Interview · Kathemerini · June 6, 2017
Your novel Mary tells the story of a woman arrested in Greece in November 1973, the time of Greece’s military dictatorship, and her experiences with hunger, cold and torture in the secret police’s prisons. Tell us a few things about the book.
The country in which the main protagonist is living is never mentioned by name. But of course readers familiar with recent history will recognize the colonels’ Greece during those black three, four years on either side of 1970.
Mary is a 23-year old student of architecture. She has short hair, is considered “reserved” because she rarely smiles (the truth is she has poor teeth), and limps a little due to childhood polio. The novel begins in the afternoon of November 16, 1973, when Mary is waking up from her siesta. She is not with her boyfriend Dimos, who has built the radio with which the students are broadcasting their protests, because she had to see her doctor earlier in the day. Now, having had coffee and a cigarette, she wants to join her friend as quickly as possible in order to share the nervy but joyous news that she is six weeks pregnant. Before that happens, however, Mary is picked up by one of the false taxis that circulate in the area and brought to the headquarters of the secret police. What ensues are interrogations and torment. The police wants to know the names of her “comrades,” what affiliations she has and so forth.
Mary, who comes from a rightwing family she has managed to turn her back on, soon realizes there is only one way to survive under these dire circumstances: she must keep mum. Being pregnant, she cannot fight back physically: violence will only be met with worse violence, which may endanger “the tiny sun” she is carrying in her womb. Yet silence poses a problem. The longer she is in custody, the more obvious it will become that she is pregnant. If the police find out, they may use the pregnancy against her by threatening to let her give birth to the child while incarcerated and then have a childless couple faithful to the regime adopt it, as happened in so many dictatorships, in Argentina, Spain, Portugal … In short: the clock is ticking.
Eventually, together with five other women and a little boy, Mary is sent to one of the country’infamous prison islands which had been closed following protests by the Red Cross and Amnesty International but which are now, with a new regime and worse repression, about to open again. She will spend several months on the island, partly in solitary confinement. On the very last pages of the book, Mary is forced to make a decision no person should be coerced into making: she must chose between boyfriend and unborn child. I do not wish to reveal her decision; suffice it to say that the last sentence of the book is “Slowly her body will learn its sad, new strength.”
Why, then, not mention Greece by name?
For readers such as you — much better versed in Greek history than I can ever hope to be — it is not difficult to recognize the lay of the land. Or the seven black years of dictatorship. Or the student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic that ended so tragically on the night of November 17, 1973. Clearly your question has merit. Indeed, why not mention the streets, the city, the country in which all this happened? There are several reasons, but none so vital to me as the importance the student uprising has had for an entire generation. I am thinking of the Greek 68 generation which was born, with jetlag, in 1973. The three heroic days and nights that the students held out at the Polytechnic, before a tank smashed the gates and the military stormed the buildings, has become the core DNA of this generation.
No matter whether your sympathies are on the left or right of the political spectrum — and I know how ideologically motived historiography can be in Greece, still to this day — the uprising signalled the beginning of the end of the Junta. Yet, although the story usually told about it is one of resistance and protest, it has also become a rather virile narrative, just as compatible with standard Hollywood narratives as with the ancient myths of heroic males. Even when you speak with women who participated, there is this masculine narrative.
I have nothing against it in principle. Who could? The revolt was, indeed, heroic. But as I began to gather my thoughts on the matter some seven or eight years ago, I suspected the standard account did not tell the whole story. I sensed there was more to it — a story untold, as it were, a narrative hidden within or beyond the one usually provided. This narrative had to be that of the many women during the uprising, but also during the dictatorship in general. Speaking with friends and acquaintances, people who had participated in the revolt and in some instances had also been sent to the islands, I realized that many crucial experiences were missing from the standard narrative. As a writer, I was not interested in the grand ideological schemes or heroic accounts, I was interested in what had happened to women on a social micro level. How did you survive on an island where there was no drinking water, only the salty sea? What did you do when you had your period? How did you keep warm during the malevolent winter months, in a place with barely any heating and only humid blankets? How did you build trust with people you had never met before and who might even be informers, when this was necessary in order to survive? Sadly there is also the sexualized violence that many women experienced, an aggression part and parcel of any patriarchal society and quite indifferent to political color.
