Monday, 5 March, 2012
Sofka Zinovieff’s novel The House on Paradise Street is an epic tale of modern Greece from the Second World War to the current financial crisis. She ponders the topicality of historical events.
It took me twenty-five years of loving Greece before I dared write a novel about it. I have lived in Athens for a decade, I speak Greek with my husband, our children are bilingual and there is a hard-won Greek citizen’s ID card in my wallet. I cross back and forth across the insider-outsider lines. Nevertheless, I am well aware that I am part of a long, sometimes troubled line of foreigners who have written about Greece. Some have been lovers of Hellas in the Byronic tradition, while others despised the Greeks, like the historian Arnold Toynbee, who loathed these “dago hangers-on of Europe”. There is an argument that both the Philhellenes and the Mishellenes are liable to misinterpret the object of their love or scorn; Greece is notoriously hard to pin down. Almost as risky for a writer who is not just passing through is the fact that Greeks have the sensitivity of a people long misunderstood: it’s at your peril if you touch on a long list of combustible subjects that begins with what it means to be Greek.
The chaotic, sometimes tragic events of Greece’s present can be treacherous ground for the foreign writer. How can we understand the riots and protests that have filled the streets of Athens so often in recent years? What are the Greeks so angry about? Sometimes even more troubling for commentators has been the notorious weight of Greece’s ancient past. The Nobel prize-winning poet George Seferis wrote: I woke with this marble head in my hands; / It exhausts my elbows and I don’t know where to put it down. And it’s not necessarily any easier for foreigners, especially if they arrive all excited, with a classical education. These commentators are filled with fantasies or expectations about the golden age of Pericles or the Acropolis. Sigmund Freud was confused when he visited the Parthenon: “So it really does exist, just as we learnt at school,” he wrote.
Others found the obsession with ruins tedious. George Bernard Shaw was relieved to depart: “However, I am at least quit of Athens, with its stupid classic Acropolis and smashed pillars.”
When I first lived in Greece in the late 1980s, it was as an anthropology student, doing research in the Peloponnese. I read many books about Greece by foreigners, especially by the lions of this genre, who claimed Greece as theirs in the middle of the twentieth century: Laurence Durrell, Henry Miller, Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Kevin Andrews, Peter Levi. They tramped all over what was comparatively virgin territory, were welcomed as heroes by villagers and islanders, and entered into Athenian cultural life. You can’t go to the Mani without thinking of Leigh-Fermor’s eponymous book, and when I walk through the National Garden in Athens I often recall Henry Miller’s passionate description of how Athenian couples drank their glasses of cool water there on a hot summer’s evening in 1939 (in The Colossus of Maroussi). There are a few modern memoirs that attempt to join this pantheon, but even when they are well written and engaged with their subject (for example, Patricia Storace’s Dinner with Persephone or John Lucas’ 92 Acharnon Street) they can’t have that swashbuckling grandeur and fresh-eyed innocence of their predecessors. How could they? Greece was so different before charter flights, sprawling resorts, EU subsidies and the nouveau riche (now becoming nouveau pauvre) kitsch of Athenian suburbs. Those Philhellenic writers were able to appreciate a purity that can only exist in relatively poor, isolated societies; Greece was a rural backwater at the bottom of the Balkans, albeit with a glamorous distant past. It’s not like that anymore. And yet, even as I write that, I realise that you can still find the roots of what inspired those earlier writers – up in the mountains, on islands in winter, seeing the Athenians who return to their villages to marry, to vote and to be buried. Athens may have its malls and its multiplexes like the rest of Europe, but there are still many differences.
One of the more poisoned roots that still nags at contemporary Greeks is the legacy of the Civil War. Officially lasting from 1946 to 1949, it grew, like a Lernean Hydra, out of the Second World War. At first sight, the monster appears to be of Greek making, but in fact other nations also played significant parts. From 1944, the British did what they could to suppress the Greek Left and militarily support the Right; Communism and the Cold War were already looming, and Stalin had agreed with Churchill that Greece would go to the West. The Americans took over from the British in 1947. While the Marshall Plan brought food, there were also supplies of napalm and planes to help destroy the very people who had been the backbone of the resistance against the Nazis. These were men and women who had fought in the mountains side-by-side with the British, but who were now being hounded down. Kevin Andrews is the only one of the mid-twentieth-century foreign literary ‘lions’ to address the events of this era in his writing and his marvellous The Flight of Ikaros paints a distressing picture of the horrors that followed the starvation and destruction of the Nazi occupation. The worst kind of war is where brother kills brother, and in Greece it was followed by many years, if not decades, where the Left was persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, executed and exiled.
You can still feel the way the Civil War looms large. When I first came to Greece, villagers chose which coffee shop to patronise on political grounds and families still tend to stick to the lines of Left or Right. This historical period remains alive enough to provide fodder for intense literary, media and personal arguments about which side committed worse atrocities, who suffered more and who was to blame. Civil disturbances and protest are institutions in Greece – children occupy their schools on a regular basis and even pensioners take to the streets for noisy demonstrations. The inheritance of a twentieth century of dictatorships, troublesome monarchs, foreign occupation and political oppression means that the state is mistrusted and individuals must fend for themselves in a treacherous world. When you give a ‘little envelope’ to your doctor, it’s in the belief that he will look after you better, arrange your operation sooner and that it’s in your own interest to keep him sweet. Corruption, tax-dodging and political patronage are only symptoms of much deeper-seated problems.
When I decided to write a novel set in contemporary Athens, I wanted to look at these connections and go back to why the events of the 1940s remain so significant today. Some foreign literature about Greece has addressed the Resistance and the Civil War, notably two hugely successful bestsellers that also became films: Louis de Bernières’Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Nicholas Gage’s Eleni. Both are uncompromising in following the line of the Rightwing victors in the Civil War, and give the impression that the Greek Resistance and subsequent Democratic Army was made up of vicious Communist thugs whose senseless violence almost destroyed a country. Gage’s mother was killed by Communists, so it is understandable that he should be biased, but both his and de Bernières’ book have been highly influential in depicting an era from a particular ideological viewpoint. After getting to know people who had fought in the Resistance, it was hard for me to see anything about that era in black and white.
It was extraordinary experience to meet lots of elderly women (and some men) who had ‘gone to the mountains’ as partisans fighting for freedom, and had then been imprisoned for that ‘crime’. Some remained behind bars for years along with their children, others fled to Eastern Bloc countries, and many were tortured. They saw their friends executed, and many were rearrested by the Colonels’ Junta in the late 1960s and sent to exile islands where they were tortured. They all had extraordinary stories, and most believed that what they did was right. Some of these stories are reworked into the life of Antigone, my heroine in The House on Paradise Street. As an old woman, Antigone returns to Greece from decades of exile in Russia. It is 2008 and her son, Nikitas, who was born in prison 62 years earlier, has just been killed in an accident. It is Antigone’s story, gradually revealed, that helps Nikitas’ English widow Maud understand more about her husband’s suffering prior to his death. 2008 was the year of hugely violent rioting in Athens, largely started by schoolchildren and students after police shot a teenage boy. Maud’s daughter gets caught up in these protests, which mirror some of the historical events that Antigone remembers from her youth.
Some Greeks compare the suffering and violence of the current crisis with what happened in the 1940s, and while I believe this is going too far, there is no doubt that there are connections. The House on Paradise Street is unhappily topical, in view of Greece’s awful predicament and the violent reaction of some of its citizens. The book is also coming out in Greek and I’m bracing myself for reactions to a foreigner digging about in the more tender patches of the Greek psyche.
The House on Paradise Street by Sofka Zinovieff is published by Short Books.