Real Fiction

Exploring the nexus of reading and writing

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I Wept for Greece

The book is “Postcards from Greece,” by Victoria Hislop.

Alexander K. Pavellas, my grandfather, with parents Theofonia Pavellas née Smirtis, and Konstantinos Pavellas, a priest in Nafplio, 1880

The story she tells is soulful and compelling. Briefly, it is two stories intertwined: the present-day narrator’s, during her trip to Greece, and that of the writer of the postcards, an unknown Englishman, “A,” in Greece, whose posts she has received in error while living in her flat in England. The postcards continued to arrive over a lengthy period, ultimately to stimulate the narrator’s journey to Greece. Minutes before she leaves her flat, she receives in the post a notebook, a journal from the author of the postcards, which she doesn’t read until settling in a room in Nafplio (birthplace of Alexander K. Pavellas, my paternal grandfather, 1876).

She commences reading, and reporting to the reader, the journal entries of A as he traveled throughout Greece to deal with the heartbreak of his lover jilting him—apparently the woman he thought he was mailing the postcards and journal to.

Each village, town, and city he visited had a story, as told to him by local people. Each story had a lesson for A as he dealt with his broken heart, seeing along the way that it might be possible for him to recover.

I paused for a moment at page 249, to allow the tears to well up, my mind traveling over the years, centuries, and millennia—involuntarily reviewing what I know of the history of Greece and the Greeks.

The nation-state that is Greece is only 188 years old. How can this be, given what we have read of all the ancient Greek peoples, their philosophers, mathematicians, statesmen, historians, warriors, physicians, sculptors, architects, poets, playwrights, and more?

In ancient days there were villages, towns, and some city-states (notably, Athens and Sparta who were ever at war with each other), not only on the mainland and the islands we now see on a map, but everywhere throughout the Mediterranean and the Black Sea areas, and in what is now Turkey, Egypt, and others—places where Alexander led his army of Macedonians and Greeks in conquering the world.

downloadSo, Greeks were everywhere, having become an integral part of the communities they settled in. What welded them together as Greeks, despite their intermittent, internecine warfare? Their language, religion, and literature—mostly poetry, beginning with Homer. But, there were no nation-states then except, possibly, for Persia which had been conquered and dissolved by Alexander.

More, below, about how we get from ‘Greeks everywhere’ without a state, to what we now know as the Republic of Greece—but first, what is on pages 248 and 249 that stopped me and stimulated my reverie?

She (the narrator) looked at her flag, its simple blue-and-white design full of meaning, the nine horizontal stripes each revealing the nine-syllable rallying cry used by the Greeks to rid their country of the Turks. ‘El-ef-th-ri-a I Tha-na-tos! Freedom or Death!’

As did many, she believed that God had been on their side in the fight against the Turks. With His help they had rid themselves of the Ottoman oppression; the flag itself embodied their motto.

My thoughts went immediately to a passage in John Fowles’ “The Magus,” the antagonist to the main character. The Magus related to the protagonist a scene from the World War Two German occupation of Greece. The Germans had caught a Cretan whom they had been torturing to get information about those fighting against the occupation. He would not talk. The doctor of the town (the Magus, in his later persona) was told to make the man talk or others would suffer, as well…

I told him (the Cretan) I was not a collaborationist, that I was a doctor, that my enemy was human suffering. That I spoke for Greece when I said that God would forgive him if he spoke now – his friends had suffered enough. There was a point beyond which no man could be expected to suffer … and so on. Every argument I could think of. But his expression was one of unchanging hostility to me. Hatred of me. I doubt if he even listened to what I was saying. He must have assumed that I was a collaborationist, that all the things I told him were lies. In the end I fell silent and looked back at the colonel. I could not hide the fact that I thought I had failed. He must have signaled to the guards outside, because one of them came in, went behind the Cretan and unfastened the gag. At once the man roared, all the chords in his throat standing out, that same word, that one word: eleftheria. There was nothing noble in it. It was pure savagery, as if he was throwing a can of lighted petrol over us. The guard brutally twisted the gag back over his mouth and retied it.


Nikos Kazantzakis, 1883-1957

Then I thought of the book “Freedom or Death” by the great Cretan-Greek man of letters, Nikos Kazantzakis. I began reading Kazantzakis while in university. I was electrified by his “Last Temptation of Christ.” I have since read, and re-read, many of his novels, and revere his autobiography, Report to Greco.” His novel “Freedom or Death” deals with the rebellion of the Cretans against the Ottoman Empire in the year 1889. Again, the Turks.

