Kassandra and the Wolf – Margarita Karapanou (translated by NC Germanacos)

It’s August which means it’s Women in Translation month, created and organised by Meytal over at Biblibio. It’s a chance to focus on a small area of the publishing industry which deserves both a much bigger spotlight and to grow at least in line with translations of works by men. Throughout the month I’ll be reading and reviewing books by women writers translated into English as will many other bloggers. Check out posts by Meytal/follow the hashtag #WITMonth on Twitter. There’s a post here that details the many ways you can get involved. My archive from (and since) last year is here.

My first review is a 1974 contemporary classic from Greece.

Kassandra is an eight-year-old girl living in Greece some time after the Civil War of 1944-1949. Her family appear to be upper class: she says she lives next door to the palace with her grandparents and servants, including an often replaced governess. Her mother lives in Paris and her father – in a very memorable chapter – is placed in an asylum.

Many people visit the house. Numerous family members and some friends of the family – ambassadors, poets, playwrights. Death in various forms befalls many of these visitors either during or shortly after their visit to the house. Either their behaviour is violent or overtly sexual (often both) or Kassandra’s behaviour is violent or overtly sexual in their presence.

Early in the book, Kassandra’s mother buys her a doll:

She was big, and she had yellow strings instead of hair.

I put her to sleep in her box, but first I cut off her legs and arms so she’d fit.

Later, I cut her head off too, so she wouldn’t be so heavy. Now I love her very much.

Then a couple of chapters later, she discovers masturbation:

Singing to myself, I put my hand into my panties for a bit of company. But I went numb and furry, a sweetness wrapped right around me, and I couldn’t stop.

Faster and faster, I was going to burst. Candies like weights, like sugared almonds, rose from my soles to my belly, and I was filled with syrup. Thick honey trickled from everywhere, and I was drowning in sweetness.

All of a sudden, when the sweetness had blocked my throat, the house started to shake and rain began to fall from the sky. The earth opened up and swallowed the houses all around, one by one. I pulled my hand out of my panties quickly.

 Re-reading these sections, I wonder whether Karapanou intended us to question the guilt and confusion that often accompanies girls who behave violently or sexually. Kassandra rarely feels guilty and on the occasions she does – like the masturbation scene – she quickly moves past it. If the protagonist were an eight-year-old boy I suspect our reaction to him removing the limbs of an action man or suchlike and discovering masturbation would be quite different.

One chapter has her grandmother advice about becoming a Lady and meeting a Gentleman. Her advice on sex is:

…don’t ever show that you like it. Just imagine that you’re in the parlor, cross-stitching swans and peacocks. If you like it so much you can’t stop yourself, pretend you’ve got stomach cramps. Because if you were to moan, the Gentleman would divorce you…

 Faní, the servant contradicts grandmother’s advice, telling her to:

…Learn your body: learn to squeeze it, embroider it, water it, and kiss it.

 Kassandra concludes:

Nights now, I stay awake until morning. I never liked cross-stitching anyway, and I’ve got plenty of time before I become a nice Lady.

The novel’s mostly written in short vignettes with the occasional slightly longer chapter. It becomes clear as the book progresses that these scenes are in no particular order – characters often die and then reappear later, which also leads us to question whether they have actually died or if this is an eight-year-old’s interpretation of something they’ve been told or a misunderstanding. Karapanou shows childhood as a bewildering time, one where it’s difficult to understand the behaviour of adults and society’s expectations of you. There is punishment for comparing genitalia with a friend but not for adults who sexually abuse. Possibly the deaths of many of the people in the book are what Kassandra imagines for them in retaliation for behaviour which she does not know how to deal with.

The content, tone and style of Kassandra and the Wolf reminded me of both The Notebook by Agota Kristof and Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies. So much so, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover they were both influenced by Karapanou.

Kassandra and the Wolf is a short, sharp, piercing and disturbing read. It’s a brutal and compelling look at childhood from a non-conforming girl’s point-of-view. An excellent start to #WITMonth.