Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop

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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.

 

 

A Greek Odyssey with Bettany Hughes – Channel 5

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Ah, this was lovely.  Remember those halcyon days of yore, four months ago – seems like four years – when you could travel abroad, enjoy a meal with friends, go into a small souvenir shop and take a boat trip?  All of that was going on here.  The idea of this programme was that Bettany Hughes was retracing (ish) the journey taken by Odysseus on his way from Troy back to Ithaca. Odysseus always really annoys me, TBH.  Taking ten years to get home, when he knew that Penelope was waiting?!   But never mind.  This was a lovely programme.  Sunshine, blue sea, lots of meals eaten al fresco, and, hooray, lots of ancient Greek ruins.  And a type of cup, supposedly designed by Pythagoras, which spills all the wine if you overfill it, to stop you from getting too drunk.

Bettany sailed first of all to Chios, where she received a very warm welcome and discussed the tradition of “Philoxenia” – a love for strangers, making them feel welcome.  Then on to Lesbos, where she went to some wonderful thermal baths – oh, when will we be allowed even to go in a swimming pool again?! – and visited the theatre of Mytilene, which gave the Romans the idea for all the theatres (ditto being able to go to theatres again) they built.  And then her next stop was Samos, where she visited an amazing ancient Greek aqueduct, heard the tale of Pythagoras and the cup, and saw what was supposed to be the birthplace of Hera, and also where the marriage of Hera and Zeus took place.

I usually find it frustrating when history and myth get too tangled up together, but somehow it works really well in Greece.  I’ve got a pair of earrings which a shopkeeper in Delphi assured me solemnly were exactly like the ones Helen of Troy would have worn!   And, after staggering up the steep hill to the citadel of Mycenae, in extremely high temperatures, no-one was telling me that this wasn’t Agamemnon’s city.

This was a lovely programme.  Bettany Hughes is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic, without ever being silly, or sarcastic, or trying to push across an agenda.  And all that lovely Greek sun and sea.  There were even dolphins!   Just so, so nice 🙂 .

Troy: Fall Of A City – BBC 1

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I rather liked King Priam of Troy sounding as if he came from Burnage (although David Threlfall had managed to mix something else in with his Manchester accent, and I’m not entirely sure what it was), but I was less impressed by Paris asking Menelaus and Helen “How did you two get together?”.  I wasn’t expecting Homeric dialogue, or as near as you can get to it in English, but there are limits!  Also, I was rather disappointed that Helen wasn’t wearing gold spiral earrings.  I’ve got a pair of lovely gold spiral earrings which a man in the shop in Greece where I got them assured me were exactly what Helen of Troy would have worn. Yes, all right, I do know that the story isn’t true, and I’m fairly sure that the Iliad doesn’t make any reference to earrings anyway, but I was kind of hoping that she’d be wearing something like those all the same.  They’re very nice.

The idea of this BBC adaptation is to tell the story of the Trojan War from the Trojan viewpoint.  It’s quite weird, when you think about it, that the story of “the Trojan War” (complete with the Trojan Horse, which was actually a Greek horse!) is always told from the Greek viewpoint, and also that, even though the stories are written by Greeks, and the Greeks are the winners, the Trojans come across as the good guys.  We still talk about “working like Trojans”.  Virgil tried to make out that the Romans were descended from a group of fugitive Trojans led by Aeneas, and there’s even a legend, promoted by Geoffrey of Monmouth, that Aeneas’s grandson Brutus landed in Britain and founded London.  Why anyone would want to be descended from a wuss like Aeneas is beyond me.  Hector, yes, but not Aeneas.  But, to get back to the point, the Trojans are the ones we feel like we should be cheering for, so the BBC’s idea of showing things from their side, for once, sounds very promising.

Whichever side you’re coming from, it’s always difficult to portray Greek or Roman legends, or indeed Old Testament stories, on screen, because of divine figures mingling with mortals.  There’s no way of doing that without it seeming a bit awkward, and the BBC did their best with it.  Paris judged the contest of the goddesses, and was promised that he’d “get together” (to use the oh-so-elegant term used later on by the scriptwriters) with the most beautiful woman in the world.  Having been restored to the royal family, from whom he’d been abducted by wolves as a child (except that he wasn’t: he was actually dumped because of the prophecies that he’d bring about the ruin of Troy,) he was then dispatched on some sort of mission to Sparta, ruled by King Menelaus, who was married to Helen … who was, of course, the most beautiful woman in the world, with the face that launched a thousand ships.  And that was the last we saw of Troy for this episode.

