Cassandra by Christa Wolfe

Cassandra has always struck me as the most tragic figure in the story of the Trojan War. Gifted with prophecy, she could see the future, she knew what would happen, but no one would believe her. It’s one thing to be doomed; it’s another to know you are doomed.

German author Christa Wolf retells the story of the Trojan War from Cassandra’s point of view in her novel Cassandra translated from the German by Jan Van Heurck. By telling the story this way, Ms. Wolf increases our understanding of the Trojan War. There are no heroics in Cassandra. When Cassandra witnesses a battle, she sees it from the point of view of a hapless victim not as a combatant. Because she is King Priam’s daughter, she has an insider’s view of court politics. What she witnesses is a war fought not for honor, but for economic reasons–control of the Bosporus Straits trade. She sees a shift in Trojan politics and culture from a more peaceful, matriarchal society to a society controlled by men, one that shuts out women from all positions of power.

But Christa Wolf’s most intriguing take on the Trojan War is her take on it’s cause, the kidnapping of Helen. In Homer’s version of the story, Helen of Troy, a beautiful young Greek girl who became the face that launched a thousand ships, was promised to Paris, a Trojan prince, by the goddess Aprhodite. She watched the war from the walls of Troy, despised by the Trojans as the cause of their suffering and despised by the Greeks for her betrayal of her father. In Cassandra, Helen is absent from the story altogether. She is taken from her father by Paris, but she is then taken from him by the King of Egypt when Paris stops there on his way to Troy. In order to save face, Paris and the men of the Trojan court, keep the second kidnapping of Helen a secret. When Paris docks his ships in Troy, he sends ashore a veiled woman. The men claim that Helen is too ill to receive visitors, so no one but Paris can see her. Weeks, and then months go by. Eventually, no one asks about Helen anymore. She is forgotten. The Greeks arrive to do battle with Troy and win Helen back; war between the two begins based entirely on deception. It’s clear that everyone knows about the lie by then, but no one stops the war once it has begun.

Sound familiar?

The Trojan War continues to be the source of great literature. Margaret Atwood’s recent novel The Penelopiad, which tells the story from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife who famously fought off an army of suitors while waiting from him to return from the Trojan War, is a recent example. Cassandra, by Christa Wolf, proves that knowing the whole story before hand need not ruin it. At just under 150 pages, it’s possible to read the entire novel in two or three sittings which is good because novel is a page turner. You think you know the story of the Trojan War, but Cassandra’s insider view and the reinterpretation of the war’s underlying causes make for eye-opening reading. Knowing how the story ends, does not lessen the experience of reading Cassandra at all. She is the witness to the events who can tell us what really happened. It’s a fascinating and compelling read.

As was the case with Hans Fallada, author of Every Man Dies Alone, Christa Wolf’s biography is as interesting as her work. Born in what is now Poland in the late 1920’s, her family was expelled from their home after World War II and settled in what became East Germany. She became a literary scholar and critic, served briefly as an informant for the Stasis only to be criticised by them for her “reticence” and placed under surveillance for over 30 years. In spite of this she remained faithful to the ideals of Karl Marx and opposed German reunification. Cassandra is considered by many to be her most important work.

 

It’s been a while since I read Cassandra or anything else by Christa Wolfe.  I put several short pieces by her in my current deck for the Deal-Me-In Short Story Challenge, but it’s been a while since I dealt myself any cards.  I hope to remedy that situation this summer.  But I’ve signed up for so many art classes that reading may take a bit of a back seat for once.  

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