The Murderess

As Hadoula, the 60-year-old protagonist of this 1903 novel by Alexandros Papdiamantis (and translated from Greek by Peter Levi) takes care of her infant granddaughter, she considers her life as a woman and the lives of her daughters. How much pain there is, how much their futures are prescribed by dowry customs and whims of men. And she wondered, “O God, why should another one come into the world?”

Girls have seven lives, the old woman reflected. Not much makes them ill and they seldom die. Should we as good Christians not help in the work of the angels? Oh how many boys, and how many little princes are snatched away untimely! And even little princesses die more easily, rare in their sex as they are, more easily than the infinite multitude of the children of the poor. The only ones with seven lives are the girl children of the lowest class! They seem to have been multiplied on purpose, to punish their parents with a foretaste of hell in this world. Ah, the more one works things out, the more one’s brain goes up in smoke.

On the very next page, Papadiamantos observes that the old woman’s brain has indeed gone up in smoke, as her musings turned into a deadly impulse, and the baby in her care is now dead. And it’s not the last.

Hadoula sees herself as doing good, preventing years of suffering for young daughters and their families. For her, pain is inevitable for girls and their families, and Papadiamantos offers sufficient reason in the history of Hadoula and others in the village for us to believe it. Hadoula is a healer who uses herbs and plants to ease her neighbors’ pains. These deaths are a extension of that work. Yet the families in Hadoula’s village don’t see it that way, and so she ends up on the run, crawling up the mountains of Skiathos, evading capture as long as she can.

I can’t say that I loved this book, partly because stories of women’s suffering are so ubiquitous as to require something really original to stand out. The premise is original, but the story felt thin once I got past the premise. However, the ending of the book raises some interesting questions about how Papadiamantos wants readers to understand Hadoula’s actions, and her feelings about those actions. I’m not suggesting that the book’s argument is that the murders are righteous, but the final image, evoking baptism, makes me wonder if we’re supposed to read something righteous in her intentions. Papadiamantos says she’s caught “midway between divine and human justice.” So what, exactly, is the justice she’s receiving?

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