Unfortunately, my two favourite Trojans hadn’t really featured.  Hector had only featured briefly, and so had his (and Paris’s) sister Cassandra.  None of the Greeks got an Abba song written about them, did they?  Cassandra tried to warn everyone what would happen, but, as the Abba song goes, “Sorry, Cassandra, that no-one believed you”.  And she met a very tragic fate.

I like Cassandra.  I don’t like Helen of Troy.  And there’s another “Trojan” thing – she wasn’t Helen of Troy at all.  She was Helen of Sparta.  So why does everyone know her as Helen of Troy?!  Helen is sometimes presented as a victim, who was abducted against her will, but the more common image, and the one I have of her, is of a bit of a bitch-cum-tart who abandoned her child and her husband and ran off with her lover, knowing that it would probably lead to war but not caring.  That’s not how the BBC presented her.  She was a ballsy feminist in this, going on about how she was a woman, not an object, and she’d do as she pleased.  This involved going off with Paris.  She had herself concealed in a wooden box, and Paris didn’t seem to know anything about it until he opened the box on the ship.

And that was as far as it got last night.  Achilles and the rest of the big Greek heroes haven’t even been mentioned yet.  Achilles gets on my nerves.  He’s like a Premier League diva who refuses to play unless the manager does exactly what he wants.  Agamemnon and Menelaus are both extremely annoying, I’m not convinced about Odysseus, and don’t even go there with the evil Ajax the Lesser.  And sacrificing your own daughter (Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia) is not really a very nice way to behave.  So telling the story from the Trojan viewpoint does seem like rather an attractive idea – especially as the problems Paris must have had adapting to becoming a prince, having not been brought up as one, go a long way towards explaining his reckless behaviour.  But the dialogue in this was just silly.  And why on earth was there an ostrich wandering round Menelaus’s palace?!

I’m not overly impressed with the BBC about this.  I don’t know … somehow it’s funny when Sky or Netflix produce something like Britannia, which is so bad that it’s good; but you expect “proper” drama from the BBC, and the Trojan War provides more than enough scope for it.  “How did you two get together?”  Seriously?!   Whatever next?  Priam screaming “Get outta my city”?

Oh well.  It’s only the first episode.  Maybe the dialogue will improve!  And maybe we’ll get to see a bit more of Hector and Cassandra.  And the ostrich was great.  I’m just not sure what it was doing in Menelaus’s palace.  Never mind …

The Durrells – ITV 1

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This is turning into one of those very popular sitcoms that we used to have in the 1980s. I don’t think for a minute that Gerald Durrell intended his memoirs to come across as situation comedy, and I’m not sure that ITV intended their adaptation of them to do so either – which means, hooray that we’re not getting annoying canned laughter all the time, as we do in programmes that are actually marketed as sitcoms – but it’s working very well as one.  Why don’t they make ’70s and ’80s style sitcoms any more?  Everyone used to watch them, and I think we could all do with a bit of gentle comedy in our lives, with all the doom and gloom going on at the moment.

Despite the rather obvious differences in time, location and social class 🙂 , there’s a definite feeling of Bread about this.  We’ve got a group of family members who are all rather annoying, most of whom seem to think that it’s OK not to pay their way and could really do with a good slap, but who somehow form a genuinely entertaining unit.  Then there’s the location.  We didn’t really get exotic locations in ’80s sitcoms.  I don’t think the TV companies could afford them back then!  Sun, sea, sand, stone, countryside … it’s all there.  And there’s the Brits Abroad/Culture Clash element, which is always good for a laugh.

