Thursday, 12 July 2018

"What is called... 

...a sincere work is 
one that is endowed with enough strength to give 
reality to an illusion."

Note: The Portrait of Amedeo Clemente Modigliani is by French artist Jeanne Hébuterne, Modigliani's model, muse and companion in life and death. 

Sunday, 8 July 2018


For Jonathan Coe's faithful readers, "The rain before it falls", must have been something like a shock: not only is it absolutely non-political but also, there are only female characters. Without being one (faithful reader), I really like his coruscating style and as soon as I read that he gave in to the challenge of writing a novel against his usual specialities, reading it was a one-way choice for me. 

Gill inherits part of her aunt's property and is appointed to execute her will. That means to deliver a packet of four cassette tapes to a distant relative she does not really know, Imogen. The cassette tapes go with twenty photographs, mostly black-and-white. They are the ones that old Rosamond describes on tape up until the very night she died, wanting  Imogen to find out the truth about her past. Gill tries repeatedly to get in touch with Imogen but in vain. So, along with her daughters they, themselves, listen to the tapes.

It all starts from Shropshire. In the autumn of 1940, with the imminent WWII to break out, little Rosamond is evacuated from Birmingham and hosted to her aunt's house in the country. There she meets her older cousin, Beatrix –Imogen's grandmother– and the two girls grow very fond of each other, like being sisters. Rosamond witnesses how cruel her aunt, Ivy, is to her daughter – not yelling, just saying terrible things in a low voice. Beatrix becomes invisible to her mother and hides every emotional need a girl of her age has. Later, as a woman, Beatrix would try to fullfil those needs with love and attention from men but all she does is falling, repeatedly, for the wrong ones. In the process, she gives birth to a baby girl, Thea, which she will later abandon to Rosamond so she could follow Martin. That's in the middle of the 50s, Thea is nine and Rosamond now lives and works in London where she is having her first true love with Rebecca. The three of them will go away on a family vacation in France where, the motherly Rosamond will try to heal Thea's psychological wounds. Beatrix, however, will return two years later and reclaim Thea, insulting at the same time Rosamond and her relationship with Rebecca. The latter two will, eventually, separate after that and Rosamond will go on living in her usual quiet mode until she meets her second companion, Ruth. 

The next time Rosamond meets Thea is on Christmas 1969 (I think). The family reunion takes place in the old family house and Thea, already an adult, is able to speak up. She says that Beatrix has changed her name to Annie and is now working in Canada as a nurse, being very popular in her field. She has not stopped, however, behaving despicably to both her (Thea) and the new family she now has with her second husband. In years to come, Thea will not be able to "deactivate" her mother's legacy and, as a result, she reproduces it on her own daughter, Imogen. 


Dealing with how parents pass down their life experiences to their children is a challenging theme. It being the core of his novel, Coe  does handle it with great dexterity as he reveals the subcutaneous way that a mother imposes her whims and notions on her daughter through generations – from Ivy to Thea, every woman becomes self-destructive and abuses the next. Imogen has probably escaped this violent cycle when the Court appointed her to a host family after a violent outburst of Thea left her blind. She was not even four, at the time. This is why Rosamond records her voice – she wants to give her a sense of her true identity and help her understand; to show her that despite everything she is a good person. What's equally important, and well structured, is that the author examines the female emotional nature in depth and in most forms and levels: affinity, friendship, companionship, love. They are all portrayed through a combination of sharp observation and tenderness which makes  the female psyche transparent and the reading appealing. 

Most of the story is told by Rosamond who describes on tape her family's history with the passing of time – from Shropshire in the 40s to London during the 50s, the 60s, the 70s and the 80s, and then back to Shropshire. There is only one, central, chapter in the book that interrupts this linear structure only to give some background story. There is no wild plot nor any unusual technique that would be challenging for the reader. Yet, the story is so masterfully written that I kept wondering why, on earth, I was so eager to read something so flat a piece. 

