Atwood, with typical audacity, repositions The Odyssey from the viewpoint of Penelope, Odysseus's wife. She is left behind with their infant son on rocky, inhospitable Ithaca while her husband, heroic at the siege of Troy, takes the best part of a decade to find his way home. In the ensuing years their boy Telemachus develops from a suspicious child into a disgruntled teenager and slow-burning sociopath, and Penelope, having through sheer hard work successfully maintained Odysseus's kingdom, is importuned by scores of would-be suitors eager to siphon off her wealth.
Atwood introduces a new and significant angle to Penelope's narrative - the insistent chorus of her 12 maids. Complicit in their mistress's plans to foil the suitors, they are subsequently summarily hanged by Odysseus on his return, as part of his bloody revenge. The distressing image of their execution ("for a little while their feet twitched, but not for very long") recurs throughout Atwood's account, as in turn she utilises poetry, burlesque, mock trial and, less successfully, dour sociological tract. Penelope herself is depicted as less faithful wife than pragmatic survivor, all the while sustaining a satisfyingly bitchy feud with her "intolerably beautiful" cousin Helen of Troy, one of the intense female rivalries which litter Atwood's fiction. (Atwood seems firmly on Penelope's side, but Helen comes across as a lot more fun.) As for Odysseus, he and his reunited wife are doomed to an afterlife of wandering uneasily through interminable fields of asphodel, haunted by the shadows of unexpiated guilt.
If Atwood's approach is efficiently rigorous, Winterson's Weight, the myth of Atlas and Heracles, is warmer and wittier, at least on the surface. "I'm telling you stories: trust me" is Winterson's familiar mantra, and here she concocts a comedy of opposites: the amiable Titan, Atlas (who just so happens to have led a rebellion against the Olympians and lost), and Heracles, a swaggering lout ("I was a bit of a braggart in my youth: killed everything, shagged what was left, ate the rest") on his way to polish off the 11th of his 12 labours.
Theirs is an unlikely, mutual need: banished from the guardianship of his beloved Garden of the Hesperides, Atlas is condemned to bear the world on his back for eternity. Heracles is required to steal the golden apples from that garden ("what kind of a hero chases after fruit?" he muses) but he cannot actually pluck them from the tree himself. Offering to shoulder Atlas's load, he then shamelessly tricks him into taking the burden back once the fruit is in his grasp.
There is a semblance of morality here, even among amoral super-beings: Atlas's impassive suffering renders him an emblem of quiet integrity; and the cunning Heracles cannot, it ultimately turns out, outwit his prophesied death. Winterson's wordplay is as arch and baroque as ever, yet tends to lapse into autobiographical strutting and an over-reliance on the metaphor of responsibility. A whimsical ending trades dexterity for clumsiness and mars an otherwise controlled, enjoyably bawdy piece.
Where both writers excel, however, is in a strong evocation of the abhorrent nature of war and of casual slaughter. Winterson's descriptions of Heracles' boorish killing of the Amazon Hippolyte and the gods' agonising punishment of Prometheus are visceral yet deeply empathetic. But although Weight is a more fluid, accessible read, it is Atwood's "pretty maids all in a row" which linger to trouble the mind, feet twitching in perpetuity. Above all, these vibrant reimaginings indicate that larger than life stories will always be ripe for inventive plundering.
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