After the Golden Age of Greece peaked and declined, especially after the Peloponnesian wars between Athens and Sparta had exhausted Greek treasure and spirit, others claimed the territories in which they resided and rendered many of them as vassals or slaves. Nonetheless, the Greek language and culture continued to influence the world; the elite Romans valued the Greek language as much as their own, and saw themselves heirs to Greek civilization.

The Roman Empire eventually adopted Christianity, was conquered by invaders from the north, and morphed into the “Holy Roman Empire.” After more centuries the Empire split into two parts, East and West, the Eastern part, based in Constantinople—now Istanbul, Turkey. This became the “Eastern Orthodox” Church, or “Greek” Church.

Then the Ottoman Turks, under the banner of Islam, conquered most of the areas previously under Christian influence. The Ottomans ruled the Middle East, North Africa and much of Europe for almost 500 years, their empire gradually dying, finally ending upon the conclusion of the first World War, or “Great War.”

Many of the provinces of the Ottoman Empire were challenged well before The Great War, including by the Greeks. After bloody uprisings and reprisals, the ‘Great Powers’ of the time (England, France, Russia, and Turkey), via the Treaty of Constantinople of 1832, recognized Greece as a fully independent kingdom.

But the boundaries of the kingdom did not encompass a great many areas where Greeks had resided for centuries, even millennia. The Ottomans initiated, over time, many pogroms and ethnic cleansings of Greeks (and Armenians, Assyrians and others), including forced emigration with all the horrors which accompany such displacements by armed men. The city of Smyrna in Anatolia (now in Turkey) was burned to ground and its surviving residents mostly expelled.

Thus, the first nation-state of Greece was born in 1832, amid wars, displacements, terrors and uncertainty. It has never stood fully on its feet, and has been used as a pawn by greater powers in their struggles with each other, and in positioning themselves for economic advantage.

Upon modern Greece’s birth, the Island of Crete was not part of the nation-state. In 1897, an insurrection in Crete (which influenced the book Freedom or Death) led the Ottoman Empire to declare war on Greece, which led Great Britain, France, Italy and Russia to intervene on the grounds that the Ottoman Empire could no longer maintain control. It was the prelude of the island’s final annexation to the Kingdom of Greece, which occurred de facto in 1908. (Source)

The period between the end of the First World War, 1918, and the date the German Army invaded Greece during the Second World War, 1942, remained tumultuous for the new kingdom/nation of Greece. Just as with the new nation-states of Syria and Iraq, also formed after the end of the first World War by the Great Powers, there was no infrastructure upon which to build a ‘democracy’ or any kind of stable representative government. Greeks and the peoples who are now citizens of Iraq and Syria had all been ruled, absolutely, by the Ottoman Empire for centuries. The tragic irony, for Greece, is that in millennia past, the first successful democracy was established in Athens. It lasted, perhaps, for a century.

In the period between the two great wars, Greece experienced many changes in government, only briefly attaining what could be called a ‘republic’, alternating with monarchy and dictatorship. There were coups and coup attempts, assassinations and attempts, a war with Turkey over the fate of hundreds of thousands of Greeks trapped inside that country. There were brief, but bloody, skirmishes with the bordering states of Albania and Bulgaria over the fates of Greeks in these countries, and their national boundaries.

Warfare, hunger, poverty, disease, displacement—all were commonplace in the new Greece. And, despite these, hundreds of thousands of Greeks from other countries, primarily Turkey, continued to arrive to bankrupt Greece. In 1922, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Smyrna, Turkey, was lynched by a Turkish mob. Smyrna was set on fire and 100,000 Greeks perished. The remaining population fled to Greece and other countries.

Then came the German army.

4bl8qe40an4zImpatient with Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, in the latter’s failure to occupy and control Greece on behalf the Axis powers in World War Two, Hitler ordered the German invasion of Greece, April 1941. Following the conquest of Crete, all of Greece was occupied by June 1941.

The Germans have more respect for the Greeks then for the Italians, not only because the Greeks had defeated the Italians in the Albanian campaign but because the Germans are well read and generally philhellenes, and are quite familiar with the rich history of the ancient Greeks. (Source)

Nonetheless, the German Army was merciless in its occupation of Greece, and in its murders of Greek Jews. And when the German Army was ultimately forced to abandon Greece, it destroyed everything they passed through on their retreat.