With this seemingly downbeat but potent novel, Jonathan Coe takes many stereotypes down without resorting to melodramatic gimmicks although he could have done so – Rosamond's homosexuality is an advantageous point. Instead, he stays firm to the facts of life and reproduces the exact conditions homosexuals lived in the 50s and 60s. There is a touch of sentimentality in parts but his language is mostly simple, direct yet, chilling esp. when he talks about the inescapable legacy. A pinch of humour here,  a slight bit of phlegm there, just to cover up sadness, but nowhere a place for Coe's biting satire. As the author himself said, the time had come to cut jokes off and become serious. This change, however, did not deprive the novel of anything. On the contrary. The complexity of the personal relationships developed makes the characters believable and completely familiar. With sad but fervent hues, Rosamond's story is staggering and her voice, through the recordings, quite imposing. You feel like you are actually listening to her warm voice, full of discretion and truthfulness. You even expect her to offer you one of those little alcoholic refreshments she takes when there is a pause.

There are also two more understated points I loved noticing. Firstly, the author raises nice questions on how words can truly represent something visual and how a picture is not always what it seems. "Everybody smiles for photographs," Rosamond tells us. "That's one of the reasons you should never trust them." And that he does allow, after all, room for politics. In fact, "What could be more political that the dynamics developed within a family? Or, the tyranny exercised from a parent on a powerless child?"  the author asks.  The  lively reconstruction of society in postwar Britain, reaching the present days, leaves enough room for other political comments, too.  

A novel in point. 

Notes: This is Jonathan Coe's eighth novel and is translated in Greek by Margarita Zachariadou (Polis Editions, 2007).  His latest one, Middle England, is out in November 2018. / The installation in the first picture is  the acclaimed Umbrellas by G. Zongolopoulos/ This article was originally published in Greek and has now been reviewed.

Monday, 18 June 2018

“Some people

... spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don't understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they're there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it's the other side that matters, Unless, Unless what, Unless those rivers don't have just two shores but many, unless each reader is his or her own shore, and that shore is the only shore worth reaching.” 

Note: On this day, in 2010, the Portuguese Nobel laureate (1998) past away. One of my favourite authors, he was praised for his critical view on the Catholic Church, and "... the distinctive tone to his fiction because he narrates his novels as if he were someone both wise and ignorant." A classic, therefore a must-read.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

People and the Sky

A picture book that makes great sense – "Akim court". It tells the story of Akim, an ordinary boy living in a village, somewhere in the east. One day, the village is invaded by soldiers and Akim starts running to save his life. At some point, he reaches another village where he is separated from his family and then, an unknown woman takes care of him. But soldiers will invade this village, too, and this time Akim cannot escape - he will be taken prisoner. He will find a way to flee,  though, and start running again. He will join some other refugees In the mountains and together they will manage to cross the border river and reach a refugee camp on the other side. There, Akim will have a big surprise. 

Like the storyboard of a film, the pictures give a complete story similar to the life of tens of thousands of children refugees – according to the latest survey about Greece, more than 2000 children refugees, who are in the country without their parents, are not accommodated in any juvenile detention or welfare facilities and this number is increasing every month. With thick pencil strokes and watercolours in earthly hues, Dubois illustrates war, fear, violence, loneliness, pain and death. There is not much text, only few sentences – long captions that link the pictures and give deeper aspects to the story. This minimal, yet meaningful combination gives children the whole big picture of immigration, the current war situation in other lands, and how all this affects the children living there – the very reason Claude K. Dubois  wrote it. Quite successfully, I would say, as the book provokes strong  feelings and thoughts, and questions not easily answered. To give you an example, what would you answer to this: when Akim finally reunites with his mother, he asks her "What does sky mean?"

The French author and illustrator dedicated this book to her mother, a lone child during WWII. You know, refugees do not only come from far-away, exotic places in Asia or Africa. Anyone can be a refugee, anytime, when war takes away your home, your family, your right to live peacefully and thrive.  And this is what makes this book necessary for kids to read despite it being sad: it gives them a non-convenient knowledge about politics and social engagement; it teaches them a stance on solidarity, respect and humanism; it defines what the terms of empathy and responsibility mean in practice so they can use them and protect other people and their potential to live and prosper when things get tough. It worked fine with Julien Makalou and Yusra Mardini. It will work for anyone.  

Come to think of it, this is a book for both young and adult readers – the former to watch, discuss and learn; the latter to be reminded of active Human Rights.

