Across the Acheron, Monique Wittig (1985)
Review by Ian Sales
Monique Wittig is perhaps best known as a radical feminist, and one of her half-dozen novels, Les Guérillères (1969), is considered a landmark in lesbian feminism. Across the Acheron was her fifth novel, and originally published in French under the title Virgil, non. It’s based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and features a protagonist called Wittig, who travels through Limbo and the various levels of Hell in order to find a route to Paradise.
Accompanied by Manastabal – referred to throughout as “Manastabal, my guide” – Witting makes her way through Hell and Purgatory. Various of the incidents are couched as encounters in San Francisco, and while Wittig is critical – very much so as writer, inasmuch as she is writing the encounters as violent and lethal; but also as narrator, in her response in the narrative to the encounters – Manastabal is a voice of sympathy reason and frequently castigates for her reaction and asks her to question her response. Across the Acheron is very much about the incidents Wittig witnesses during her journey. Some are obvious references to Dante: the Lake of Suicides, for example. Others less so. But all of the incidents Wittig witnesses relate to women and their role in society. Whether it is women being hunted by men, women being dragged about by the neck by men, women prettifying themselves (and so making themselves more vulnerable) for men, in all cases Wittig is contemptuous and unsympathetic and it is Manastabal who suggests she reinterprets or re-evaluates what she has seen.
At one point during the story, Wittig bathes in the River Acheron, and so loses her memory – specifically of the sight of hundreds of women being dismembered by a train in their rush to board it. Manastabal is particularly scathing about Wittig’s response to that:
“You showed an absolute lack of morality towards the distressed souls at the central station … But that gives you no right to crush the souls we encounter with your personal judgement … As for me, I congratulate myself I remain free. All the same, as long as one has this privilege it’s a poor show if you use it to grind down even further the unfortunate creatures who are deprived of it.” (p 33)
As Wittig slowly regains her memory, it gives her sufficient distance to no longer be enraged by the memory of the railway station. While crossing the Acheron later, and plunging into its water when her boat disintegrates, her memory remains intact. The next day, she enters the lowest circle of Hell. But what she sees there in the Temple of Love enrages her as she witnesses “what is called in Hell the practice of Love”. She sets about herself, attacking the men with a whip:
“I pursue them without striking a blow and, after rounding them up with my lash, I whip them as a herd, catching several with one stroke. Some of them, hurt in their tender parts, double up and fall to the ground, their legs drawn up against their bellies.” (p 97)
Eventually, Wittig reaches Paradise, where the angels ride on motorbikes, there is an open air kitchen, all manner of birds frollick, and a “bare-breasted cherub sounds a trumpet” to announce the kitchen is open.
Across the Acheron is somewhat relentless as a read. Wittig the author pulls no punches in describing the depredations and torture visited upon women that Witting the narrator witnesses. What makes this worse is their anonymity. While the men are also unnamed, and referred to throughout simply as either “the hunters” or “the men”, it is the facelessness of the victims which makes their torment more affecting. Nothing in the book is unrecognisable, and while perhaps Witting’s Hell seems mostly a manifestation of the lives of Western women, it makes its points readably and yet quite forcibly. It’s a difficult book to like or enjoy because of its unremitting scenes of torture and violence, and though Manastabal’s commentary offers a welcome sane voice on the proceedings, Wittig’s rage is clearly justified. Despite its slim size of 119 pages, Across the Acheron packs a heavy punch.