This collection of short stories, beautifully produced by Archipelago books, depicts the everyday struggles of the poor in present day Greece. Set in and around Nikaia and the urban sprawl around the port of Piraeus the stories tell of nightwatchman, steelworkers, waiters, bag makers, the unskilled, those in precarious, short time work and the unemployed. These are characters who work two jobs to put food on the table, who queue up for their wages to be told the cash has run out, whose health is compromised and whose children go hungry. A seam of anxiety runs through the narrative, heightened by the ill lit nocturnal urban setting of many of the stories: the streets outside curve up the hill towards an unknown destination symbolising the bleak uncertainty of the future.
Yet there is resistance and protest, expressed in images both striking and unforgettable. In ‘Placard and Broomstick’ Ikonomou describes in meticulous detail how Yiannis constructs a placard out of cardboard and a broomstick. His friend Petros was electrocuted at the building site where he worked and died two days later in hospital. Yiannis plans to stand outside the building site holding the placard in protest at his death. When trying to think of what to write on the cardboard he remembers the T shirt logo of a crazy gunman in the States seen on T.V. : ‘I’m filled with an incredible emptiness’. He writes nothing and stands for hours on Easter Monday holding the empty placard.
Or the story remembered by Takis in ‘Charcoal Moustache’ of the little girl who drew a charcoal moustache on her face during the war in ’42. Her mother, grandmother and all her sisters had died of starvation and she was trying to trick death into thinking she was a boy so it wouldn’t take her too. Or the couple who came to hospital, their hands stuck together with glue. The girl had visited her boyfriend in police custody, about to be deported back to Bulgaria or Romania and had glued their hands together so they couldn’t be separated. The narrator of ‘Something will happen, you’ll see’, awed by this tale of undying love, goes up to their room to peek at the lovers. She sees the young woman tenderly stroking the forehead of her lover to whom she is still attached, then reaching out her other hand, ‘white and thin’ towards our narrator, whispering ‘don’t worry… there’s no glue on this one’.
The characters find resistance to the harsh economic realities they face in warm human relationships -close friendships, the support of spouses and lovers. But when a crowd are gathered together, the mood can tip into one of dangerous irrationality and vengefulness : in ‘Mao’ a group of older people in the community scapegoat the young nightwatchman with a terrible act of cruelty. And their response to their situation, their coping strategies, also take the form of dreams, of fantasies, of storytelling, of flights of escapism buoyed up by tsipouro, everyone’s tipple. And the fantasies inhabiting the consciousness of these characters ricochet from Greece’s heroic classical past to the present day heroes encountered on TV-in ‘Placard and Broomstick’ Yiannis imagines giving his name to the police as ‘Achilles…Or Alexander…Or Thrasyvoulos’ while it is TV that gives him the idea that his great friend Petros also deserves the honour of an asteroid named after him.
Yet at other times the characters and narrators relate their straitened economic circumstances and its consequences with a kind of dispassionate realism. There is frequent mention of Greece’s previous suffering- its occupation during World War Two, the subsequent starvation and political repression- as if these experiences have been burned into the minds of the older generation. And the responsibility of the European Union for their present plight is fleetingly referred to when the couple in ‘Piece by Piece they’re taking my World Away’ toast their health, together with the ‘free movement of people and products’. A more developed dig at the EU appears in ‘Charcoal Moustache’ in a hilarious scene when a puny German finds he can’t take the Greeks’ fiery tsipouro and ends up dancing round the bar as if on fire, ‘barking ai ai ai’ and speechless except for his ‘haften houften’ while the Greeks look on splitting their sides with laughter.
The comedy of this scene works so brilliantly of course in English thanks to the skill, ear and sense of humour of the translator, Karen Emmerich. I found much pleasure in the language of these stories. She has managed to render a range of voices, in both prose and dialogue, and has found ingenious solutions to what must have been some translating challenges: I laughed out loud at those German ‘haften houften’ sounds and at the wonderful narrator in ‘The Blood of the Onion’ teasing the Hispanophile Michalis with ‘Thpaniards, I told him. You’re all crathy, every thingle one’.
If you like short stories do read this collection. With an economy of language and elegance of structure, Christos Ikonomou conveys the hard lives of the poor in present day Greece and the everyday challenges they face. Find out more about Christos Ikonomou and the writing of this book in this interview from nasslit. Thanks to Karen Emmerich for her superb translation and to Archipelago books for bringing the stories to us in English.