SCI FICTION, July 15, 2005

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"Calypso In Berlin" by Elizabeth Hand                                          

This week’s SCI FICTION installment is the story of Calypso, the nymph of Odyssey fame, in the present day. Calypso is a successful artist living on an island off the Massachusetts coast. She is having an affair with Philip, but as the affair is about to wear thin, she travels to Berlin, where her last meeting with Philip takes place, and her art gets infused with new life.
I very much enjoyed Elizabeth Hand‘s descriptive and lush prose. It is successful to such a degree that everything she talks about achieves the status of a character—trees, leaves, buildings, empty fountains, dark woods, squirrels. The human (and super-human) participants are unimaginable outside of their surroundings.

The themes are what one would expect from the story involving Calypso, who, according to Homer, held Odysseus captive on her island of Ogygia for seven years, until Zeus sent Hermes to order her to let Odysseus go. Now, she is enamored with Philip, her muse, and at the end of another seven years he wants to leave too. But since the events are told from Calypso’s perspective, there are differences between her version of the events and those told by men.

The conflict between mortal and near-immortal protagonists is obvious—when one must age and die, the other stays the same. Another level of the conflict occurs between male and female perceptions. Calypso’s world is made of small details—statues in the empty fountains, blooming flowers, tufts on the squirrels’ ears. Men in her life speak of buildings and great events. This theme is not particularly new, but Hand’s skill brings it forth in a very subtle and convincing way, without being too obvious or preachy.

Metamorphosis, an integral part of Greek myth, is present as well, and just as everything else in this story it is present in several forms, mirroring each other but not quite overlapping. First, there is a persistent male desire to change women—Calypso, who for centuries has been an object of worship and love, knows it too well. Then, there is metamorphosis of the world—Berlin before and after the wall fell, cities and islands that change as the time passes. Nymphs and other mythical beings have to change too—or die. This story is peppered with small bits of various nymphs’ demises. And finally, there is the climax of the story—the metamorphosis of Calypso’s paintings and her muse.

Overall, I thought that the story was about Calypso transcending the usual fate of a nymph. "This is what happens to nymphs: they are pursued or they are left. Sometimes, like Echo, they are fled. We turn to trees, seabirds, seafoam, running water, the sound of wind in the leaves." In this story, Calypso is the force that transforms herself as well as her art and the world around her.

A very fine story and a wonderful read.