Christa Wolf; Trans. Jan Van Heurck
Cassandra by Christa Wolf, translated by Jan Van Heurck, presents the fall of Troy and its aftermath through the first-person point of view of Cassandra, a daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the king and queen of Troy. According to Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo after she promised to become his consort. When she reneged on her promise, Apollo cursed her so no one would believe her prophesies.
We meet Cassandra as she is about to face her death. She weaves descriptions of her current situation with flashes of the past. She describes the deterioration of Troy into a virtual police state, a situation that creeps up fueled by a war that generates fear and superstition among her people and within members of her family. She is horrified by the changes she witnesses in the behaviors and values of those she loves. She warns of the impending doom, but her voice is marginalized and eventually silenced. She witnesses the brutality of war, the deaths of family and friends, and the destruction of her city.
Through Cassandra, Wolf voices her opinions on the insanity of war and its corrosive impact. As the novel unfolds, we see truth manipulated to serve political aims. Hostilities force people into adopting positions contrary to their previous nature. Deceptions and lies are reiterated until they assume the strength of dogma. The whole fabric of society crumbles until what remains is no longer recognizable. In war, everyone loses.
One of the many interesting aspects of the novel is the way in which the women of Troy carve a physical and psychological space for themselves outside of male domain. There is a sense of sisterhood and unity among women. They share intimate details of their lives, soothe each other’s wounds with healing balms, administer medicinal herbs and plants, and interpret dreams. Cassandra finds solace and comfort in the company of these women, a respite from the male machinations in the palace.
The book includes a collection of four essays in which Wolf describes her travels to ancient sites in Greece and Crete. Cassandra’s vision and voice are never far from her mind and eventually take shape as Wolf treks through these ancient sites. Woven into her travelogue are her musing on Cassandra. We are given a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an author’s creative process taking shape as it is being informed by her travels, research, and readings of Classical literature.
Wolf’s writing is intense and powerful. She conveys her views with passion and conviction. The writing is dense and energetic. At times, it can pose a challenge to keep track of her meditations on Cassandra, on the fall of Troy, on the impact of war, and on the political upheavals caused by the Cold War during the 1980s when she wrote the novel. But it is a challenge worth facing because what emerges is the voice of a talented author with a profound sensitivity to the state of the world and the political turmoil that surround her.