While Christa Wolf isn’t averse to a trip back in time, as shown in her book Kein Ort. Nirgends (No Place on Earth), much of her work focuses on life in the former German Democratic Republic and the struggles of an artist living under a stifling regime. So when we see her delving into Greek mythology, how exactly does that relate to life behind the Iron Curtain? Read on, and you might just find out…
Kassandra (or Cassandra, in English) is a retelling of the Trojan War from the viewpoint of one of its minor characters. Cassandra, daughter of Troy’s King Priam, is being taken back to Mycenae by the Greek victors along with many other prisoners, knowing her fate is to find her death once she has arrived on enemy shores. This may not be much of a prediction given the circumstances, but coming from Cassandra, it’s more of a certainty; you see, the royal daughter is also a priestess with the gift of prophecy – if only people would believe her.
As she prepares to meet her death, Cassandra indulges herself in a long monologue in which she looks back at the ten-year war which led to the destruction of her home and the death of many of those she held dear. While her beloved Aeneas has managed to escape, most of her brothers and sisters have perished, cut down by Achilles and his murderous Greeks. Surprisingly, though, where The Iliad focuses on the half-crazed demigod and the battles outside the gates of Troy, Cassandra prefers to remember less noted events. This is a story where we see the effects of war on those who never sought it in the first place…
I wasn’t really sure what to make of Kassandra when I first heard about the book’s plot, but having read it I can assure you that it’s a wonderful novel. A basic knowledge of the events, and protagonists, of the Trojan War will certainly enhance your enjoyment of the novel, but it’s an entertaining story even without this knowledge, a clever retelling of an old story and a nuanced look at the role of women in war (or lack thereof). The main character is a tragic one, gifted with insights which do her and her people no good at all.
Cassandra herself plays a much larger role in Wolf’s version of history than she does in the Homerian classics. Granted the gift of prophecy by Apollo in a dream, she is never able to convince the Trojans of the accuracy of her predictions, which leads her to feel responsible for the events of the war:
“…Ich bin es gewesen, von allen seinen Kindern ich, die, wie der Vater meinte, unsre Stadt und ihn verraten hat.”
p.21 (Suhrkamp, 2013)
“…It was me, I of all his children who, as father claimed, betrayed him and our city.” *** (My translation)
In truth, this feeling of guilt has less to do with any real sense of responsibility for the war than with the growing estrangement from her father that develops over the course of the long years of conflict and siege. Gradually, Cassandra withdraws from court, preferring to spend her time away from the continual (and futile) councils of war.
If we are to blame anyone for this, then one likely candidate would be Eumelos, one of King Priam’s advisors, who uses his position, and the king’s trust, to strengthen his position within the city, instigating a reign of terror and suspicion. Eumelos manages to drive a wedge between Priam and his queen, Hecuba, surrounding the king with a sizeable guard (whose main purpose seems to be to isolate the ruler from those who might give him different advice). Outside the palace, Troy becomes a police state, and many readers see this as an allegory for the Stasi’s stifling grip on public life in the former East Germany (one which led to the book being banned initially in the GDR).
However, the beauty of Kassandra is that the power struggles comprise only a small part of the story, with much of the action taking place outside the palace. Marpessa, one of Cassandra’s slaves, becomes her guide to the wider world outside the castle walls, and she takes us on a journey through the streets of the city, up to the mountains and down amongst the secret caves. The Trojan War was not a continuous siege, and life went on calmly for many Trojans during the frequent periods of truce; one of the more amusing aspects of the story is the possibility of seeing Agamemnon or Odysseus roaming the markets of Troy, bargaining for jewellery and greeting Cassandra politely…
Another major theme of the book (and, for many readers, perhaps, the central topic) is a feminist rereading of the Trojan War. From the start, Wolf focuses on the women around Kassandra, particularly her mother Hecuba, whom Cassandra often sees as a more capable ruler than her father:
“Da wich die Amme zurück. Es war ihr verboten, das sah ich, den Namen auszusprechen. Sie wußte, ich wußte es auch, daß man Hekabe zu gehorchen hatte. Schier unglaublich scheint es mir heute, was ihre Befehle bewirkten, kaum kann ich es mir ins Gedächtnis zurückrufen, daß ich einstmals heiß empört gegen diese Befehle aufbegehrte.” (p.28)
“At that the nurse recoiled. She was forbidden, I could see, to speak the name. She knew, just as well as I did, that Hecuba was to be obeyed. It seems unbelievable today, the effect of her commands, I can scarcely recall the way I once rebelled, outraged, against these commands.” ***
A very different case is Cassandra’s sister Polyxena, a young woman whose fate seems destined from the start to be a sad one. Later in the story, her beauty and goodwill will be used to snare Achilles – but at a great, tragic cost.
This look at the life of women also becomes more personal at times. Early in the story, Cassandra is led to the caves outside the city, where women perform frenzied rites to a secret goddess. The entrance to the main cave is compared to a part of the female anatomy, a hole leading into the belly of the earth, partially covered by vegetation hanging down across the entrance. This prepares us for when Cassandra later becomes more explicit in talking about her sex life, musing about her regular liaisons with one of the priests:
“Wenn er länger nachts nicht zu mir kam, entbehrte ich ihn sehr. Nicht ihn, ‘es’. Und wenn er auf mir lag – Ainias, nur Ainias. Das war selbstverständlich.” (p.41)
“Whenever he failed to visit me at night for a time, I missed him. Not him, ‘it’. And whenever he lay on top of me – Aeneas, only Aeneas. That went without saying.” ***
Aeneas may be her soulmate, but that doesn’t stop her entertaining herself during his absences – now that’s something I don’t remember hearing about in The Iliad…
For all the reasons above, and more, Kassandra is a wonderful book, probably my favourite of Wolf’s of the four I’ve read. I’m not always a huge fan of alternate histories, or retellings of other writers’ stories, but this one is definitely ripe for rewriting, with multiple versions existing anyway. Wolf does an excellent job of capturing the voice of the tragic fortune-teller, examining war, feminism and totalitarian states in the process. There’s something for everyone here – you can take that as a recommendation to give it a try 🙂