Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 9, 2013

The Murderess (1903), by Alexandros Papadiamantis, translated by Peter Levi

The MurderessA chance glimpse of a group of people grimly celebrating ‘Christmas in July’ in a pub the other day reminded me that I have three Humbooks to read.  I decided to start with The Murderess, chosen for me by Emma from Book Around the Corner and  Guy from His Futile Preoccupations

Emma, in her Christmas Humbook post explaining their choice of books for ‘copinautes’, said that the feminist side of The Murderess would suit me and the descriptions of the Greek countryside are gorgeous. She was right, it was an inspired choice.  The Murderess is a more succinct version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment set on the hard-scrabble island of Skiathos.  Here the motivation for murder is entirely different: Old Hadoula sees herself liberating the women of her island from a destiny that can only be misery.

Peter Levi, the translator, makes the point in his introduction, that the author Alexandros Papadiamantis was writing as a ‘civilized observer of a retarded world’.  Athens at that time was not like Paris or London,

but the island world that Papadiamantis described was provincial in a far deeper sense.  Skiathos was fifty times further behind the Athens of that time than Athens was behind Paris or London.’ (p. x)

Far from being the exotic paradise portrayed by authors such as Charmian Clift, Skiathos is a place so poor that fruit guards patrol the cherry orchard lest the poverty-stricken people steal the fruit.  There is no work but manual labour, and young men either disappear on fishing trips for months at a time or they vanish to places of greater opportunity like America, never to be heard of again.

Inevitably women bear the burden of poverty, but it is not just the endless daily grind of managing a household without running water or electricity.  Old Hadoula has some agency: by means of theft and thrift she is able to cobble together enough to have her own home, but she must always work outside the house in order to bring in extra money.  Money that is needed for her daughters’ dowries.

The burden of these dowries weighs heavily.  An unmarried daughter must be supported all her life, but the onus of her upkeep can only be relieved if a dowry is sufficient to attract a potential husband.  (And from Papadiamantis’ descriptions of the assorted losers who represent husbands in this book,  there was no question of being choosey).  Clearly the birth of daughters was a misfortune, and the birth of too many daughters was a financial disaster.  Old Hadoula, half-demented from lack of sleep while caring alone for her daughter’s fractious baby, seizes an opportunity to make life a little easier, and having done so once, becomes entrapped by her own delusions.

Hadoula’s fatal journey is marked by her unshakeable belief in the notion of females as worthless burdens, her naïvely ritualistic appeals for help from a God who is no use to her at all, and her extraordinary flight from retribution.  Like a wild animal, she leaps across the barren landscapes, foraging among the weeds and drinking from springs.  She draws on a lifetime’s experience as a liar and a thief to master her social world but like Raskolnikov, she cannot escape the vivid dreams that pursue her.

This is a remarkable book and I am very grateful to Guy and Emma for choosing it for me!

Author: Alexandros Papadiamantis
Title: The Murderess
Translator: Peter Levi
Publisher: New York Review of Books, 2010, first published 1903
ISBN: 9781590173503
Source: Personal copy

Fishpond: The Murderess


  1. I have to be honest here, this was all Emma’s doing. She was certain that you’d like this.


    • All the same, it’s thanks anyway from me:)


  2. Nice, Lisa – thanks! I think I’ll be nominating this for one of my groups in which we read a “mystery” every 3 months or so (6 months?) I can’t remember. We seem to especially appreciate this kind of “literary” mystery or crime novel. We read “The Thief” by Fuminori Nakamura a couple months ago – about a pick-pocket in Japan. Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time” was excellent. I think this might be another good one! (And it’s available in the US!)


    • Hi Becky, I think this would make a beaut book group choice, but it’s not a mystery. I’ve avoided spoilers above, but the reader always knows who did what.


  3. Oh I know it’s not a “mystery” in a “who-done-it” sense of the term, but neither is “The Thief” or “Crime and Punishment.” I should probably have used the term “crime novel.”


    • I think your group will enjoy it, it’s great that the NY Review is republishing these little gems>


  4. Hi Lisa,
    I’m really glad you liked it. I still remember this novella. The descriptions of the landscape stayed with me and Hadoula is quite a character. She’s a criminal of course but the living conditions and lack of prospects for women were criminal too. What she did is wrong, there’s no other way to see it but I understood how she got there.


    • Yes, but what impressed me was that it was a man who wrote this novel with such empathy and understanding, and so long ago! He shows so clearly how Hadoula and other women like her were so trapped by the society they lived in, and how the stress she was under triggered her actions. He was so modern in his thinking!


  5. I agree with you, it’s amazingly modern from a man of that time. He was on a mission when he wrote this, don’t you think?
    His compassion echoes Trollope’s in Miss McKenzie (the only one I’ve read) Both describe how women’s possibilities were limited. But in Hadoula’s case, no man has any qualities. They’re lazy morons. It’s a very harsh judgment from the writer.


    • Definitely a very interesting author. I hope there’s more of his work available …


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