In the first episode of the new series, the Durrells had failed to pay their rent – which they didn’t seem to feel at all stressed or guilty about. Louisa Durrell seemed to think that saying “Sorry” to the nasty new landlady (who was jealous because she thought Louisa had caught the attention of her ex) would make it all OK.  Even the Boswells wouldn’t have done that.  And it didn’t seem to occur to any of the adult children that maybe they should try to earn some money. Larry was trying to write a book … but dropped his typewriter out of a tree, as you do.  Yes, we all know that Lawrence Durrell became a successful author, but at this point he was just expecting his mum to support him from her widow’s pension.  Leslie wasn’t doing anything at all, other than messing about with shotguns and accidentally injuring the family dog.  And Margo was spending all her time chasing after a monk, not realising that monks were celibate.  See what I mean about how they could do with a good slap?!  But somehow it was funny!  Meanwhile, it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that young Gerry ought to be at school, rather than wandering about looking for otter poo.

So Louisa decided to make some money by selling traditional British food at the market. In a series of scenes that could have come straight out of ‘Allo ‘Allo, she stood there being terribly polite and British, until Spiro, her Greek pal, pointed out that she needed to flirt with the male customers and call out histrionically about how her family were all going to starve unless people bought her wares.  So then she did very well … until everyone who’d bought her stuff got food poisoning, possibly because the dastardly landlady had nobbled it.

I really don’t think it’s meant to seem quite as farcical as it does. Or that we’re meant to think of Gerald’s siblings as scroungers.  But, even if it’s not meant to be a sitcom, it’s working really well as one.

And what about the historical element of it? Well, it isn’t really there – and maybe that’s part of the appeal.  This is the late 1930s, and the storm clouds are gathering.  In a few short years’ time, war is going to break out, and Corfu is going to be occupied first by Mussolini’s Italy and then by Hitler’s Germany.  Louisa, Gerry and Leslie are going to return to England and have to cope with life on the Home Front.  But no-one seems to have the slightest inkling of, or even the slightest interest in, what’s going on in the outside world.  No-one seems to own a radio, and I don’t think we’ve even seen anyone reading a newspaper.  In a world of 24/7 news coverage, much of which is enough to make anyone feel anxious and downhearted, the idea of being able to escape from it all to some sort of sunny idyll has its appeal.  OK, in reality I’d be screaming out for the internet, a TV and a 24 hour Tesco after a day, plus I really, really hate not knowing what’s going on in the world.  But it’s a nice idea.  Especially on a Sunday evening, in that gentle-Sunday-evening-viewing slot where lovely programmes like Heartbeat and Born and Bred and Where The Heart Is used to be, and which The Durrells is filling quite nicely.

 

 

 

 

The Durrells – ITV 1

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I enjoyed this a lot more than I was expecting to! Maybe it was all the sun, sand and scenery. I remember there being a BBC 1 adaptation of My Family And Other Animals back in 1987, but I didn’t watch it … although I do remember the theme tune very well, because I always used to catch the last couple of minutes of it when I switched on the telly to watch Dynasty, which was on after it! I’m afraid I haven’t read the book either, so I don’t know how true this was to the book – not very, apparently, so maybe it’s a good job I haven’t read the book.

I’m surprised I enjoyed it, because the Durrells were just so, so annoying! The mum was OK, although she seemed ridiculously young to be the mother of the older children, but shouldn’t she have done something about getting Gerry an education, and done a bit more about the annoying older boys than keep saying “Oh, darling”?! And how come Larry’s girlfriend was allowed to move in with them? It was the 1930s (although it could really have been any time, with no references to world events or even British or Greek politics, nor to the Durrells’ time in India)! Why didn’t her dad come after Larry with a shotgun?! That bit wasn’t true, because Larry and Nancy were in fact married; but they weren’t in this series, and it didn’t seem very realistic.

Larry and Leslie both really needed a good slap. What a pair of spoilt brats! Why didn’t they go out and get jobs? And Gerry was quite sweet, but, if the series was based on his books, that sounds as if he presented himself as being sweet and his siblings as being annoying, which is rather annoying in itself. The best one was Margo, who started off being an annoying spoilt brat like Larry and Leslie, but got her act together and turned into a rather nice person.

The supporting cast, by contrast, were great. The “Brits abroad” thing came across quite well, and with plenty of comedy moments, but without either the British or Greek characters being stereotyped. The Durrells were great as well – annoying, but very well-acted. There’s been some controversy over the fact that a gay character was initially presented as being heterosexual, and actually became engaged to Louisa Durrell, but the last episode showed the marriage being called off after Louisa realised that he was gay.

