On the Aegean island of Skyros, in the Carnival period immediately preceding Lent, a more ancient ritual takes place. Male inhabitants don an animal-like costume, including a large number of goat bells hung around the waist, and, with a goat-skin mask flapping down over their faces, they prance around town with the aim of making as great a din as possible. The cacophony echoes around the mountains, and for those in the town itself, it drowns out every other sound, almost every other sense. The story goes that an old shepherd once lost his entire flock to the winter snow and, in his unspeakable sorrow, he put on all their bells and with their inhuman clanging drowned out his human sadness.
Such stories abound in Greek myth and literature. In the Iliad, when Achilles loses Patroclus he lets out an unearthly howl, before throwing himself into battle like a wild animal. And the reader of Greek tragedy will know that the attempt to ‘speak the unspeakable’ is a typical trope of laments for the dead. Questions of how we process loss – how we speak about it and most importantly, how we change and move on – are central to the Greek tradition. Now, Greece’s writers are returning to this theme.
In 2010 Christos Ikonomou published a collection of short stories entitled Something Will Happen, You’ll See. One of these stories, ‘Placard on a Broomstick’, alludes to the story of Achilles and Patroclus, but the protagonist is no mythic hero, rather a supermarket employee in a poor suburb of Athens, whose best friend has just died from an electric shock while working overtime on a building site. Finding himself alone at Easter, Yannis decides to make a placard, to protest against the injustice of the death and to express his own grief. But, he realises, there is nothing he can write that will come close to expressing what he feels. Like Achilles and the shepherd, his loss is unspeakable. So he takes the blank placard into the street outside the building site and holds it high. All day long he waits for something to happen, someone to notice him, but no one does. The story closes on Yannis exhaling cigarette smoke, ‘like the smoke from a meagre sacrifice in ancient times, that passed unnoticed by the gods and by the people who believed in gods.’ It is a brilliant image, both of his isolation and loneliness, but also of a kind of catharsis, a transformation. I will come back to it.
Ikonomou’s book, which won the State Short Story Prize in 2011, has come to be considered the emblematic book of ‘crisis’ literature. At face value, this is because all the stories are based in the poorest suburbs of Athens, near the port of Piraeus, which was hit hardest by the economic downturn, and they depict the fear and hardship of the destitute and marginalised inhabitants. But the relationship with the country’s economic and political situation runs deeper than this, and in the wake of the country’s January elections, a look at its recent fiction can elucidate the state of mind of Greece as a whole. Certain narrative and stylistic trends have, over the last few years, appeared not merely in Ikonomou’s book, but in a wave of writers of the younger generation, writers, mainly, of short stories.
The first trend, to which I have already alluded, concerns loss, and, specifically, how we cope with loss. In another collection, MetaPoesis by Dimosthenis Papamarkos (2012), is a story remarkably similar to ‘Placard on a Broomstick’. Entitled ‘Ferrum’, it bears an epigraph from a modern Greek song called ‘Mines’: ‘The things that are not spoken/ don’t melt down in the furnace./ The devil takes them all for free/ and counts them on his rosary.’ It narrates the story of a man who lost his best friend and workmate in a mining accident. Again, the sense of loss, the overwhelming presence of someone who is not there, drives the narrative. The protagonist cannot process his loss – specifically, again, he cannot speak about it – and this leads him to become estranged from his wife and friends, and ultimately from himself. In the final passage, he burrows deeper and deeper into the earth, without his friend to take over his shift, and becomes moulded in iron, in a striking metaphor of isolation and imprisonment.
It will suffice to mention merely the title of another short story collection published in 2012, All Things Lost by Vassiliki Petsa, to demonstrate how prevalent is this theme of loss in Greece’s contemporary literary output. It stems from the atmosphere in the country; the feeling of marginalisation, of abandonment both by the rest of Europe and the country’s own politicians, has brought back a sense of loss that is deeply embedded in the Greek psyche. Where does this come from?
First, there is the well known ‘burden’ of the lost Classical past: the overwhelming presence of a civilisation that ceased to exist thousands of years ago, but still casts the modern country in its shadow. Then there is the subsequent loss of Greek territories all around the Mediterranean, with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and more recently with the definitive loss of many Greeks’ homeland in Asia Minor following the population exchanges of the 1920s. The crippling German occupation in WW2 and the ensuing bitter Civil War left the country on its knees, and with the sensation that it had turned against itself, that it had lost itself. Most recently, the hasty decades of industrialisation and modernisation have created another sense of loss – that of the old, traditional way of life. With the current crisis now making the promises of wealth and the EU seem like a sham – as the SYRIZA party stressed so vehemently in their election campaign – Greece has been left cut off from its traditions, yet with no apparent future as a developed, Western European state.
