The Athenian Women by Alessandro Barbero translated by Antony Shugaar
The men go to Athens to watch Aristophanes’ latest comedy Lysistrata, in which the women institute a sex strike to force their husbands and lovers to put an end to the Peloponnese war. Meanwhile Thrasyllus and Polemon’s daughters have taken advantage of their fathers’ absence to accept an invitation from Eubulus’ son, Cimon, to visit his home. There, along with two friends, he rapes, ravages and terrorises the young women, leaving them fighting for their lives.
Alessandro Barbero brings ancient Greece vividly to life in all its degradation and debauchery, including vomiting as a precursor of further indulgence, slavery and child sexual abuse. After a clunky start, in which contextual information is presented to the reader via an unlikely conversation, the writing flows. The treatment of the daughters, Glicera and Charys, is excruciating to read, and perhaps overly drawn out, although there is a clever counterpoint to this in the play in which women (watched by primarily men and portrayed by male actors) seize power.
Sadly, the story is all too contemporary, with our suspicion of immigrants, challenges to democracy and continuing subjugation of women. I found it particularly interesting to read straight after Utopia which borrows a lot of its ideas of the perfect society from the Greeks. Thanks to Europa editions for my review copy. For another contemporary novel about ancient Greece, see House of Names
Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba translated by
The adults – including a psychologist at the orphanage and another at the hospital – are peripheral, vaguely benign but somehow irrelevant. They don’t seem to notice the low-level bullying and destruction of Marina’s doll which precipitates her invention of a game whereby the girls, in turn, are treated as their collective doll. There is no escaping this feverish night-time ritual such that, when Marina decides she no longer wants to play, it’s already too late.
The language – somehow both poetic and matter-of-fact – has a similar mesmerising impact on the reader, drawing us into a half-remembered landscape of early childhood when everything seems both inevitable and strange. I loved the subtlety with which the author transports us through this alien yet familiar world where characters flip back and forth between love and hate, victim and villain. As Edmund White points out in an Afterword, this is a psychotic state, ruled by paranoia and fear.
Such Small Hands draws attention to the complex repercussions of trauma and the difficulty of translating the experience into words, as well as the hard-to-access chaotic workings of a child’s mind. Children might be crazy, but perhaps adults are even crazier in expecting rationality and accountability for acts of violence they might have committed but lack the capacity to understand. Thanks to Portobello books for my review copy.