It was quite an old-fashioned programme, really, apart from the crudity of some of it – seriously, was it necessary for Louisa’s children to spend so much time going on about her needing a man?! It’s the sort of part drama, part sitcom series that used to be so popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s and which sadly seems to have fallen out of favour. I’m puzzled as to why ITV have decided to scrap Home Fires and Indian Summers, but I’m glad to hear that this one, at least, will be coming back for another series.  Not bad at all

In Greek Waters by G A Henty

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Word PressI do love G A Henty!  Any historical period about which you’re struggling to find an English language novel, just give him a try – he’s bound to have written one!  This one, covering the Greek War of Independence, was as good as his books always are, but did rather surprise me.  It was about a young English gentleman and his strongly Philhellene father going off to the Greek war in a schooner, which they’d bought and fitted out at their own expense, complete with a crew whom they were paying out of their own money, with the intention of aiding the Greeks.  The early years of the Greek War of Independence were rather like the Spanish Civil War in this respect, only mainly with the upper-classes (i.e. the people with the money!), most famously Lord Byron.  In an era in which Westerners going to fight in foreign wars tends to involve them joining terrorist organisations, it’s good to remember that it’s something that people used to do with the intention of fighting for freedom.

However, things didn’t proceed as I was expecting.  There were the usual G A Henry adventures with people being taken prisoner and narrowly avoiding sticky ends, rescuing young ladies whom they eventually married, etc, whilst, naturally 🙂 all the British characters behaved like perfect gentlemen and Johnny Foreigner played all sorts of rotten tricks, our heroes soon found that they were appalled by the behaviour of both Greeks and Turks alike and, rather than taking sides in the war, they concentrated their efforts on aiding the innocent civilians threatened by it, regardless of ethnicity or religion.  Philhellene feeling did wane as the war went on and, once Greece had become independent, there was a lot of anger in Britain and Western Europe about the Greek government not repaying its loans (does this sound rather familiar?!), but this was written in the early 1890s when, even though Britain was to some extent committed to preserving the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire because of concerns about Russian ambitions in both the Balkans and the Dardanelles, there was widespread anti-Turkish/Ottoman feeling following the Bulgarian massacres.

It really does G A Henty a lot of credit that he wrote a book which emphasised the suffering of civilians on both sides of a war, and the fact that ethnicity and religion should not matter when it comes to trying to help those in need, rather than the rights and wrongs of the politics of it all: it’s an attitude you might expect to find in a modern book, but perhaps not one written at the height of the Victorian Age of Empire.  And he does a wonderful job of blending it with all the usual Boys’ Own type stuff.  I’ve read quite a few of his books now, but I’ve still got loads to go and I’m very pleased about that!!

 

Farewell to Salonica by Leon Sciaky

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Without wanting to sound too “bags and baggage”-ish about it, the end of Ottoman rule in the Balkans is generally regarded in the West as being a very positive thing. The Balkan Wars which immediately preceded the outbreak of the First World War aren’t regarded in the same semi-romantic light as is the Greek War of Independence, but the ceding of the remaining Ottoman territory in the Balkans to the nation states of the area is certainly seen as a good thing.

On the other hand … well, there are two terms from this era which remain in use in English, even if a lot of people probably use them without even knowing whence they originate. One is “Balkanisation” – the division of a territory into a number of small states, giving rise to problems as well as benefits. The Balkan Wars were supposed to involve Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro fighting the Ottoman Empire … but they then fell out amongst themselves. The other is “Young Turks”, which comes from the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, which was supposed to see the Ottoman Empire move towards liberalism and democracy but all went rather pear-shaped.

Caught up in the middle of all this was Macedonia. In the 1990s, there was suddenly an international row over the word “Macedonia”, because Greece got in a huge strop over the newly-independent former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia calling itself … er, Macedonia. The issue still hasn’t been fully resolved: the new country was admitted to the UN under the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. Furthermore, its population is around 25% ethnic Albanian. Other parts of historic Macedonia lie in Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo (and whether or not Kosovo is an independent country is another story … and, if it is, surely it should be referred to as Kosova rather than Kosovo, but that’s beside the point …) and, of course, Greece. And the capital of Greek Macedonia, the second city of Greece, bearing the glorious name of Alexander the Great’s half-sister, herself named after the Macedonia victory in Thessaly, is Thessaloniki. Er, also known as Salonica.

