No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, April 01, 1999

Medea -- Christa Wolf

The scene can be set by the quotation from Elisabeth Lenk which Wolf uses as introduction:

Achronism is not the inconsequential juxtaposition of epochs, but rather their interpenetration, like the telescoping legs of a tripod, a series of tapering structures. Since it’s quite far from one end to the other, they can be opened out like an accordion; but they can also be stacked inside one another like Russian dolls, for the walls around time-periods are extremely close to one another. The people of other centuries hear our phonographs blaring, and through the walls of time we see them raising their hands towards the deliciously prepared meal.

Margaret Atwood, in her Introduction, adds that ‘this tale is about Medea, but it is also about us… At one moment we’re identifying the dark-skinned Colchians with, perhaps, the Turks in Germany … at another, we seem to be in the atmosphere of distrust and betrayal that characterised the collapse of the East German hegemony."

The novel is told in a number of different voices. There’s Medea herself: Jason, who’s a bluff piratical type, confused about his own story and often in the forest when it comes to Medea: Agameda, Medea’s former protégé who has turned against her: Akamas, the First Astronomer of Corinth: Glauce, Jason’s epileptic intended wife: and Leukon, the Second Astronomer, and Medea’s lover. Each is a distinct voice, with mannerisms and perspectives that add to the tale: each offers a different view of Medea herself, from her own pragmatic description to Jason’s superstitious awe.

This is a solid, realistic portrayal of a Bronze Age woman in the middle of her own myth. Wolf's Medea is a sensible and politically-astute individual, aware of the machinations against her, but unable to prevent the escalation of her doom. There's no specific magic, although some religious rituals are described: nothing spooky or mad about Medea herself, and the more negative aspects of the myth (killed her brother, killed her father, killed her children, killed Jason's new wife) are not so much discounted as explained, in the most reasonable and unsensational of ways. Effectively, the myth that grew up around Medea (who was almost certainly a real person: it's one of the oldest myths around, and even Homer referred to it as ancient) is portrayed as propaganda.

Medea is well aware that she lives at the point where history becomes myth:

Early in the crossing some of the men began to … go on about how fraught with peril our departure had been, about swells and rough seas, and about their own courage and good judgement, by virtue of which all the women and children had made it safely on board. If our situation worsens, their legend-spinning will get completely out of hand, and objections based on fact will be futile. That is, if there are still such things as facts, after all these years.

Wolf's writing, even in translation, is spare and evocative:

It was a bright, transparent day in early summer, it was the hour when the light turns into darkness almost without transition, but not before summoning up one last effort of brightness that can still swell my heart though I have been accustomed to it since my childhood.

I have had a soft spot for Medea ever since I read her story in one of those 'Greek Myths for Kiddies' anthologies, around the age of six or seven. Christine de Pisan, in The Book of the City of Ladies (sadly, no copy to hand, but it's a wonderful medieval apologia for women in history from Eve onwards), portrays Medea as a good mother who does all those nasty things for her babbies. Cherubini's opera stresses the maternal aspect, too, but isn't afraid to demonise her. Somewhere behind all those myths there once lived a real person: I'm sure of it, or how did they last so long?