The English Athenian
Sofka Zinovieff’s new novel The House on Paradise Street passionately describes how Greece’s past inevitably shaped its present.
20 Aug 2012
Sofka Zinovieff at Calcot Manor in Gloucestershire. PHOTO: MICHAEL SWEET
It’s in a quintessentially English setting, far-removed from her home overlooking Vouliagmeni Bay in Athens that I’ve arranged to meet Sofka Zinovieff. In the UK to promote her new book, the author who has lived in Greece for more than a decade, is the VIP guest at a literary event hosted by the luxurious Calcot Manor Hotel – a country house dating back to the 14th century set amongst the rolling Cotswold hills of Gloucestershire.
Not that Zinovieff is any stranger to England’s green and pleasant land. Born and brought up in London, she is the daughter of an English aristocratic mother and Russian emigre father. As a student Zinovieff studied social anthropology at Cambridge University where she graduated with a first-class degree.
Her PhD thesis on the effects of tourism on traditional cultures in Nafplio took her to Greece for the first time in the late 1980s. Smitten, she based herself in the Peloponnese for three years.
Her connection to Greece grew stronger after a journey to Moscow. On a visit to research her family’s history and studies on the story of the Pontian Greeks, she met Vassilis Papadimitriou then Press Counsellor at the Greek Embassy in the Russian capital.
They married in 1992, moved with Papadimitriou’s postings first to London and then Rome, and in 2001 set up home in Athens where they live today with their two daughters.
Zinovieff wrote two highly-acclaimed works of non-fiction before she embarked on her first novel.
Eurydice Street, a Place in Athens was the story of her acclimatisation to living in Greece and The Red Princess the biography of her paternal grandmother, a White Russian aristocrat who became an ardent communist in the Soviet Union.
All her books have been published in a number of languages, including Greek, which she speaks fluently.
Zinovieff’s latest work takes the reader from the war-torn streets of 1940s Athens to the partisans’ mountain caves of the civil war, through the Junta and on to the present. A must-read for anyone with an interest in Greece’s past, present or future – The House on Paradise Street is an epic story of love and loss, and humanity’s cursed relationship with political ideologies that torment it to this day. Pulling together the fraught strands of Greece’s 20th century history she traces its impact on three generations of one family.
When Maud Perifanis, a young English anthropologist loses her Greek husband Nikitas in a mysterious car accident, her mother-in-law Antigone returns to Athens in 2008 after sixty years of exile in the former Soviet Union, to grieve with her in the old family home.
Antigone reveals to Maud the heart-breaking tale of her early life as a young Greek woman caught in the brutal political tides of the Greek Civil War, and the terrible choice she had to make, which blighted not only her own life, but the lives of her descendents.
Is Maud the author in disguise? “People assume I am, she’s an anthropology student who went to Greece as I did, and married a Greek, but in character we’re very different.
“She becomes much more disillusioned with Greece than I could ever be, she’s more uptight, more classically English than I am.”
Lauded by the British and Greek press, reviews of the new book have been unanimous in their praise.
“Zinovieff’s historical gaze is scrupulously fair and does not shirk from uncomfortable truths,” wrote The Observer. “A finely-woven novel, a compelling insight into the pathologies that Greeks still bring to their relations with outsiders,” said The Economist.
It’s a tale that could only have been told by someone with an intimate knowledge of the country and a passion for its idiosyncrasies.
“It’s difficult to sum up a deep and long-lasting love in a few words,” says Zinovieff, when I ask what attracts her most to the country that has been her physical home for eleven years but spiritual home for half her life.
“What attracted me in the beginning may have been the stereotypical things – the beauty, the light, the history, but when you start a life in another country you go through a kind of rebirth.
“You start as a baby and grow up, you become somebody else, and you see your past and your life before very differently, especially if you’re young as I was, in my early 20s.”
Zinovieff confides that one of the most liberating aspects of reflecting on her English upbringing was deliverance from the British class system.
“In England, by the way
someone has finished their second sentence you’re able to determine where they’re from, where they went to school, all that sort of thing. I find that very off-putting,” she says, in her very English and disarmingly precise way.
While the book invites readers to reconsider their views on Greece past and present, it particularly addresses Britain’s involvement in Greek affairs seventy years ago.
Did she set out to change hearts and minds on the subject? “I don’t like the idea of fiction trying to be didactic, but I did feel like opening up that area,” she says.
Depending on one’s position, as the Second World War ended, Britain either saved Greece from the evils of communism, or behaved like a brutal imperialist.
Zinovieff says she doesn’t take sides but in the novel there is a deliberate inclination to explain and reveal injustices, particularly those perpetrated on the Left.
“I was surprised when I found out more about the Dekemvriana – the events in Athens in December 1944, which I found shocking.
“It seems to me extraordinary that within weeks of the Nazis leaving suddenly there was the British army killing the very people they had been comrades with before.”
The effect of the civil war and the schism in society that followed it, is the underlying narrative in The House on Paradise Street and one partly inspired by her husband’s family history, “but only in the way that a spark can lead to a fire,” says Zinovieff.
“I’d been interested in the war for a very long time and then coincidentally Vassilis’ cousins received the remains of their deceased aunt back from Romania. She had been a partisan on the Left during the war, operating near Lamia. Quite a bit of the story is set there.”
To Zinovieff, the recent actions of a Greek Neo Nazi MP is a shocking contemporary manifestation of the political dysfunction conceived during the civil war.
“To have fascists slapping communists on television is a sign of something deeply unhappy in the society.
“In Greece, politics is a deep-seated emotional activity played out within families. Often it’s almost irrational. We’ve seen a lot of that in recent times.”
As a widely published author Zinovieff has been one of Greece’s great defenders during a period of sustained international media criticism.
“Greeks have felt like pawns a lot in history and that was something I wanted to explore in the book,” she says. “They felt used. If you look at the crisis now, yet again they feel they’ve been done down by outside powers.
“They’ve been accused of being lazy, not paying taxes, being corrupt. This is the story that has been endlessly repeated, whereas in fact Greece is just a tiny element in a much bigger game – a pawn used by powerful banking interests and countries that are much more powerful.”
Whilst she may be a stout defender of her adopted homeland, she’s also painfully aware of the psychological toll the current and previous crises have taken on Greek society.
“This feeling of being used becomes a neurosis, which leads to a victim mentality, and that’s not useful either,” says Zinovieff.
As our conversation concludes, coincidentally the results of the Greek election which places New Democracy in a position to form a precarious government filter through to our iPhones. Another chapter of Greece’s story has begun.
Sofka will be relieved to return. The family’s regular summer break in Patmos beckons: a time and place to put politics to one side, to reflect quietly, soak in the warmth, and celebrate the timeless precious gifts that her adopted homeland offers.
The House on Paradise Street by Sofka Zinovieff is published in Australia by Faber, price $29.99. It is published in Greek by Psichogios.