Over 400,000 Greeks die during the Second World War, the vast majority civilians. The Jewish communities, the most ancient in Europe have been wiped out. Starvation and inflation are so bad that a loaf of bread costs 2 million drachma and people have traded property and homes for olive oil to keep their children alive. When the allies tour the countryside following the German retreat they do not find happy crowds waving flags, but people who stare, dazed, in a state of shock over what they have been through. Schools have been burned to the ground as have the villages which surround them. Thousands of civilians have been uprooted and just as many have died. The country is economically bankrupt. There is little or no industry as factories have been destroyed and ports and cities are in ruins. The government is in chaos. The whole country has to be rebuilt. But first they have to fight a civil war. (Source)

Sofia Malanos Pagonis

Sofia Pagonis, née Malanos, born 1927, Andros, Greece

Yes, then a Civil War. It was horrible. The people were caught between Soviet-backed Communists and savagely competing militias. Loyalties to one or the other were tested, and a failure resulted in torture or death, or both. Uncle Harry’ wife, Sofia, was present during those times, about which I never heard her speak, except once. In an unguarded moment Aunt Sophie spoke of seeing, as a girl, barrels full of human body parts.

The communists tore from their families 30,000 children and deported them to communist controlled countries in Eastern Europe. The book and movie “Eleni” was based in this unspeakable atrocity. (My tears well up again).

After the War, the United States implemented the Marshal Plan, in which the United States gave over $13 billion in economic support to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II. The United Kingdom received 26% of this amount, France 18%, and Greece 3%, to be used primarily to fight the communists who were trying to annex Greece to the Soviet Union as had been the countries in Eastern Europe. (Source).

The communists were defeated, but the result was to create a militaristic state which ruled the people for a while, until democratic impulses arose to counter them—and a new round of changing governments and assassinations began. (See the Movie “Z.” by Costa-Gavras)

Then came the European Union and the Euro currency.

This is enough to say here. You will have your opinion about the purported benefits to Greece of having been co-opted into this union of governments and currency. But ask the Greeks if they might not wish to have retained the Drachma, and to not be bound by EU rules, especially those requiring them to accept thousands of refugees from the Middle East whom they are not physically and financially prepared to accommodate.

I weep for Greece. She never had a chance to become what she might have, with her glorious history and culture, and her beautiful landscapes and seas. She remains vassal to the Great Powers.

But, Greece lives in the people, as well as in the land designated as ‘The Hellenic Republic.’

Greeks, as usual, are everywhere in the world. They are also Australians, South Africans, Canadians, Swedes (as I am), and Americans (as I am), proud and productive citizens of other countries. Greece resides in their hearts and mine.

Odysseas Elytis



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Absolute Certainty

A Fictional Take on the French Revolution

Within the last few years my delayed education in history has been improved by my reading of books about and involving the French Revolution, such as Fatal Purity: Robespierre and French Revolution by Ruth Scurr and The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments by Gertrude Himmelfarb.

raseroNow I have come upon a book entitled Rasero. Although the word is given as the name of the main character of the book, it is not a proper noun and, in Spanish, means “leveller.” I received the book in exchange for another I gave to a correspondent in the United Kingdom. We met, online, through BookCrossing.

Rasero, by Francisco Rebolledo and translated from the Spanish by Helen R. Lane, is well-reviewed here.

The book turned out to be a page-turner for me. Through a fictional character we are introduced, intimately, with major characters in the era of The Enlightenment, and those leading to and participating in the French Revolution of 1789. The major sections of the book are entitled: Diderot, Damiens, Voltaire, Mozart, Mariana (a fictional character), Madame de Pompadour, Lavoisier, Robespierre, and Francisco Goya.

The author uses a clever device to lead us into the future to see the putative results of the Enlightenment, namely, the uses of science and technology to improve, and make more disastrously efficient, warfare. The device used is Rasero’s visions of the future upon achieving orgasm, which he has with many lovely partners, but no visions with the one love of his life. Although somewhat ribald, the author’s depiction of the pleasures of the flesh are not, in my view, to the main point of the book and are offered in a pleasant, almost poetic, manner.

The voice in which the novel is written was strange to me at first. There is an omniscient observer describing to the main character what he is experiencing, and the reader is witness to this one-way conversation. “You” is constantly used by the narrator to tell Rasero how he is feeling and what he is experiencing. There is a twist on this near the end which I will not reveal.


