Wednesday, May 30, 2012

And Once Again I Turn to a Novel to Get Insight into a World Situation--The Greece of Natalie Bakopoulos's "The Green Shore" (and Yes, She's at Boswell on Friday, June 8, 7 pm).

So are we all understanding what’s going on in Greece right now? While pundits debate whether the Greeks will stay in the eurozone or return to the drachma, it’s important to note most of the experts have no idea.

In recent elections voters protested austerity measures and voted against the two dominant parties, the New Democrats and the Socialists. More votes went to the Syrzia, the further left party that opposes the agreements, but not the European Union, though it seems possible that you can’t have one without the other. And substantial votes also went to the far right Golden Dawn party, whose platform is largely anti-immigrant. Now another vote is set for June 17, as no party is able to form a ruling government.

Of course what is interesting about the European immigrant phobia is that for years, or one could even say centuries, Europeans immigrated to the United States for many of the same reasons that these newcomers have moved to Europe. An article in the Wisconsin Magazine of History  from 1970 notes that Greeks moved to the United States mostly for economic reasons, for periodic crop failures, and a strict class system that did not allow for economic mobility. Most of the Greeks in the Milwaukee area emigrated from Peloponessus, particularly Arcadia, As is true of most migrations, a lot of folks in the community wind up being from the same place; it’s the classic practice of one person encouraging his family and friends to follow. The things you learn by reading past page one of your search results!

Sad to say, I understand very little about the situation in Greece, and learn what I can through news reports. We all wonder whether there will continue to be books that would be published on subjects like this. Are current events books still a viable subject area? I think it depends on the writer and the timeliness. And these books didn’t backlist well, long before the internet. I fear there will not be one, or alternatively, there will be a half dozen, all published within a month of each other.

I poked around, trying to find some modern books that shed light on the situation, or even a modern history, but it’s not been easy going to find something published in the United States. There’s a lot on ancient Greece, as you can imagine. I have listed a few interesting titles, and while there are certainly more, it's a pittance compared with, say, Tuscany.

Bitter Lemons, by Lawrence Durrell (of Alexandria Quartet fame) is his memoir of living in Cyprus in the 1950s, first as a visitor, then a teacher, and then as a press advisor to the government coping with armed rebellion.

Twice a Stranger: The Mass Expulsions That Forged Modern Greece and Turkey, by Bruce Clark, looks at the 1920 population exchange of Turkish Orthodox Christians for Greek Muslims in what was said to be “a humanitarian nightmare that sheds light on the conundrums of religion, ethnicity and identity in the modern age.”

Eleni, by Nicholas Gage, who wrote about how his mother arranged for the escape of her children from the communist camps set up during the 1948 civil war, for which she was imprisoned, tortured, and executed. This book was a huge success, and led to a sequel which is out of print, A Place for Us. Her granddaughter wrote a travel narrative called North of Ithaka, and has a novel coming out this fall, Other Waters.

Oh, and then I did find a $160 Routledge textbook about Greece and the cold war. Any takers?

But as is the case for many social issues, here comes a novel to the rescue. It’s not going to explain what is happening now, but it will give you a bit of enlightenment about how we got from there to here. It’s Natalie Bakopoulos’s The Green Shore (Simon and Schuster, on sale next Tuesday, June 5), and it’s set during the military occupation of Greece, which was from 1967 to 1974. Bakopoulos has been putting the current situation in perspective as well. Here’s her recent column in The New York Times.

Widowed Eleni and her three children live in Halandri, a suburb of Athens. Sophie and Taki are college students. Anna is in high school. Eleni is a doctor. Her brother Mihalis is an outspoken poet of some notoriety. So it’s the eve of the crackdown, and Sophie and Mihalis are both missing. Neither have been caught, but both are in trouble, and Sophie’s boyfriend Nick is arrested.

Sophie is whisked away to Paris, where she connects with several other émigrés at a café job. Nick is released, leaves for Germany, and the romance withers. Taki leaves for grad school in the United States, where he pretty much disconnects from the family. Eleni covertly treats victims who are refused help in the hospitals, Mihalis is watched carefully for activism by the authorities, hiding out with estranged wife Irini. And it’s the overlooked Anna who gets slowly drawn into protests.

But being that the personal is the political, so to speak, everyone we follow also has personal issues to work out as well. Eleni is drawn away from her long-term boyfriend, the more conservative Dimitri, by Andreas, who is helping her at the clinic. Sophie finds herself in a love triangle with Loukas, Nick’s cousin. Mihalis winds up reconnecting into his troubled relationship with Irini. And Anna starts sleeping with Evan, an older married professor and friend of her Uncle Mihalis. Well, that’s not going to go well.

So as these folks try to live these lives, you know that the specter of violence lurks behind every decision. Do you submit, do you fight, do you escape? There’s a little of everything in The Green Shore. Taki takes the seemingly easy path, disconnecting from his family, and comes off cold and selfish. On the other hand, everyone does what they have to do to survive. And so many immigrant stories have that break with the past. To put the Taki character in perspective, he may be modeled on Bakopoulos’s father, but he is not Bakopoulos’s father. As Tayari Jones notes in her interviews, “My father was not a bigamist.”

We’re honored to host Natalie Bakopoulos at Boswell on Friday, June 8, 7 pm, along with Bonnie Jo Campbell, the acclaimed author of many works of fiction, including the National-Book-Award nominated American Salvage, and the recently released Once Upon a River, now in paperback. It’s the Mighty Michiganders!

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