life between the lines
A review of Amanda Michalopoulou’s God’s Wife (Rhode Island School of Design)
Patricia Felisa Barbeito
Near the end of Amanda Michalopoulou’s Η Γυναίκα του Θεού (God’s Wife, Kastaniotis, 2014), the novel’s eponymous narrator finds herself in prison, both a heaven and hell, of her own making: “You won’t believe me, but I’m imprisoned in the Book (….) In here, I can do whatever I want with words. When I can no longer stand the stillness, my mind dives onto the page from a great height and I am undone.” In many ways, God’s wife brings to mind the beleaguered captive heroines found in the precursors to the modern psychological novel: the Pamelas and Clarissas (Richardson), the mad women in the attic (Brontë) and the quintessential romantic and domestic narratives they shaped. Like them, she is a fresh-faced, high-minded innocent yearning for love and self-sacrifice, “one of those girls who don’t want to displease anyone.” Like them, she suffers trauma, loss, the aggressions of a sadistic brother, until she is saved from it all by a tall and handsome stranger with luminous eyes and an Edenic home. Like them, her initial absolute artlessness is soon tinged with doubt and defiance as the utopia of domesticity is transformed into a battle of wills. Wavering between self-denial, repression and an intense desire to know, God’s wife is very much like the protagonist of the influential Gothic short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman “The Yellow Wallpaper,” (surely an intertext here): with the pencil she has hidden in her vagina, she writes in secret not withstanding her husband’s express prohibition, seeking to tear off the pattern of silence that he has imposed on her. Caught in a story in which she has been hitherto complicit, she tries repeatedly, almost suicidally to escape, to rewrite it, but her task is exceptionally difficult: this narrator’s husband is God Himself.
Therein lies both the boldness and brilliance of Michalopoulou’s novel, for the story of the narrator’s travels and travails with her enigmatic and taciturn husband opens out into a highly nuanced, evocative, and oftentimes wryly humorous meditation on creativity and creation, reality and imagination, freedom and faith, spirituality and physicality, indeed the very nature of truth and love. What ties all this together, of course, is the novel’s sustained, self-conscious attention to the workings of fiction. It is the very foundation of the couple’s relationship – what else, besides fiction, could bring these two together? – but it is also what sunders them: for God abhors what reminds him of his own (failed) creation. Indeed the novel is built around a vertiginous, multilayered complex of intertextual reference, from the Dantean journey through hell, purgatory and heaven that shape the novel’s sections, to the plethora of references – from Gilgamesh through Stendhal to Simone Weil -- that form the backbone of the couple’s debates. The wife seeks answers, truth, purpose, a book of her own; God, surrounded by his incomprehensible, mumbling angels, evades, refuses, denies, punishes. If “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God,” what happens when that word turns out to be empty, a lie, an alibi? “My greatest fear is that you do not exist,” writes the narrator to her implied reader, “I’m also afraid that perhaps I don’t exist.” Yet all she can do to assuage these fears is to keep on writing. And the more she writes, the more God seems to withdraw from her so that in the end, He stands for the impossibility, the sublime indifference, the echoing emptiness that drives the desire to create.
The Dominican-American author, Junot Diaz has said that novelists are akin to dictators in that they both allow only one person to speak: “We all dream dreams of unity, of purity; we all dream that there's an authoritative voice out there that will explain things, including ourselves. If it wasn't for our longing for these things, I doubt the novel or the short story would exist in its current form.” Michalopoulou, like her narrator, dives into the pages of the novel from the headiest pinnacles of the literary tradition and what comes undone in these “waves of paper,” as the narrator calls them, is the very illusion of purity, unity and authority that the novel enshrines. Indeed, the greatest achievement of this supremely artful novel may very well be what it does to us as readers: it beckons us in, seduces us with tantalizing glimpses of hidden truths, only to tease us, frustrate us, send us on our way: “Don’t let me keep you…I release you, reader, with my blessing.” Like the narrator, we are left caught in the book, living between the lines, wandering among the black and white of pages that are ultimately a love letter to the possibilities and limits of the novel itself.
|ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 25 (05.2015)|