This brief historical analysis can account for many of the striking images that recur in the country’s contemporary writing: the looming presence of dead figures, characters obsessed with the past, characters tormented by memories, characters shut outside huge buildings. Moreover, this sense of accumulated loss, of repeated trauma, is reflected in another way in the literature. It is perhaps best characterised as a feeling of built-up pressure. In stylistic terms, it emerges in a trend towards a fast-paced idiom, with little punctuation or pause for breath. This marks in particular the latest collection of Vassiliki Petsa, whose characters are all attempting to deal with loss in one form or another: from that of a pet dog to that of a daughter who has changed unrecognisably. The characters’ states of mind, often frenetic and disorderly, are voiced in this breathless style. It is as if the burden of a history of loss has been embodied in them, as if they are trying to process it all. It is, in fact, another attempt to speak the unspeakable, parallel to that in the stories mentioned earlier.
An apt image of this kind of pressure is found in ‘Ferrum’ by Papamarkos. At the end of the story, we see the protagonist alone in the mine, and, without his friend to take over the shift, he has no one to take his rubbish away. ‘Who cares what’s left in the dark?’ he says. ‘Now I leave everything there, and, though it’s only my stuff, it’s started stacking up. And as I look at it, all I want is to put in a charge and blow it up.’ The rubbish represents all the character’s burden, his sense of loss and abandonment, that he has not been able to process. And it is his wish to ‘blow it up’ that is most telling: he wants to get rid of the past, to forget it. For a literary comparison, one might remember Gregor of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and his desire to get rid of everything in his room that reminds him of the past. In the political sphere, January’s elections show a comparable inclination to jettison former baggage: this is the first government since the restoration of democracy in the 1970s that is not made up of the PASOK or New Democracy parties.
On the streets of Athens, we see exactly equivalent feelings. Remember, for example, the burning of the Neoclassical Attikon cinema, a symbol of the city’s cultural heritage, in 2012. Three years later, the building remains a burnt-out shell on one of the most prominent roads in the city centre, a monument both to the current sense of desolation and to the inability of the (previous) government to put the country back on its feet. The vandalism of such historic buildings – a kind of iconoclasm – is commonplace. A daily war is waged between scrawlers of graffiti and city cleaners on the walls and pillars of the Academy of Athens, an architectural symbol of the modern Greek state’s emphasis on its Classical past. And a walk through the district of Exarchia, with its crumbling Neoclassical façades, rotting shutters and bonfires in the square may leave you with the impression of Armageddon. But perhaps the most harrowing of all the signs of the crisis is a particular graffito, found on street corners, shop walls and pavements throughout the city, written large and small: it is one word, βασανίζομαι, followed by a full stop. Translated as ‘I am tormented’/‘I suffer’, it is a stark, anonymous cry of pain; it encapsulates the city’s burden of despair.
There is, however, another side to these images of torment and destruction in literature and the city: the anticipation of change, the sense of a need for transformation. Outside short stories, this is alluded to in Wormwood, the latest collection by Michalis Ganas, one of Greece’s foremost poets. Its title is taken from the book of Revelation, and all the poems in the first half of the collection are inspired by sections of the same book of the Bible. Armageddon, or Apocalypse (the Greek word for Revelation), is both destructive and creative, in its envisioning of a new world. Indeed, there is something of the idea of change to be found in the very word ‘crisis’. In Greek, the word contains more resonance than its English equivalent. It is related to the verb ‘to judge’, and has the connotation of ‘putting things where they belong’. As well as a sense of disaster, it connotes the need to make a decision about the future and about one’s identity.
The title of Papamarkos’ collection, transliterated as MetaPoesis, means ‘Re-making’, in the sense of stitching up or transforming old and damaged clothes, as well as playing with the idea of ‘meta-poetry’. All his stories are concerned both with how we attempt to remake our lives in the face of trauma, and with the retelling of old narratives (most obviously with a paradigmatic story of trauma in ‘Cain’, and more subtly with references to Homer and Archilochus, and narratives related to Alexander the Great). The first story, ‘Arise’, describes a young man maimed for life after a war, who returns to his home village and attempts to start his life again. Due to his condition (a lame arm) he is shunned and incapable of supporting himself, until he manages, with the help of an old lady of the village, to resurrect his dead older brother, Christos, who, in secret, puts him back on his feet again.
It will be clear how this relates to the other stories I have discussed: the loss of his idyllic youth, his suffering in war, and his abandonment by his old friends. It also presents a final transformation of the main character, a solution (albeit a surreal one) to his predicament. Moreover, by juggling many different Greek traditions within his single narrative, Papamarkos cleverly demonstrates the need both to respect the past, and to incorporate it into the future. There are strands of the folk tradition and the Christian tradition, as well as ancient Greek myth; the title, moreover, is actually a word in Albanian, not Greek. He thus draws together, intertextually, the vast and multi-faceted history of Greece. The future of the country, the story suggests, will incorporate all these disparate elements, awkwardly hanging together, and struggling forward in the night, like a maimed man with his dead older brother at his side. It’s the opposite of the character of ‘Ferrum’, who wishes to destroy the past, and whose transformation is to be locked, immobile, in iron.