A depiction of the event wherein the head of King Louis XVI was severed from his body by The Guillotine, his public execution having been ordered by “The Committee of Public Safety”

The main point, I feel, is made in this passage where Rasero is hotly criticizing Robespierre for not stopping “The Committee of Public Safety” from executing Pierre Lavoisier, the eminent scientist and chemist:

Power…has corrupted you. No one has yet been born who, reaching power, is not corrupted, and you…are very far from being the exception…You’ve acquired absolute power. a power that allows you to cut off lives, the way one snips flowers in the countryside. And that power has corrupted you absolutely…

Rasero ponders elsewhere in the book that Robespierre’s vision of the correct society, one based on rational principles, is so “correct” in Robespierre’s mind that it overtakes all other considerations. Even as he is led to the guillotine to lose his own head where countless others through his agency have lost theirs, Robespierre has absolute certainty he was and is right (my emphasis).

A scholar on the subject summarizes thus:

Robespierre’s failure can be viewed as that of a man so narrow-minded in his views that eventually he cannot conceive of anything outside of them, a man so firmly convinced of his own absolute rightness that he cannot see the glaring errors he makes. It had grown inconceivable to him that anyone should oppose him successfully, and when someone did, the blow numbed him into inaction for a while. Although he started out with the best of motives, it came to the point where protection of the ideals for which he stood was everything to him, whereas protection of the people whom the ideals were originally to protect meant nothing. [Source]



“… a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever”

Thus ends The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

This is one of the three books I present today. The others are: Thesiger by Michael Asher; and The Search for Sana by Richard Zimler, the latter having been recently discussed in the book-circle I belong to.

I had made a promise to myself, and a bold statement to a fellow reader in the group, that I would find a common theme among these seemingly disparate books, my having chosen them for different reasons. I intrepidly assert the title of this blog provides the connection among the books.

The Rings of Saturn

The introductory page before the table of contents has two quotations, one by Joseph Conrad, in French (Conrad is mentioned much in this book and occasionally in Thesiger), and one from Brockhaus Encyclopedia, as follows:

“The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet’s equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect (→ Roche limit)”

The County of Suffolk, as located in the country of England

The County of Suffolk, as located in the country of England

Such a beginning certainly presages the coming apart of things, as this singular book does provide evidence for, at least in The County of Suffolk, England.

The author takes us on a journey through his county, starting in Norwich on a train to the coast bordering the North Sea, and thence generally along the coast on foot, sometimes dangerously. Later, having walked inland, he visits a friend, a writer and teacher, who lives in a house the author once lived in. He takes a taxi back to a previously visited town to think and write, as he had been doing all along this journey, then he traveled back home.

Places in Suffolk County mentioned in the book, along with the author's musings on their historical and literary connections to many parts of the world [Please click on the image]

Places in Suffolk County mentioned in the book, along with the author’s musings on their historical and literary connections to many parts of the world [Please click on the image]

What, you may be asking, assuming you have read this far, is so interesting about all this?

As the caption of the image immediately above implies, the author uses his travels to expose thoughts and memories stimulated by the places and people he visits. This section of England, or Great Britain in the larger picture, has had great forests, great industry (including the manufacture of silk), great homes and hotels, great resorts and, last, great airfields─staging areas for Great Britain’s execution of its role in the Second World War. All are gone.

A former silk mill, now a museum, in Derbyshire, a county in the East Midlands

A former silk mill, now a museum, in Derbyshire, a county in the East Midlands

Not only are all these things and events gone, they have left a poisonous residue, killing the vast herring industry once centered here, among other insults. Nature has had a role in eating away at the vulnerable coastline, toppling cliffs and and structures built upon them..

As I read through this compelling book, I was taken on imaginary trips, accompanied by great detail, to: China, via an exposition on the origin of silk and its resultant world trade; The Enlightenment and many of its famous characters–the writers Gustav Flaubert, Algernon Swinburne, Edward Fitzgerald (The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), Joseph Conrad, Sir Thomas Browne, and Jorge Luis Borges, the latter’s short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius being given much discussion.

Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius by Borges

Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius by Borges

In the “Tlön”story, an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of Orbis Tertius, a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world: Tlön. According to … a key tenet of the (several) philosophical schools of Tlön … the future exists only in the shape of our present apprehensions and hopes, and the past merely as memory. In a different view, the world and everything now living in it was created only moments ago, with its complete but illusory pre-history. A third school of thought…describes our earth as a cul-de-sac in the great city of God, a dark cave crowded with incomprehensible images, or a hazy aura surrounding a better sun. The advocates (in ‘Tlön’) of a fourth philosophy maintain that time has run its course and that this life is no more than a fading refection of an event beyond recall. We simply do not know how many of its possible mutations the world may have already gone through, or how much time, always assuming that it exists, remains. (Emphasis added).

