Cassandra by Christa Wolf

The next book in our series of translated speculative fiction is Cassandra, a retelling of the events of the Trojan War, by Christa Wolf and translated from German by Jan Van Heurk.

cassandraIf Clytemnestra was the woman I thought she was, she could not share the throne with this nonentity. She is the woman I thought she was. Besides that, she is racked with hatred. Most likely the weakling treated her vilely while he still controlled her, the way they all do. I not only know men but women as well, which is more difficult; and so I know that the queen cannot spare my life.

Cassandra, the legendary prophetess given the gift to foretell the future, but cursed so that she is never believed, waits for her murder. She’s been taken back to Greece as a Trojan prisoner-of-war by Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, where they will both be killed by his furious queen Clytemnestra. As Cassandra awaits her fate, she reminisces about the events that led her here — from her early life as a princess of Troy, through the development of her dreams and visions, and finally to the story of the Trojan war itself.

Using this well-known myth as a backdrop, Wolf uses Cassandra’s story to meditate on the nature of war itself, and in particular the roles and experiences of the women left behind while the men are fighting. There are also some interesting twists in the story — in the original myth the war is fought because the Trojan prince Paris has abducted Helen from the Greek Meneleus, and the Greeks attack Troy to get her back. This version dispenses with Helen altogether — she is a fiction invented to give the Trojans a reason to fight — and the real reason for the war is the control of lucrative trade routes. There’s a nice touch of fabled Greek hero Achilles as essentially a thug with effective propaganda, spreading the rumour that he is descended from a goddess. And there are also competing factions within the Trojan court, one counselling war, the other pacifism, and a culture of fear and suspicion. Together these elements draw a compelling picture of a city at war and make the story feel contemporary.

Cassandra herself is a perfect omniscient narrator, since she knows what will happen to her! I was pleased that at no point in the story was it obvious that she wasn’t being believed by those around her — their disbelief seemed natural, and it’s only towards the end of the war that Cassandra herself realises how potent that part of her curse truly is. She’s also an engaging character in her own right, and even though the prose was rather dense I was always gripped by her voice.

I’m not sure I’d recommend Cassandra to someone not already familiar with the events of the Trojan war — since much of the power of the narrative comes from references the reader is already aware of. At times it did feel a bit like information overload, and even as someone obsessed with Greek mythology as a teenager I had to look up some unfamiliar names. That said, the Trojan War is probably the most famous war story in Western literature, and so makes an ideal framework for a philosophical treatise on war. If you’ve even a passable knowledge of the story, this reworking is a rewarding read.

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