I think this is Victoria Hislop’s best book yet. Her style of writing is quite simplistic and could be more challenging, but this is a superb story about the turbulent history of Greece in the 1930s and 1940s – finishing, other than an epilogue set in 2016, in 1985, with the destruction of files held on those who’d fought for the communists during the civil war. It’s told through the eyes of Themis, a four-year-old girl in Athens when the story begins, who goes on to join the communist army and is held in a prison camp and tortured. It’s inevitably biased towards Themis’s viewpoint, but we do see other members of her family holding opposing views and joining different sides.
Other than Nick Gage, and I suppose Louis de Bernieres would also count, very few people have written in English about the history of modern Greece. This book really gets the story across very well.
The book starts in 1930, so we don’t see the Greco-Turkish War or hear in detail about the horrors of what’s euphemistically described as the population exchange. However, as Themis’s best friend and her mother are refugees from Asia Minor, her father having been killed in the fighting, we are reminded of what happened there. Then, between the proclamation of a republic in 1924 and the restoration of the monarchy in 1935, Greece, gripped by the worldwide Great Depression by the early 1930s, saw government after government collapse, and a number of failed coups. In 1936, with a Royalist majority returned by the latest elections, the monarchy was restored, but, amid widespread unrest due to the economic problems, General Metaxas suspended parliament and set up a totalitarian regime. We see a lot of political arguments between Themis’s two brothers, one of whom is pro-Metaxas and one of whom is vehemently opposed to him, and we see Themis’s sister become very involved with the pro-Metaxas EON youth group. It’s all part of the tapestry of family life, but family life is telling the story of Greece. The children’s mother is in a psychiatric hospital and their father is in America, and they live with their grandmother – I’m not quite sure what the point of that is, but it doesn’t really affect the story.
Greece was invaded by Fascist Italy in 1940 and Nazi Germany in 1941, and occupied by German, Italian and Bulgarian forces, who carried out horrific atrocities. Many civilians died of hunger as the occupying forces seized their food supplies – and this comes across very powerfully in the book, as Themis finds her best friend dead in the street, and learns that her friend’s mother’s also starved to death.
Resistance groups were formed and achieved impressive successes, perhaps more so than in any other occupied country, but, as in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, were split between communist groups and other groups. One of Themis’s brothers joins the communist resistance: the other joins the police. Meanwhile, Themis’s sister takes up with a Nazi soldier. The split in the family reflects the split in the nation.
In 1944, the Axis powers were driven out, but civil war broke out, between the officially-recognised government, backed by Western powers fearful of a communist takeover, and the left-wing groups. The book’s very critical of British policy here. The brother who’s in the police is injured in clashes and left permanently disabled. The other brother remains with the communist forces and is eventually killed. And Themis herself joins the communist army: her training and military involvement are depicted very well.
The government forces eventually triumphed. There were severe reprisals, both during the war and afterwards against those who’d fought on the communist side, with concentration camps set up on the islands of Gyaros and Makronisos and in the town of Trikeri. Themis is captured. She’s also pregnant, the result of a romance with a male comrade – who later defects to the other side. In the camps, female prisoners are pressurised to swear loyalty to the government, with a promise of release if they do so. With a baby to consider, Themis eventually does so, and is able to go home.
One of the worst aspects of the war was the forced removal of children by both sides: the communists sent children to neighbouring, communist-ruled countries, and the government forces sent children to camps under the auspices of Queen Frederika. The son of a friend Themis made in the camps, who died there, had been taken to one of the Queen’s camps. Rather unrealistically, it turns out that the child’s father is Themis’s ex-lover, who appears to have spent more of his time in the communist army time chasing women than fighting. Also rather unrealistically, Themis’s sister has run off to Germany. Some bits of the book, it has to be said, are pretty far-fetched!
Themis somehow manages to track down her friend’s child, pretends to be his aunt, and brings him up along with her own son.
There was at least peace and stability for a period after that, despite deep divisions in politics and society. This is reflected in Themis’s own life: she marries an old schoolfriend and settles down to an ordinary life. The past is never spoken of: her children don’t know that she was ever in the army or a prison camp. Her son by the fellow soldier emigrates to America.
But, in 1967, there was a military coup, and a military junta was established. In 1973, the monarchy was again abolished, and then there was another coup, whereupon Turkey invaded Cyprus. In the middle of all this, there was an uprising at Athens Polytechnic, which was brutally suppressed. Amongst the dead is Themis’s adopted son, the boy she rescued from a children’s camp.
His father is killed in the 1999 Athens earthquake.
The military regime collapsed amid the events of 1973-74, and, thankfully, Greece has been a peaceful democracy since then. Themis and her husband grow peacefully into old age. But I think we – in Britain, and other countries which have been fortunate enough to live in peace since 1945 – do sometimes forget just how recently peace and democracy have come to Greece, and to Spain and Portugal, as well as to the former Eastern Bloc countries of Europe. It’s rarely spoken of. This book gets the story across extremely well.