There are parallel images of remaking in the other authors’ works. For example, Ikonomou’s ‘Placard on a Broomstick’ shows the protagonist standing amid piles of rubble on a building site, having himself fashioned a placard out of scrap material. In Petsa’s story ‘Sewing Kit’, the closing image is of the contents of the girl’s mother’s bag strewn over the floor, like a sewing kit; this represents the need for the girl (who suffers from anorexia) to put her life back together again, to make a decision about her future. Ideas of rebuilding – metaphorical and literal – have recurred throughout the crisis, and are coming to the fore again as the new government is installed.
In Athens, as well as the vandalism and defacement of buildings, we also see attempts at the reverse: movements to reclaim disused spaces, art galleries in abandoned houses, public parks in place of old car parks. Depending on which way you look at it, Athens is either a rubbish dump or a workshop. The singer and actress Martha Frintzila told me that it is precisely at this moment that artists are producing more and more work: in a time of such high unemployment, she says, those who can work are going into overdrive. She told me this from her house-cum-studio-cum-theatre in the area of Metaxourgio – one of the formerly dystopic areas of central Athens which is slowly being transformed into a lively neighbourhood, buzzing with artistic activity. Frintzila, along with her husband, composer Vassilis Mantzoukis, has turned a series of derelict buildings into a performance space that regularly hosts theatre companies and music of all kinds. When I was there, a dance class was in full flow in the adjacent studio, and the air rang with laughter and the clinking of glasses. As I stepped back out into the grubby streets of Metaxourgio, I realised that this kind of set-up could not exist in a place with a thriving economy.
And this, perhaps, is also the place of literature. The wave of young authors that I have been describing, the plethora of books coming out, and the opening of a number of new, independent bookshops, seem to have sprung out of the current despair, like an antidote. What they do is simply to speak about the current situation, record it, contextualise it, and thus, in a small way, alleviate it. Ikonomou’s book is a good example. The title, Something Will Happen, You’ll See, is a colloquial expression that illustrates the capacity for hope in the Greek mentality. It finds its counterpart in the Christian tradition, with the idea of a period of waiting followed by a miracle, or the expectancy of the world to come. Most of Ikonomou’s stories are set in just such periods of waiting, or fasting, before Easter or Christmas, while Papamarkos plays with the same idea, for example in his references to the Resurrection in ‘Arise’. Their work puts Greece’s political and economic situation in a broader context, and suggests that this ingrained sense of hope can carry Greece through the current period of uncertainty. What’s more, their writing is very good. Ask Yorgos, the legendary bookseller in Athens’ biggest bookshop, Politeia, who the best Greek prose writer is, and, without a second thought, he will say Yannis Palavos, a writer of the same generation whose only real foray into the literary world is a 100-page book of surreal short stories. Yorgos’ view was reflected in the awarding of the State Short Story Prize to Palavos two years ago. In literature, hope is being invested in the young.
There is also a sense of hope in the very fact of Ikonomou’s recording of stories from the crisis-hit streets. The transformation of destitute, down-and-out inhabitants of Athens into his ‘heroes’ lends them a certain dignity and consolation. In doing this, he follows the tradition of many Greek short story writers before him, most famously Alexandros Papadiamantis, in giving an account of his people’s woes. He does not – he cannot – bring a physical change, but a transformation in the way of looking. This is the transformation that Yannis undergoes in ‘Placard on a Broomstick’: nothing has physically changed, but his exhalation of cigarette smoke at the end seems to suggest a change of attitude: a sense of relief, an easing of his fear and uncertainty, now he has faced them head on. This is also exactly the reason for a trend in all the writing I have mentioned towards a colloquial, everyday idiom, a striking stylistic feature that binds together the short story writers of the younger generation. It shows a solidarity with, and a faith in, the living Greek people.
The Greek poet George Seferis, Nobel prize winner in 1963, was writing during the most catastrophic period of recent history, and considered the act of speaking and writing a consolation in the face of adverse times. Greek poetry, for him, was the ‘shy nightingale’ that has accompanied Greece’s traumatic history ever since Homer sang about the Trojan War. One of his essays speaks about the metamorphosis of a pepper – a shrivelled, sharp-tasting pepper – into a dragonfly. This is the slightest change, the addition of wings, the sense of relief, that he believed to embody the power of writing.
So we have come to the final metamorphosis: that of feeling, of emotion, into words. This is the most basic, the most human, of all metamorphoses. And it is fitting that at this difficult time for Greece, there is a bounty of literature. It is an effort to process what is happening, as well as to process the traumatic past, and to consider where the country is going. Most importantly, it is defiance in the face of hopelessness and uncertainty, and a restoration of faith in the people, their language and their tradition. No one knows what change the newly elected government will bring to the country, but something will happen, something new will come, something strange, stitched together from the ill-matched and often painful pieces of the past.