The Dance of Deidameia and Her Women

The reading pace has picked up! Self finished Olga Zilberbourg’s short story collection in four days. The stories in Like Water and Other Stories were absolutely fascinating: not just a record of an immigrant mother’s life in San Francisco, but an indelible record of Russian life in St. Petersburg. It was published three years ago by a small press, Why There Are Words, and is a really good example of why we need small presses.

Self’s current read is The Song of Achilles. Anyone who’s read The Odyssey knows about the tragic end of Achilles and his lover Patroclus (Self is wondering how the author is going to pull that off, since the point of view is Patroclus’s, in first person. In The Odyssey, Patroclus gets killed first, so who is going to narrate the death of Achilles, which happens soon after? She also hates novels with a first-person narrator who dies in the end. It seems like the biggest cheat. But for some reason, she is still reading The Song of Achilles)

As usual, the earthiness of the descriptions of gods and goddesses is part of what self finds so arresting about Madeline Miller’s writing. Achilles’ mother, the sea nymph Thestis, is downright scary. Much taller than any mortal, with eyes that are entirely black, flecked with gold. YIIIIIKES. And self always thought sea nymphs were supposed to be delicate and airy. NOT SO!

Chiron the centaur is huge, too, and the place where horse becomes human — that exact point where horse hide becomes human skin — is given such solidity in the descriptions. Achilles and Patroclus spend three years living with Chiron in a cave. Given how huge Chiron is, it’s a wonder he can move around in there, especially after the two boys move in with him, but move he does, because the cave is also his kitchen, and he cooks all the boys’ meals.

In one scene, Achilles is spirited away by his mother (because she knows about the hanky panky taking place between him and Patroclus in Chiron’s cave, after Chiron’s gone to sleep, LOL), and she hides him on an island that is ruled by a decrepit King and a very nubile Princess. Patroclus comes to the island in search of Achilles, and is entertained at dinner by the Princess and her dancing women. The Princess dances suggestively with one of the dancers in particular, and not until the dance is over and the women go up to the guests does Patroclus realize that the tall dancer is actually — yup, you guessed it: ACHILLES!

HAR HAR HAR!

Achilles immediately falls on Patroclus and introduces him to the Princess as “my husband.” Then Achilles reaches up and tears “the veil from his hair,” whereupon the Princess sets up the most infernal screaming, and the old King turns out not to be that decrepit because he looks dangerous, suddenly.

Self honestly does not know how Achilles got away with pretending to be a woman — isn’t he supposed to be covered with muscle, especially his chest? That scene is pure high comedy!

Stay tuned.

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