In Cassandra (1984), German writer Christa Wolf retells the familiar Greek myth of the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the seer and prophet who was doomed to know the future and have everyone not believe her. Wolf’s novel takes place during the last few hours of Cassandra’s life, as she’s being taken in a carriage towards her death in Argos, after Troy has fallen. During that last trip, Cassandra remembers her life, and tells it in a very conversational style, going back and forth in time as the associations take her.
Wolf plays with different aspects of the mythology quite deftly. Those who are familiar with the stories of the Trojan war, will recognize many elements. But Wolf also takes aspects of not just Greek but Roman and even Medieval traditions to draft characters such as Briseis. Her own imagination gets to play too, for example in the relationship between Cassandra and Aeneas, or the character of Anchises, father of Aeneas.
As a novel, Cassandra is a character study of a mythological figure, and it works as the popular feminist gesture of giving a voice to the mostly voiceless. It’s also an allegory. It’s not apparent at first, but once the reader finds out what really happened to Helena in Egypt, the parallels and patterns start to emerge. Wolf is vicious and viciously accurate, in tracing the process of enemy-creation, of propaganda and fear-mongering. Well, she lived in East-Germany. She knows how it’s done.
As far as allegories go, Cassandra is among the better ones, because the characters truly live, or at least Cassandra does. She doesn’t exist just to illustrate a point about East-German politics and state terrorism, although she does that beautifully. But she also talks about her life in such a way that it almost feels like you can hear her speak trough the Millennia to tell her own truth.
This is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, but I’m docking a star and giving it four instead of five for two reasons: some parts of the sexual morals Wolf gives the Greeks and the Trojans ring false to me. And much as I admire Wolf’s skill in creating a believable prehistoric Troy, I’m not sure I can get completely on board with all the demythologizing. This world has no gods, nothing supernatural. Everything is explained rationally. It’s a neat trick, but I do so like my gods and monsters.