“The month of January. Night time. North wind blowing. The fire in the hearth was going out.” This is where Alexandros Papadiamantis’s The Murderess begins—in cramped, dark quarters on a dirtpoor island in the Aegean Sea. A man snores, a sleepless woman tosses and turns, a baby coughs and cries. It is a hundred years ago, but it could be anytime, and it goes on. Hadoula, a woman of sixty or so, an old witch her neighbors say, is trying to rock the baby, her granddaughter, to sleep, even as she gives way to “bitter wandering thoughts.” All her life Hadoula has shown herself to be a clever, industrious, tough woman, and yet now it strikes her:
She had never done anything except serve others. When she was a little girl she had served her parents. When she was mated, she became a slave to her husband, and at the same time, because of her strength and his weakness, she was his nurse. When she had children she became a slave to her children, and when they had children of their own, she was slave to her grandchildren.
Her life, or anywoman’s. Boys are frail and often die. Grown up, they go away to sea or America. Women are left behind looking after the helplessly young and the hopelessly old, struggling to scrape together dowries for daughters so that their daughters can enjoy the same life their mothers are sick of. Hadoula finds herself hoping against hope that her sickly granddaughter will die. And then she realizes that she can take fate into her own hands. “That was all,” the story goes.
Crime is freedom. Day breaks. Hadoula, unsuspected, leaves the house of mourning and goes to the mountains to pick herbs. She looks for a sign that God approves what she has done. Papadiamantis is as extraordinary a describer of the natural world, full of mingled welcome and menace, as he is of the toiling mind and heart:
The old woman climbed higher up to the steep top of the valley. Below her the river cut deep through the Acheilas ravine, and its stream filled all the deep valley with soft murmurs. In appearance it was motionless and lakelike, but in reality perpetually in motion under the tall and longtressed planes. Among mosses and bushes and ferns it prattled secretly, kissed the trunks of the trees, creeping like a serpent along the length of the valley, green-coloured from leafy reflections, kissing and biting at once at the rocks and the roots, a murmuring, limpid stream, full of little crabs which ran to hide in piles of sand, while a shepherd, letting the little lambs graze on the dewy greenery, came to lean down over the water, and pull out a stone to hunt them with.
Crime is freedom, but also compulsion. It is a new world that must be discovered again and again. Eventually, Hadoula’s own uneasy conscience leads her to flee her village and family. Two policemen (Papadiamantis always identifies them as the two policemen, as if they were interchangeable) pursue her. They are as clueless and bumbling as the Keystone Kops—Hadoula always evades them—and yet, stupid as they are, they are always still there, still on her trail. Hadoula flees to the mountain at the center of the island and she flees to the sea. She seeks open space, the opposite of the cramped, abysmal conditions that she has endured throughout her life, but then there is nowhere left for her to flee.
A feeling of inescapable confinement is central to this stark and startling short novel, even as the story is no less about the irrepressible desire to break free. After her initial crime, Hadoula can find no rest. She has left behind the life she was born to only to find that she is haunted by herself. She has discovered herself as a crime seeking solution, or, more traditionally, a sinner salvation.
This restlessness and searchingness is captured in the very language of Papadiamantis’s book, which mixes registers that are often kept apart: the sacred and the secular, the profane and the profound, the cruel and the comic. It is a wild book. Papadiamantis, who lived from 1851 to 1911 and is commonly described as the founder of modern Greek fiction, is notoriously hard to translate. The translator, the late Peter Levi, a fine poet who served as the Oxford Professor of Poetry, discusses the difficulties and how he dealt with them in his introduction to The Murderess. What he came up with here—with a little help, he acknowledges, from John Berger—is beautiful and strange and a real work in English. Listen, for example, to the liquid tones and artful repetitions in the river passage quoted above.
What kind of book is this? A murder story, obviously, and a story of flight and pursuit. It is also a story of self-discovery and self-abandonment. It is certainly a story that holds the reader’s attention through and through. Readers may be reminded of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, of The Mayor of Casterbridge or Camus’s The Stranger. Above all, it’s a book that hails from the borderlands. Papadiamantis wrote it at a time and in a place that lacked immediate models for such an endeavor. The novel was a novelty. He had read the new French realists and longtime popular fixtures like Dumas and Walter Scott. At the same time, he had studied to be a priest and was steeped in the old Greek liturgy. From these unlikely elements, he had to fashion not just a story but a new language and a whole genre. It’s that, I think, that gives this work its uncanny power, the power of first discovery. Encountering this book, about a woman’s desperate effort to defeat the inevitability of fate, we feel the force of Papadiamantis’s own primal encounter with the possibilities of fiction.
A last word. Long ago, Ben Sonnenberg published a fine piece about Papadiamantis by Maria Margaronis in his magnificent quarterly Grand Street. It was a rare notice of this great writer in English, and I remember feeling that I must read him. So much began with Ben, who, though confined for many years to a wheelchair, possessed a sensibility and intellect of marvelous reach and agility. He died in June. He was a great supporter of New York Review Books and a dear friend. To his suggestion, NYRB Classics owes Tibor Dery’s Niki and a series of new translations from great Spanish authors that we will publish in years to come. To our Children’s Collection, he contributed The Bear That Wasn’t and The Sorely Trying Day. He is greatly missed. Who will tell us what to do next now?
Edwin Frank, Editor