Note: The book is translated in Spanish, Italian, German and Greek. It has been awarded the Children's Book Award in the former three respective countries.  You can watch here a stunning theatrical presentation of it by the German theatre company compagnie toit végétal

Friday, 20 April 2018

"And then... fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific reverse shock: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers around the racks invent, refine, discuss.
    People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: “How strange! But never mind — it’s Nazism, it will pass!” And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it."

Notes: The extract is drawn from the english edition of "Discours sur le colonialisme" (1955) by French poet, author and politician Aimé Césaire. / The neon installation is by the contemporary Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci, found in the garden of the Guggenheim Museum in Venice. 

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Man of a Universe

In 1995, The Face magazine approached Stephen Hawking and asked him for a time travel formula to use in an article in their forthcoming 15th anniversary issue.

They soon received the following response by fax.

Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics
Silver Street, Cambridge, England CB3 9EW

From: Sue Masey, Personal Assistant to Professor S W Hawking
To: Johnny Davis

Number of pages: 1 (Including this one)

Date 6 April 1995


Thank you for your recent fax. I do not have any equations for time travel. If I had, I would win the National Lottery every week.

S W Hawking



Notes: The information was drawn from here. The photomosaic of Prof. Hawking is made by the acclaimed Greek visual artist Charis Tsevis.

Friday, 16 February 2018

On the Road

“The notion that I had walked twelve hundred miles since Rotterdam filled me with a legitimate feeling of something achieved. But why should the thought that nobody knew where I was, as though I were in flight from bloodhounds or from worshipping corybants bent on dismemberment, generate such a feeling of triumph? It always did.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor is writing the above trying to make sense of his ever-constant zest, which, I suppose,  led him to flee England, when he was just 18, to cross Europe on foot - from the port of Rotterdam to Constantinople, in 380 days. Leigh Fermor is considered Britain's greatest contemporary travel writer, and his books have earned praise on their lyricism, rich vocabulary and the unusual way he portrays his thoughts. His narrative has the same pluralistic élan vital as he himself has as a character - when in 1966 he undertook to write a small article about the famous kidnapping of General Heinrich Kreipe –he  led the team that captured the German commander in 1944–, Leigh Fermor gave a text of 36,000 words that almost caused his editor a nervous breakdown. I do not know if an extra-ultra abridged version of this went on to be published. The full text, however, became a book published for the first time three years after his death, in 2014.

 "Abducting a General – The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete"  is written like a contemporary adventure. The liveliness and versatility of Leigh Fermor's prose, his spontaneous and crystalline inner perception of the situation create quite a thrilling text –  the scenes are switched in a stable, constant rhythm that promotes the plot; and lyricism is limited to the minimum by the action a resistance operation requires. There are also moments of fine, provocative, irony and fun but his bravery and seriousness –of his war record and his intellect– is undeniable. Reading it was like taking part in a spy film. No wonder, since P.L.F. has also written the screenplay for a film of the sort  that great John Houston directed. In addition, his first travel book on Greece ("A Time to Keep Silence") was published by the small publishing house Ian Fleming owned (that's right, the well-known "father" of James Bond).

The second travel book he wrote about Greece is "Mani".  Like the rest of his books, this is not an ordinary travel guide. Paddy, as the English call him, does not limit himself to a formal recording of a place but mixes, instead, his spirit and his impressions as a traveller with pieces of history, snapshots of mythology and stories of the ordinary people of each place he visits creating thus an almost automatic sense of familiarity between the space/narrative and the reader. It must be the same feeling with that of the people who personally met him - for the Cretans, he was their Michalis or Filedem while the people of Mani called him Pandeli (> Patrick Leigh).

Leigh Fermor has also written a novel - "The violins of St. Jacques" has a distinctively intense lyricism and quite an elaborate vocabulary that really surprised me. No matter  how lyrical, adventurous or traveling Patrick Lee Fermor's prose is, it is indeed extraordinary, special. "Abducting a General...", as well as the rest of his work, is a wonderful reading experience.


Notes: The first photograph shows the author disguised as a shepperd while in the Resistance, in White Mountains, Crete (1943). The last one is Patrick Leigh Fermor's stamp with his signature in Greek. / Most of P.L.F.'s books have been translated in Greek. You can take a look of them here