The woe-begotten stories of the House of Atreus are familiar to many people. Even if we do not know who wrote the original story or the exact reference, nearly everyone knows the expression ” a bit of a Cassandra” meaning someone who always predicts the worst; and the names Electra and Agamemnon generally ring bells even if you cannot remember exactly who they were.
In one of the more infamous moments of this family mythology, Agamemnon sends to his wife, Clytemnestra to bring his daughter for marriage to a place where he is waiting. But there is no marriage, Iphigenia is to be sacrificed to the Gods in a hope that the Gods will send a fair wind so that he and his warriors can sail off to the Trojan War. A story which I think pretty much everyone has heard of even if they do not exactly remember it.
Colm Tóibín in his new novel, House of Names, has re-worked this whole ghastly story into a shockingly vivid narrative of betrayal, fury, lust, revenge and tragedy. It had all these elements already, but it is in the finer detail that Tóibín makes us look at this again.
He describes the smell of blood and death, the flies and the stink; he dresses his characters in fine robes and we can hear the rustle of silks as they sweep the floor; we feel the hunger and fear of the captured Orestes and we rejoice when he and Leander escape. It is in the detail that we begin to properly understand the horror.
We do not begin at the beginning of this sorry and sordid tale, but at the point when Clytemnestra has taken her revenge on Agamemnon after his return triumphant from the wars; bringing with him his new mistress Cassandra, the voice of doom. While he has been away, Clytemnestra has been disporting with Aegisthus and between them they have cooked up a deadly revenge. Clytemnestra has had woven a deadly garment, the poison in its threads will hold the victim paralysed but aware, while his lovely welcoming wife slits his throat. Clytemnestra then kills Cassandra for good measure.
Meanwhile, her other daughter Electra is locked up downstairs and her son, Orestes hurried off to a place of safety.
We then go back to the moment she has prepared her beloved daughter in the finest wedding clothes for marriage. as she thinks. to the hero Achilles. So she is a bit amazed when he denies it, but still unsuspecting, for who could imagine the truth. And although she does not witness the sacrifice herself, having been tied up and thrust into a hole, we learn later that Iphigenia went bravely forward, pleading with her father not to do this awful thing and it was only when she threatened to curse them all that they tied and gagged her before cutting her throat. But the detail that her black hair was cut short, and her neck nicked in the cutting so that she cried out, is entirely Tóibín’s addition, part of the added detail that makes all this so profoundly real.
But, of course, this is Greek tragedy so nothing goes quite according to plan and one act of murder follows another until the final gore-fest ends steeped in blood.
I suspect that an Irish writer, more than most, would understand the nature of the festering wounds that are inflicted generation after generation as families divide and fall apart in a welter of blood and revenge. The Troubles, in real life, mirrored some of the more horrible aspects of Greek tragedy. Not that I am imagining that they were provoked by an effort to appease, placate or influence the Gods, but one murder led inexorably to another until the country was steeped in blood in a war just as profound as that on the cliffs of Troy.