Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Memory of Wind

Novelette by Rachel Swirsky

The best summary of what the story is and why it was written is by the author herself, in a comment on another blog: "As you probably know, the original myth is the subject of a surviving Greek tragedy, Iphigenia at Aulis. The classic interpretation of the myth, as rendered in the play, is that the tragedy isn't Iphigenia's--it's Agamemnon's. He has to sacrifice her, and isn't that tragic? ... I found it very frustrating that over thousands of years, we've listened to the stories of mother and father--and brother, not incidentally--but Iphigenia receives comparatively little treatment. Surely the tragedy of Iphigenia's death is mostly her own."

The central emotions of the story are what really changes when you look at things from Iphigenia's point of view: righteous anger and frustrated helplessness. And one cannot help but feel that whatever tragedy Agamemnon thinks he is in, he cannot have possibly suffered enough.

The basic conceit of the story is that rather than simply being sacrificed for wind, Iphigenia literally becomes the wind. She forgets everything she ever knew, bit by bit, until the moment of her death. Everything is told, once she is actually wind, by whispering in her father's ear, and unlike some stories, the second person viewpoint works quite well here. The loss of memories is actually key to the telling of the story. Iphigenia relives two separate days of her life in fragmented memories as she tells of her coming to Aulis and the night before she is sacrificed. Bits and pieces of these old memories keep popping up in her descriptions. She uses the same descriptions over and over as she forgets other words or ways of describing people. The scenes from the past are overlaid onto the present with sticks replacing knives and every other person being Agamemnon or Helen.

In short, I thought the memory loss was poetic and quite well done. Rather than being an artsy trick in the story, it adds to the emotion and sense of helplessness. Swirsky does a wonderful job and does more than just a modern morality retelling of the Greek myth. And most importantly avoids Euripides' traditional, pansy-ass ending. This is a better tragedy than Iphigenia at Aulis, although it's more about anger than pity or sadness. 4.5 perfect cubes of goat cheese out of I-can't-remember-how-many.

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