The Economist – review of The House on Paradise Street
Posted on 31 MAR 2012, by

AS MANY a weary European politician has discovered, Greeks harbour a volatile mixture of feelings towards meddling foreigners: suspicion, victimhood, entitlement and a pang of lost eminence. The travails of the past century offer some explanation. A German occupation left Athens exhausted and starving. Then came a fratricidal conflict, which presaged the cold war. Villagers risked a ghastly fate—and a spray of napalm—if they picked the wrong side, or the wrong foreign power. Depending on your position, British forces either saved Greece from communism or behaved like cruel imperialists, ushering in a regime of reactionaries and collaborationists.

These events form the backdrop of “The House on Paradise Street”, Sofka Zinovieff’s arresting first novel. The narrative begins in contemporary Athens with the sudden death of Nikitas, a brooding 60-something Lothario of an Athenian journalist. His life had been haunted by a troubled childhood in a family riven by its own civil war. Yet his death unleashes a fresh flood of family secrets, as discovered by his English third wife, Maud, one of the book’s narrators.

The novel’s other main voice is Antigone, a feisty (and aptly named) leftist who bore Nikitas in jail and then had to abandon him for a life in Moscow. Nikitas was then raised in Athens by his bourgeois aunt and her cruel, right-wing husband. Time reveals that this belt-wielding man was in fact Nikitas’s blood father. Evidently this brute had a habit of forcing himself on women whose politics he disliked.

The best parts of Ms Zinovieff’s finely woven book come from Maud, who delivers a poignant portrait of motherhood and her increasingly troubled life with her late husband (“I suppose my outsider’s innocence ceased to be refreshing to Nikitas”). The author is less successful with Antigone. She comes across as a mouthpiece for a leftist reading of national history, which misleadingly suggests that Greeks after the second world war were either heroes (ie, communists) or fascists. Still, with its breadth of historical detail, this novel offers compelling insight into the pathologies that Greeks still bring to their relations with outsiders.