All these details — the small gestures, the confidences, the haptic evidentiality of life on a prison island — was what I wished to get at. I feared that, if I were to mention Greece by name, the official narrative – or at any rate the usual story that the 68 generation tells in order to affirm its sense of self –, I was afraid that this account would conceal and possibly even suppress the particularity of what many women had experienced. In a sense, it would deprive them of their dignity.
Less important but not negligible: by not mentioning the geography or culture of the country in which the novel is set, I could depart from established facts and circumstances whenever the story seemed to require it — no small advantage for a half-Greek writer born and raised abroad.
This is not the first time you have written about Greek matters. In her review of the novel The Last Greek, which appeared in Swedish 2009 and in Greek translation two years later, the English critic and translator Sarah Death comments: “All those Greeks who find their way abroad have to reinvent themselves to fit new circumstances.” Where is the meeting point between history and fiction in your writing? How are the notions of identity, memory, loss and longing imprinted on your work?
Your question is so wide and important I fear I can only address a small aspect of it. In my experience as a writer, certain themes and topics are of such a sensitive nature that you need time to find a way to articulate them which does justice to your particular sensibilities. I am the child of a Greek father and an Austrian mother who found themselves in a third country, Sweden, in the mid-1950’s. My father had had to flee from his home country after the civil war; as a girl, my mother had experienced the Third Reich and its horrors at close hand. In such a family, how could memory, loss and longing not be vital? And how could the question of identity not be crucial to a boy born and raised in a third country, in a culture which had not formed his parents’ sense of self?
Still it took me many — perhaps too many — years to approach these issues. For a long time, I lacked the proper instruments, the adequate language. There were energies I could not tame, affects too volatile to touch upon. The German literary critic and television illuminatus Roger Willemsen, who died too early a few years ago, once coined the term der Knacks. This “crack” or “rupture,” he said, tends to occur in every person’s life, usually when we are between forty and fifty years old, after which we no longer look upon or lead our life in quite the same manner as before. It may be a case of illness, or a child being born, or you divorcing. Whatever the immediate reason, you realize, in the deeper parts of yourself, that you can no longer live in the way you used to. Indeed, your feeling of self, your view on life, your sense of what is just, proper or desirable, has changed elementally.
This phenomenon occurs in the lives of writers, too. If scrutinized closely, there is usually a book in an oeuvre after which the writer in question no longer writes in quite the same manner as earlier. With me, this Knacks, this fissure, began to show itself in The Last Greek. It widened with Half the Sun, the portrait of a Greek father that I published in 2012. And by the time it reached Mary in 2015, the rupture was complete. I had the strong physical sensation that I could no longer write the way I used to. My instincts were different, my interests, too. Gone was the desire to create mini miracles in every second sentence; gone was the delight I used to take in hiding Easter eggs in my texts. Today there is a sort of lyrical barrenness to what I manage to put on paper. I use fewer words, I am more attached to what remains unspoken.
Although I am unable to tell you in what ways this change may be related to the phenomena you mention — to memory, loss and longing, but also to ardor and affection — I am convinced it is.
You have moved from studying German romanticism and French deconstruction to writing novels about human beings as they circulated in Europe a hundred years ago (Stockholm Noir and The Truth about Sascha Knisch from 2000 and 2002 respectively, with Greek editions in 2002 and
2006) and more recently novels about Greece. Is there a binding thread to this itinerary?
An author is probably the last person one should ask to reflect upon his endeavors or artistic trajectory. Most likely, you will receive replies more akin to wishful thinking than sober assessment. So many of us are guided not by thought-out plans but by curiosity, not by visions but by affects and even irritations.
The two novels you mention belong to a “biological trilogy” which has, at its core, the ideas and phantasies surrounding what was termed, around the penultimate turn of the century, the “new man.” I wanted to understand how disciplines such as neurology, physiology and sexual research influenced peoples’ understanding of human agency at the time. I got the perhaps fanciful idea of telling the volatile stories of three young persons, independent but interconnected, in Dresden, Berlin and Stockholm during the years before the Nazi seizure of power in January 1933. Using the trinity of freedom, equality and fraternity as my template, I wished to investigate how these principles could be related to three central forms of human agency: reflection, instinct and emotion. Since all the books related to the discipline of medicine in one way or another, I decided to put human organs at the respective center of the stories, which by and large all are stories of love, friendship and deceit. The first book is about freedom, then, especially of thought; hence it deals with the brain (which, evidently, stands for reflection). Investigating what instinct might mean, the second novel treats fraternity — or brotherhood, if you will. Hence the attention paid to the male sexual organ, especially the testicles, which have a tendency to appear in pairs — or as twin brothers, as it were. The last volume is a straightforward love story, and thus about emotive equality, so it has a particular interest in the affairs of the heart, with its two balancing chambers.
