Our book today is a slim, weird masterpiece of 20th century Greek literature, The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis, published in 1903 and translated into English by Peter Levi in 1983.

Translated into English, with the usual apologies. Translator apologies almost always bug me, and Levi’s is no exception; they almost always take as their premise that precise or even cognitively close translation isn’t really possible – that the best even a skilled translator can do is cobble together a series of more or less serviceable approximations … that everything, in other words, is lost in the translation.

Levi is fairly explicit about it all, in his Translator’s Preface to Papadiamantis’ jagged, admittedly idiosyncratic book. The particular twists and turns of Papadiamantis’ prose, Levi tells us, “… the realism and the exoticism, the narrative gift and the excessively romantic lyricism, make it impossible to disentangle his virtues from his vices as a writer. They are also extremely hard to render in modern English.”

Needless to say, I never have any idea what to make of a translator who openly tells his readers that the one thing he wasn’t really able to do with his source text was translate it. Resorting to incomprehensible evasions like maintaining an author’s strengths can be indistinguishable from his weaknesses doesn’t help any, as does imputing blame to the very regionalism that is the reason for translating the work in the first place:

It has been impossible to produce accurately the texture of the original. I had trouble with proverbs and the names of herbs. Certain popular phrases exist in every language that have roots in an entire culture, and Papadiamantis uses more of them than most writers. Then at times he can be painfully slow and repetitive, or he can drag in by the hair some weighty phrase out of a literary journal. Nowadays a publisher’s editor would simply strike it out. It is not the task of a mere translator to underline such phrases.

Fortunately, Levi’s own work in translating this little book bears out a different tale, one in which his skills as a translator positively shine. Papadiamantis’ tale is that of an old woman named Hadoula, sometimes known as Frankojannou, who as the book opens has gone four days and nights without sleep at the side of a newborn granddaughter, a little baby born sick who’s done nothing but cry for days. Drifting in and out of aggravated patches of half-sleep, Frankojannou’s mind more or less snaps; she sticks two fingers in the baby’s mouth and holds them there until the infant is completely still. The child’s mother is asleep in the same room of the poor little hovel, and the tiny village’s doctor is away from town – his temporary substitute rather easily puts the death down to fever, but by that point old Hadoula’s mind has permanently altered. Whether she’s reacting to the grinding poverty and social nullity in which all the women of her world live, or whether she’s simply gone insane, we don’t know. But it isn’t long before she pushes two little girls down a well and cold-heartedly waits while they first struggle then float face-down.

Shortly after that, she’s seen nearby when another girl goes down a well, and the police begin to suspect she’s somehow involved. In the classic tradition of ancient Greek tragedy, Frankojannou has by this point become little more than a beast at bay, tormented by the same memories that exhilarate her, intent on fleeing into the mountains rather than be apprehended and put in prison:

As she went out, the lamenting voice of the infant, the tiny girl unjustly slain, moaned inside her. She stood in the doorway, peering carefully outside, right and let, up and down the road. Not a soul, not a shadow. She put wings to her feet. It was not the first time she had heard that sorrowful infant cry in the cavernous, echoing darkness of her soul. Now she thought she was escaping from danger and disaster, escaping from dungeon and prison, but prison and Hell were within her.

The bleakness of this story moves effortlessly from the hardscrabble streets and huts of the poor Greek villages that are its setting to the minds and memories of its characters as they gradually react to this horrific tragedy unfolding amidst them. And of course nobody’s reactions are more intense than the murderess’ own:

In her [Frankojannou’s] sleep she thought she was still young; her father and mother married her off in her dream as they had done in fact, and gave her ‘the blessing of the dear departed’ and the dowry, including her father’s plot, where she had dug and watered cabbages when she was little. And her father rewarded her for her hard work, and gave her ‘four heads’ out of the cabbages. Hadoula took the four plants happily into her hands, but when she looked, Oh horror! she saw they were four little dead human heads.

Despite his protestations, Levi does a wonderful job conveying all this. Papadiamantis is entirely unknown to the world outside Greece, and he represents a large gallery of such regional artists in similar positions. Such artists represent entire worlds, of course, and each one of them is worth exploring. I can recommend Papadiamantis as one of those destinations, and this book – his strongest and bleakest – is his best.

  • Shelly

    Thank you for your review, which I only saw today, a full year to the day after you posted it. I remember reading this book in the early 1990s and being stunned by its power and its precision. Against the backdrop of a beautiful geographical location in the midst of inexorable destruction, we witness the exquisite, maimed human spirit of this healer, playing out in condensed time the same grand and terrifying theme.

    For me, this book was in the “ten best” category, with John Hersey’s THE WALL and CHILD BUYER, Garcia-Marquez’s HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, Nabokov’s LOLITA, Grass’s TIN DRUM…oh well, I can’t remember all the others right now but suffice it to say that few books have given me a greater thrill.

    I’ll be checking into your website more often now!

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