Brilliantly confusing, isn’t it?!

When I first starting reading Balkan history, in the late 1980s, it was Sarajevo which was famous for being the melting pot of the Balkans … before the tragedy of the war of the 1990s. Thessaloniki/Salonica, at the time at which this book, the author’s memoirs of his childhood, is set – the early 20th century, before the Balkan Wars – was even more of a melting pot than Sarajevo was. Christians, Jews and Muslims. Turks, Greeks, Albanians, Kurds, Armenians, Serbs, Aromanians (BTW, why do tennis commentators never mention the interesting fact that Simona Halep is of Aromanian descent?) … is there anywhere in “the Levant” (for lack of a better term) where you still get that glorious mix of peoples? Not Istanbul, not any more. Maybe Jerusalem. And we see that these people no longer want to remain under Ottoman rule as it is … but nor do many of them want what they eventually get, which is rule by Greece. In fact, the book does a good job of helping the reader understand Bulgaria’s decision to side with the Central Powers in 1915, even though it does seem so bizarre that Bulgaria should have sided with the Ottomans and against Russia.

The author and his parents and siblings left for New York in 1912. They intended to return, but never did: they felt that the city under Greek rule wasn’t their city any more … even though the city under Ottoman rule had had its problems for non-Turks as well. The city was badly damaged by fire in 1917, then its Turkish population was deported as part of the population exchanges following the Treaty of Lausanne, and then the majority of its large Jewish population was murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Oh dear, this all sounds very negative. Thessaloniki today is a wonderful, thriving city. And the book itself isn’t negative: it’s a fascinating portrayal of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual city. But it’s sad that, even as we hear all the time about multiculturalism in Britain, North America, Australia, Western Europe, etc, so many multicultural communities which had flourished for centuries are no more, and even many of traces of their past have been removed. It’s not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly very interesting.

 

 

 

 

 

North of Ithaka by Eleni Gage

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Word PressAll right, this isn’t historical – it’s written about the author’s experiences in 2002! – but it “goes” with Eleni and A Place For Us, written by the author’s father.  This book is about the experiences of the granddaughter and namesake of the Eleni of the first book as she spends a year organising and overseeing the reconstruction of her grandparents’ house – which was also the place where her grandmother and many others were tortured during the Greek civil war of the 1940s.

Some of it’s the kind of sitcom-type stuff you’d expect as a New Yorker tries to cope with life in a remote Greek village, dealing with Albanian builders, red tape, the internet being super-slow and pretty much everything else being rather slow.  However, it’s much more about a “hyphenated American” learning about her family’s heritage, someone who’s used to life in the fast lane enjoying life in the slow lane and someone who’s used to living in a big city learning about life in a small village where everyone knows everyone else.  A lot of people find it difficult to move between two different ways of life, and a lot of people struggle to be part of one culture, but Eleni Gage seems not to, which makes this a very happy book, even given the terrible things that happened to her grandmother.

In particular, it’s about the customs and beliefs and way of life of a particular place.  Sometimes it seems that traditions are being lost.  You go to most parts of Europe and everyone’s dressed the same way as they are anywhere else in the West, there are the same shops everywhere, there are adverts in English regardless of what the language of the country is, the same music’s playing everywhere … sometimes everything seems so “samey”, and it seems as if centuries of different cultures are disappearing.  It’s wonderful when you’re reminded that, in fact, these traditions are still alive and kicking.

An amusing book which manages to be both light-hearted and thought-provoking.   Good stuff!

A Place For Us by Nicholas Gage

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Word PressThis is the sequel to Eleni, following the lives of Nicholas Gage/Nikola Gatzoyiannis and his sisters after they joined their father in Massachusetts, following the murder of their mother during the Greek Civil War.  Many aspects of it could be about any immigrant family and any immigrant community – trying to adapt to a new country, trying to find a balance between fitting in in that new country without losing all the ways of the old and the clashes between the generations that that entails, the striving for prosperity and the pride in success.  Other aspects are more specific to the experiences of Greek-Americans – which, unlike the experiences of many other “hyphenated-American” groups, haven’t been “covered” very much (except in My Big Fat Greek Wedding!).  And some, of course, are specific to the Gatzoyiannis family themselves.