What has destroyed all that the author reminds us of, as the gravity of Jupiter has destroyed its former satellites, is, I believe, the Second World War. He was a German boy during the war, and later a life-long resident of England.

And, the destroyer is also time, assuming it exists beyond the conceit of man.

Similarly, in Thesiger, a biography of the renown mid-20th century explorer Wilfrid Thesiger, the book ends with several quoted observations of the subject:

There is nothing to be cheerful about. Everything is wrong…There can be no future. It’s inconceivable that there could be any human beings on the planet in a hundred years’ time … Not only transport but the interference with nature, you’ve got pollution and the threat to the ozone belt which means the heating up of the earth and the melting of the poles and half the world going under water.

Wilfrid Thesiger

Wilfrid Thesiger

Thesiger was born in Ethiopia in 1910.His father served there in the British diplomatic corps. Thesiger returned to Ethiopia as a young man to explore and hunt, and then traveled extensively in many parts of the Arabian Peninsula, and also in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thesiger was given to hyperbole with native English speakers, spending most of his life having lived among and traveling with, by foot and camel, the native peoples of the mostly “untouched” lands he preferred to “civilization”.

A hundred years ago there were no cars…Well in a hundred years what are we going to have? It won’t be long before the Chinese will be demanding cars─you can’t put all that pollution into the air and get away with it…I don’t think development can be checked and that’s why I think we’re heading for disaster─it’s just a matter of guessing whether it’s fifty years or 100 years. I see absolutely no hope for the human species.

As with his predecessor T.E. Lawrence, whom Thesiger admired, he eschewed the intimate company of women, and sex altogether. He did like the company of young men who traveled with him as a sort of tribe, as did Lawrence. Thesiger’s biographer interviewed him and followed in his footsteps to talk with many of the people Thesiger had traveled with, lending great credibility to Asher’s portrait of the great explorer.

Thesiger saw civilization and, more precisely, its mechanization and industries, as the ruin of natural man, epitomized by the Bedu of the desert.

I cannot stand the lush green of the English countryside…Green should be a patch of cultivation, perhaps just a fig-tree, in contrast to an expanse of desert; then it becomes valuable.

The Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula

The Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula

Thesiger was the last person to travel to theretofore inaccessible places by foot and animal transport. He mourned the advent of the automobile. Wilfrid Thesiger died in 2003 at age 93 in England, having been forced to live there the last few years of his life because of ill health. He heart was, undoubtedly, in northern Kenya where he had last lived for many years, quite simply, among the native peoples there.

The Search for Sana

This is a complicated onion of a book. Just as you think you see the story whole, another layer peels off and you re-think what you may already have concluded about its trajectory. There are passages where you are not sure the characters are who they present themselves to be, and, in some cases, they aren’t. It would be a disservice to the author and to your enjoyment of the book for me to reveal too much more, specifically, about it.

How, then, to tie it in to the theme of this blog?

Palestine-IsraelIt will not spoil your reading of the book for me to say the core of the story resides in a town in what is now Israel, where both Arabs and Jews live, although the action takes place in many places around the world: first, Australia, then, not in order, Brazil, Italy, England, New York and other places.

The main characters (other than the narrator who appears to be the author himself) are two girls, one an Arab and one a Jew, who are soul-sisters growing up in a small place in Israel. The trajectory of their lives, together and apart, provide the basis for the story.

Overlying the rest of the story is the constant theme of conflict between Arab and Jew, between Palestinian and Israeli, within and without the territory of Palestine/Israel.

This conflict, without editorializing by the author/narrator except through the different viewpoints of his characters, is destroying the land and its peoples and generally poisoning the social and political atmosphere of the earth. This may seem a commonplace and non-extraordinary thing to say, but it is presented pungently by the author and, I feel, ties in to the theme of this article.

The Langoliers or Inevitable Entropy, by George Grie [Please click on the image]

The Langoliers or Inevitable Entropy, by George Grie [Please click on the image]

These three books are presenting the inevitability of decay, enhanced (I paraphrase Thesiger) by too many humans occupying too little space.

Perhaps it is a simple matter of seeing entropy in action through what these books present. But this concept is insufficient. What these books present, each in its own way, is man’s role in his and his world’s undoing.