This first novel by Athens-based writer Sofka Zinovieff explores the tragic rupture in a Greek family, as two sisters, Alexandra and Antigone become alienated under the Nazis. Antigone joins the communists, Alexandra later marries Spiros, a policeman and thus remains steadily pro-establishment, through the Civil war and beyond the Junta years (1967 to 1974) up to 2008. The story begins in that year, with violent street protests and school occupations in Athens. So the 335-page story has a contemporary setting, but the core of the tale is an account of the separate lives of the two sisters, (A useful appendix, if you need it, is the author’s “Brief History of Greece.” )
The tale is told from two alternating stand-points, beginning with Maud’s version, while Antigone tells her story in alternate chapters. Maud, an English student, is swept off her feet by Antigone’s son, Nikitas, who is 20 years her senior, with two marriages behind him. A gregarious, garrulous, and incorrigibly cynical journalist, his death in a car accident near Athens makes for a dramatic start to the tale.
As a child, Nikitas was abandoned by Antigone, who fought as a militant communist against the Nazi occupation in the mountains of Greece. After the Civil War, she flees to Russia, from where she makes radio broadcasts to her comrades back home. Meanwhile, her sister Alexandra and her husband Spiros rear Nikitas in his mother’s absence, but the young lad is not treated very well and is beaten by Spiros. Alexandra has never forgiven her sister for becoming a communist and has nothing but contempt for her sister, following what she sees as the abandonment of her only son. Now, in 2008, Antigone has returned from Moscow for the first time in decades to attend the funeral of the son in Athens.
Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, Maud is coping with her bereavement from Nikitas and looking after her truculent teenage daughter Antigone – abbreviated to Tig – who was named after her grandmother. Once over the period of immediate mourning, Maud finds a series of dusty files in her husband’ office in the city centre. She begins to investigate his mysterious past, but what she unearths only disturbs the uneasy peace of a family that had come to accept, however grudgingly, the traumatic effects of divided loyalties.
Chryssa, the old family retainer, is like a Greek chorus when she ruefully remarks of Nikitas’ mother. “There is nothing for Antigone to be ashamed of. In a civil war, everybody loses. And Greeks know better than anyone how to put out their own eyes. We don’t need help with that.”
Athens-based author Sofka Zinovieff (born 1962) is a journalist whose last book, Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life (2007) is a biography of her feisty grandmother, Sofka Dolgorouky, who was born ten years before the 1917 revolution. Her first book Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens, published in 2004, is a fascinating series of reflections on contemporary Greece from the perspective of a UK citizen (of Russian ancestry).
Zinovieff recals how she met her future husband Vassilis Papadimitriou, and explores her enduring love affair with her adoptive country, despite all its frustrations, idisosyncratic ways of doing things, and, yes, corruption. Papadimitriou is a Greek diplomat and the couple have two daughters, Anna and Lana, to whom she dedicates her first novel. Both those books are published by Granta.
The House on Paradise Street is a novel but the reader senses the journalist at work, part of the book’s peculiar charm. Take Maud’s assessment of the Parthenon, the iconic series of columns that overlooks the Greek capital. “I was able to judge my mood by whether I was pleased by the sight or whether it annoyed me as a wearisome cliché. That day I felt happy to see the Parthenon, standing alone, creamy blonde and almost floating. Every Athenian has their own private Acropolis – a view from a bathroom window or a personal angle on that most public of places. Temple, church, mosque, weapons store room, provider of museum pieces, over-used tourist destination, and above all symbol, it is nothing if not adaptable to our fantasies. I like the way it’s not perfect: the gashing hole caused by one of the many battles that have ranged around it, and the familiar beige cranes used for restoration that protrude awkwardly like surgical forceps holding diseased bones in place. On a good day, this glimpse of the Acropolis after I walk Tig to school or as I wait for a bus, can be a reminder of my attachment to Greece’s bare, salty landscape of rocks and ruins. Other times, the columns look like the bars on a window.”
In another passage, Maud recalls travelling with her Nikitas to his family’s ancestral heartland in Pervoli, far from the traffic noise and pollution of Athens. Maud’s reflection on her late husband’s attachment to that place cuts to the heart of all such returnings and is profound. “It was the place he dreamed about and yearned for that could not even be assuaged by visiting it: an abstract ideal of home and ancestry.”
She adds piquancy to her narrative with curious nuggets of wisdom from some of the older voices among her sprawling cast of characters. At one point, Maud remembers enthusing as a teenager to her English grandmother about a boyfriend. Her grandfather, who is listening, interrupts her infatuated bleatings: “If you get on like a house on fire, it’ll probably burn down and all that’s left is ash. Mind how you go, Maud.”