Particularly interesting was the idea that it wasn’t appropriate for a Greek-born immigrant to America to marry someone who’d been born in America even if that person was of Greek heritage and they and their family were all completely respectable.  Nick Gage himself, however, eventually married a Protestant of Scandinavian and British heritage.  I hope he appreciates his wife, by the way!  He kept her hanging on for years because she wasn’t Greek, dated other people at the same time and even went to Greece on a wife-hunt, and he goes on and on in the book about how there were loads of other women he could have married instead!  And then she converted to Orthodoxy and agreed to them naming their first two children after his parents.  As I said, I hope he appreciates her!

Christos Gatzoyannis, Nick’s father, originally went to America with the intention of earning money there and then returning to Greece.  Nick and his sisters, by contrast, went there as people who were fleeing a country where terrible things had happened and wanted to make a new start.  Those two very different types of immigration are still with us today.  This book was set in the 1950s-1980s but,. thinking back to earlier times, there was a period in which the USA, and other countries, actively sought out immigrants, even offering them free land … and it’s a tragedy for the desperate people who try to make it to Lampedusa or to the northern coast of Australia that those days are gone.  Anyway, that’s rather beside the point.  I have to say that the author himself does sometimes come across as being a bit up himself, but this is a very interesting book about the experiences of a young man and a family settling into a new country.

Eleni by Nicholas Gage

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Word PressThis is one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while, covering the experiences of the author’s family in the Greek village of Lia, in the remote mountainous area of Epiros, close to the Albanian border, during the Second World War and the Greek Civil War. Greece was occupied first by the Italians and then by the Germans and, even during the German occupation, right-wing and left-wing Greek forces were fighting each other. Full scale civil war then broke out, with the Greek government forces, backed by Britain and later by American too, fighting communist forces backed by the communist regimes of Bulgaria, Albania and Yugoslavia. The region where Nicholas Gage (Gatzoyiannis)’s family lived was occupied by the communist forces. Many of the men had already fled. Gage’s own father had for a long time been living and working in America, leaving his wife and children in Greece, his argument being that his four daughters might be tempted away from the straight and narrow in America. Women and girls, although not sexually abused, were forced to work – cooking, cleaning, threshing crops, etc – for the communist forces, and many young girls were conscripted as guerrillas, and everyone came close to starvation. When it became clear that the communists were going to lose the war, they began taking children from their families and sending them away to be brought up in communist countries. At this point, the author’s mother, the Eleni of the title, decided to try to escape. Nicholas and three of his sisters managed to leave, but Eleni and another of her daughters were unable to get away as they’d been taken to work in the fields. Amid an atmosphere of panic and distrust, neighbours denouncing each other, often in a desperate attempt to save themselves, many civilians were tortured and executed. Eleni and her sister-in-law Alexo were amongst them.

Many villagers were, as the government forces approached, forced by the communists over the mountains into Albania. The author’s sister, the one who’d had to remain behind, was amongst them, but managed to get back to Greece and, not long afterwards, to join her father and siblings in America. Many others, including children taken away from their families, were scattered across the Eastern Bloc and weren’t able to return to Greece for many years. The book tells the story of the atrocities committed by the communists: atrocities, including taking children away, were committed by the government side too. Years later, Gage returned to Greece to try to track down his mother’s killers. He felt that he wanted to kill the man responsible, but in the end held back from doing so. Instead, he wrote this wonderfully moving book. Not only does it tell the story of a horrific period in history, it also describes the life and culture of people in a small village in one of the most remote parts of Europe at that time – the role of women (sadly very repressed), the role of religion, the interaction between neighbours, the very traditional outlook. There were a few annoying typos/spelling mistakes in my edition of this, but I assume that they were the fault of the publishers/editors!

It’s easy to … not forget, but, as time moves on, not to think about what has happened in some parts of Europe since the Second World War. Greece, the one part of the Balkans which didn’t become part of the Eastern Bloc, has been through some very turbulent times. This book is an excellent starting point for learning about some of them.

And one final thought – it would be interesting to read an account of this period written by one of the leaders of the communist guerrillas. Whatever the supposed ideology involved – communism, fascism, Islamic fundamentalism -, what is it that drives people to commit such horrific atrocities against others? What turns people into the sort of people who do that?