Thursday 24 December 2009

The Double Tongue

I am including this in my Women Unbound Reading Challenge, almost because it is by a man and I find it interesting to discover male authors who can write convincingly about women's experience.

So The Double Tongue by William Golding is that strangest of literary artefacts, the posthumous novel. This book was put together by his editors from several completed drafts after the author's death in 1993. It is set in ancient Greece and concerns the central character Arieka, who lives a privileged but neglected childhood until she is plucked from obscurity to take on the role of the Oracle at Delphi.

I have struggled to write more about this book, with the draft started over a week ago, feeling I have to say something thoughtful about such a well respected author, but I wasn't that impressed. Although the book centres on Arieka she is merely this figurehead and the more interesting character is Ionides, who is in charge of the Oracle and the public's contact with it and becomes her guardian and also her friend. Arieka takes on the role of maid to the Second Lady, but following the somewhat precipitous deaths of both the First and Second Ladies she finds herself elevated to the position of First Lady and is initiated into the realities of prophesy. Arieka herself really does believe in the gods, while Ionides most definitely does not and his role in the proceedings is about political manipulation, and is certainly where all the power resides. While she is left to give answers to the questions of the 'ordinary people', he acts as intermediary, and when important people come with important questions it is he who gives the answers. And she discovers that there is high speed communication (messenger pigeons) carrying information between the oracles at different religious sites ensuring a consistent response.

To be fair the book does have much to say on the position of women. Women are not free, even though Arieka considers herself above the slaves. When her periods start she in thrown abruptly into the world of seclusion and ritual that accompanies menstruation and comments "They were just enough to remind me that women aren't free. not even the free ones." (p.17) When she refuses to marry, tries to run away and is then returned under inauspicious circumstances she is practically sold to the Foundation at Delphi. Not that Arieka minds because it offers her the chance to educate herself from the extensive library in a way that was just not available to women then. But then later when she first encounters the cave where she must prophesy and is mortally afraid, "The fear was still there but mixed, I do not know how or why, with grief. It was grief about women I think. Grief for them as instruments to be played on by gods or men." (p.68) Later still when they travel to try and get money to restore the Foundations buildings another woman is much more accepting of her position: "We women are never free,' murmured the Phoenician's lady. 'It's rather nice really.'" (p.107). But during the same conversation Ionides then describes the First Lady as "the only really free person in the world".

The book gives you a portrait, though you cannot be sure how true, of a very narrow aspect of ancient culture. It was all very interesting but the novel itself did not go anywhere or say anything very enlightening about the people or their situation. My favourite quote was just something that amused me, "Latin .... a language with too much grammar and no literature." And I learned the word 'apotropaic' which means averting evil, and it referred to little superstitious hand gestures that were supposed to ward off bad things. All in all if I were to recommend any William Golding it would have to remain 'Lord of the Flies'.

1 comment:

  1. Ta for another interesting review, Martine.

    Have a merry Xmas!


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