If we want to trust my very subjective Instagram filter bubble, then retellings of Greek myths have become more and more popular among book lovers in the past few years. So it might not be a coincidence that “The Penelopiad” by Margaret Atwood has been published in a new German translation this fall.
“The Penelopiad” is a retelling of the story of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, and her twelve maids that has a bloody end just as the original myth. In the novel Penelope looks back onto the events around the Trojan war and her husband’s odyssey. Throughout she is interrupted again and again by her twelve maids who as a Greek chorus comment on the events and add their own perspective to the story.
Penelope, who sees herself as the ancient embodiment of the ideal wife, is talking about the rivalry with her beautiful cousin Helen, her husband Odysseus and how she loyally waited decades for his return to Ithaca while suitors wanted to take his place. Atwood’s retelling of the story of Penelope and her twelve maids highlights the misogyny and classism that fundamentally and drastically shaped the lives of women. However, she does not only target double standards and power structures but also manages to revive the mythological story with a wink.
The protagonist Penelope is a wonderfully unreliable narrator whose self-presentation and narrative the reader begins to question more and more throughout the story. During the course of the novel “The Penelopiad” does shed light on the gruesome consequences the classist and misogynistic structures have for the lives of the maids in which forced prostitution and rape occur regularly and they are forced to take the blame for their superiors.
The voices that Atwood gave Penelope and her twelve maids manages (despite the partially gruesome action) to brighten up the story with humorous and sharp commentary. The translators Marcus Ingendaay and Sabine Hübner have wonderfully managed to transport this humour into the German language so that I had to laugh more than once while reading.
With the new translation the two also changed the title of the German translation of “The Penelopiad”. While it was formerly called “Die Penelopiade. Der Mythos von Penelope und Odysseus“ (The Penelopiad. The myth of Penelope and Odysseus) it is now called “Penelope und die zwölf Mägde” (Penelope and the twelve maids). I think this change was very well done because it clarifies that this book is about Penelope and her twelve maids – and not about Odysseus. At the centre of the story are not Odysseus’ adventures but the experiences of the female characters who usually play a minor role in his hero story.
And this change of perspective is at the core of “The Penelopiad“ because it creates space for topics like sexualized violence, forced prostitution, classism and a critique of the impulsivenesss with which the powerful treat their subordinates. Atwood does not shy away from holding up a mirror to Greek myths and calling things what they are.
I enjoyed reading this book a lot! In “The Penelopiad“ Atwood manages to tie together humour, literary nuances and social criticism which makes it a pleasure to follow her story – not only for fans of Greek mythology but also for other book lovers who enjoy complex narratives or critical retellings.
Thank you to the Wunderraum Verlag für the review copy! You can learn more about the book here. Do you like retellings of Greek myths? And do you think this novel would be for you?