Then that Knacks occurred which I mentioned, and I began to write about the diaspora and how individual identities are formed and deformed by the experience of exile. I found myself asking what role memories play in families who change country and culture and often also language. Is there a sense of continuity? May rupture be its own form of existence? I wished to discern in what ways collective experiences contain hidden fractures and complexities at odds with one another. Topics such as trust, weakness, pain and perseverance began to matter to me. In short: I found myself knee deep in things Greek …
It seems that Greek and Swedish society differ in terms of their experience of modernity, their conception of family values and personal mentality. Yet a critic would argue that values are liquid and unsettled in both societies. Would you like to comment?
I am certain values are, to some extent, fluid in every society. Still, there are core beliefs that, if not laid down properly in laws, nonetheless tend to be more peculiar to one culture than an other. Usually, and somewhat comically, it is often argued that these values or norms or principles are impossible to translate properly into another language. For example, there are the central notions of kléos and xenophilía in ancient Greece. But are they really, really untranslatable? Surely “glory” and “hospitality” covers much of the same ground? Or take the Swedish word lagom. It is the dative case of lag, meaning “team” or “group,” and describes a particular sentiment best instanced by a scene. In earlier times, there was only one mug of beer for a whole group of men. Each one of them was allowed a sip or two, but already the first person to drink knew that he could not take as much as his thirst wanted him to, because then there would be no beer left for the last person in the line. This is the principle of lagom: neither too much nor too little, just enough. I wonder if modern Sweden, built by farmers and engineers, would be possible without a strong sense of this lagom. Or without beer, for that matter.
You are right, there are differences of social and historical nature between our two societies. Sweden has had a strong central state for almost 400 years, ever since Axel Oxenstierna was appointed chancellor in 1612. He created the state’s administrative body, replete with the precursors of today’s ruling bodies and quasi-governmental organizations. He also divided the kingdom into counties. Furthermore, our country has not been involved in war since the campaign against Norway in 1814. Four hundred-plus years of a centralized state, and half that many years of peace and neutrality, have a significant effect on a society. For example, as a citizen you develop a faith in the state and tend to consider it not harmful but helpful, especially when this state, as happened in the 1930s through the 1960s, modernizes the country and brings prosperity to a large majority regardless of creed and class. This grand undertaking can only succeed, I suspect, if lagom remains a guiding principle. In a country with limited means, as was the case with Sweden, which lost more inhabitants than it gained well into the 1880’s, you must always think of your other; there has to be something left for the last person in line. What clearer proof is there of such relative solidarity than that, as a citizen, you pay your taxes?
As you know much better than I, Greece has not experienced the same societal development since the 1600s. Instead, the history of the country is also the history of occupation. There have been Ottomans, Germans and even home-grown colonels ruling and leaving their mark on the culture. In such a society, the state is not trusted. Put unfairly harshly, you either resist and fight it — or, as has also happened, you exploit its resources for your own benefit. Whatever you do, you do not necessarily pay your taxes.
Obviously I am making the contrast between our countries starker than reality merits. Also, would it not be possible to translate the Swedish lagom into the ancient notion of métron? There are differences nonetheless, because of a social and political history that forms and deforms every nation’s sense of national or cultural identity. Among many other things, the fraught undertaking known as the European Union is an attempt to bring such differences — this host of nations, with their varying histories and experiences — together under the same umbrella. How could there not be skirmishes and fights for the best place, to avoid getting unduly wet on the fringes? And who should hold the umbrella? Can there really be 28 – or, after the pending Brexit, 27 – hands keeping it up?
What’s the current crisis’ impact on individuality and self-consciousness? Are new narratives underway?
I keep my fingers crossed.