Friday, 11 November 2016

Book Review: Cassandra by Christa Wolf review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Women in a strictly patriarchal system always used to have a hard time making themselves heard, seen and taken seriously, but everywhere in the world and at all times in history there have been some who managed despite the obstacles that society, notably men put into their way. If they were lucky, they were much respected and adored for their achievements – whichever they were. More often, though, strong and defiant women were looked at with suspicion, even fear by men and women alike. They were branded as anything ranging from madwoman over shrew to witch and they were ridiculed, locked away or even killed. In the novel Cassandra by Christa Wolf the Trojan princess and seeress from Greek legend is depicted as an unusually intelligent woman with an innate yearning for independence, but neither her family nor the people of Troy accept her the way she is and so they don’t believe her prophecies when they should.

Christa Wolf was born Christa Ihlenfeld in Landsberg an der Warthe, Brandenburg, Germany (today: Gorzów Wielkopolski, Poland), in March 1929. After World War II the family fled from their home, which had suddenly become Polish, and settled down in the German Democratic Republic where she studied German philology at the universities of Jena and Leipzig. Following graduation she worked as a researcher and later as an editor for different periodicals. In 1961 she made her literary debut with Moskauer Novelle (Moscow Novella), but it was her novel The Devided the Sky (Der geteilte Himmel: 1963) that allowed her to become a full-time writer. It was followed by other acclaimed novels like The Quest for Christa T. (Nachdenken über Christa T.: 1968), Patterns of Childhood (Kindheitsmuster: 1976; also published in English as A Model Childhood), No Place on Earth (Kein Ort. Nirgends: 1979), Cassandra (Kassandra: 1983), What Remains (Was bleibt: 1990), Medea (1996), and City of Angels or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud (Stadt der Engel oder The Overcoat of Dr. Freud: 2010). Christa Wolf died in Berlin, Germany, in December 2011. Her narrative August (2012) and the novel Nachruf auf Lebende. Die Flucht (2014; Obituary of the Living. The Flight) were published posthumously.

The Trojan war is over and Agamemnon returns home to Mycenae with lots of victory spoils and captives, among them King Priam’s daughter Cassandra. She knows that her fate is sealed because she is a seeress and she had visions of her own as well as her twin sons’ violent death from the hands of Clytemnestra and her lover. With the end drawing closer, she sets out to give account of her ill-fated life from her own point of view. She remembers the time when she still was King Priam’s favourite child and allowed to sit on his lap while he talked politics with her mother Hecuba. Cassandra at the same time admires and hates her mother because she early recognises the girl’s independent spirit and concludes that she doesn’t need her. Reluctantly, Cassandra moves to the district of Athena’s temple after she had her first period because it’s her religious duty to sacrifice her virginity there. For a while it looks like none of the men would choose her, but then Aeneas arrives and asks her to come with him. On this day, though, nothing happens between them except that they fall in love with each other, a love that will last a whole life. While waiting Cassandra decided to become a priestess of Apollo at all cost. About a year later a dream of the God makes it possible although the fact that in it she refused herself to Apollo dooms her to be a seeress whose prophecies will only meet disbelief. When her brother Paris has just convinced King Priam to start a campaign against Sparta to abduct Menelaus’ beautiful wife Helen, Cassandra has a fit and collapses after announcing the fall of Troy. Everybody calls her mad and ignores her warnings. Thus events take their – known – tragic course.

Being Cassandra’s final testimony of events as well as explanation if not justification of the choices she made in life, it’s only natural that the novel should be a first-person narrative making ample use of stream-of-consciousness. Seemingly at random, observations of what happens in the narrator’s present in Mycenae merge with memories of her life in Troy and critical self-reflection. The protagonist appears as an intelligent woman who suffered much because most Trojans including her closest family misunderstood and marginalised her for expressing own wishes, ideas and views that were against the accepted line of thought. Troy is as a male-ruled totalitarian regime reminding of Nazi Germany and of her Eastern parts under Communist rule after 1945. Regarding the censorship and oppression that Cassandra was subject to both for being a woman and for openly talking her mind, the Eastern German author certainly drew from personal experience. Otherwise, Christa Wolf remained close to classical Greek and Roman sources that mention Cassandra and that she must have known very well to be able to rewrite Trojan history from a decidedly female perspective without major alterations. Apart from the plot also rhythm and tone of the novel’s original German edition clearly evoke the historical texts. Moreover, the language is engaging.

To be truthfully, it has been a long while since I last plunged into a book dealing with Greek mythology, be it an original work (in translation) that survived the centuries or an adaptation by a modern author. Therefore reading Cassandra by Christa Wolf was quite a change for me, but a very pleasant as well as surprising one. I appreciated the subtle critique of patriarchal structures and totalitarian regimes in the guise of a classical Greek story that actually made East German censors ban the book at first. More than thirty years after the publication of the book, it’s on many school reading lists… deservedly. In other words: I warmly recommend it for reading!

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This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):


  1. This looks like a good book for me! Thanks for the review :-)

    1. My pleasure! I'm happy to know that you like my review.

  2. This sounds like a wonderful novel. I have heard of the author but never read her. Thanks again for a great recommendation.

    1. Although Christa Wolf was a German writer, even a famous one, this was the first of her books that I ever read. I particularly liked that she rewrote the male-biased classical Greek myth from Cassandra's female point of view restoring her credibility and mirroring conditions in the German Democratic Republic.

      Thanks for your comment, Judy!


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