Saturday, 3 July 2010

Patricia Highsmith: Little Tales of Misogyny

I came across this tiny little booklet - cover price 60p, ~10x8cm - in a charity shop, and had it for dinner yesterday. Its title was bold enough to sound like a challenge. The short stories express a varied degree of fatality, maybe even veiled criticism, towards most of its female protagonists. She writes about dislikeable, dysfunctional female humans who end up being punished in a macabre setting - not at all too dissimilar to some of Roald Dahl's dark parables. I wouldn't call it misogynistic - that would be assuming that women can't be as conniving and ruthless as anyone. Plus, well, it's a tiny book, and if that's anything to go by, the author ran out of hatred for women pretty early on. It is a very well written absorbing little pleasure.
I'm a new-found Patricia Highsmith convert - especially after reading up on Wikipedia that she "loved woodworking tools and made several pieces of furniture" and "she kept pet snails".
Here's the tale of the first man to fall in love - slightly different from all the other stories in the collection:

Oona, the Jolly Cave Woman
She was a bit hairy, one front tooth missing, but her sex appeal was apparent at a distance of two hundred yards or more, like an odour, which perhaps it was. She was round, round-bellied, round-shouldered, round-hipped, and always smiling, always jolly. That was why men liked her. She had always something cooking in a pot on the fire. She was simple-minded and never lost her temper. She had been clubbed over the head so many times, her brain was addled. It was not necessary to club Oona to have her, but that was the custom, and Oona barely troubled to dodge to protect herself.
Oona was constantly pregnant and had never experienced the onset of puberty, her father having had at her since she was five, and after him, her brothers. Her first child was born when she was seven. Even in late pregnancy she was interfered with, and men waited impatiently the half hour or so it took her to give birth before they fell on her again.
Oddly, she kept the birthrate of the tribe more or less steady, and if anything tended to decrease the population, since men neglected their own wives because of thinking of her, or occasionally were killed in fighting over her.
Oona was at last killed by a jealous woman whose husband had not touched her for months. This man was the first to fall in love. His name was Vipo. His men friends laughed at him for not taking some other woman, or his own wife, in the times when Oona was not available. Vipo had lost an eye in fighting his rivals. He was only a middle-sized man. He had always brought Oona the choicest things he had killed. He worked long and hard to make an ornament out of flint, so he became the first artist of his tribe. All the others used flint only for arrowheads or knives. He had given the ornament to Oona to hang around her neck on a string of leather.
When Vipo's wife slew Oona out of jealousy, Vipo slew his wife in hatred and wrath. Then he sang a loud and tragic song. He continued to sing like a madman, as tears ran down his hairy cheeks. The tribe considered killing him, because he was mad and different from everyone else, and they were afraid. Vipo drew images of OOna in the wet sand by the sea, then pictures of her on the flat stones on the mountains near by, pictures that could be seen from a distance. He made a statue of Oona out of wood, then one of stone. Sometimes he slept with these, Out of the clumsy syllables of his language, he made a sentence which evoked Oona whenever he uttered it. He was not the only one who learned and uttered this sentence, or who had known Oona.
Vipo was slain by a jealous woman whose man had not touched her for months. Her man had purchased one of Vipo's statues of Oona for a great price - a vast piece of leather made of several bison hides. Vipo made a beautiful watertight house of it, and he had enough leftover for clothing for himself. He created more sentences about Oona. Some men admired him, others had hated him, and all the women had hated him because he had looked at them as if he did not see them. Many men were sad when Vipo was dead.
But in general people were relieved when Vipo was gone. He had been a strange one, disturbing some people's sleep at night.

Oona's statues invariably make me think of "Venus of Willendorf"

c. 24,000-22,000 BCE
Oolitic limestone 11.1 cm. high
Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

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