Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Greece: More History than it can Consume Locally

On his personal webpage, Alan Furst writes that his novels are "really one very long book with, to date, twelve chapters."  In the manner of Faulkner, then, or maybe Balzac.  It's a fair cop, but it needs to be understood in context.  Furst is nobody's idea of a great novelist and in many ways, you'd have to say he is not even s particularly good novelist: cardboard characters, clunky plots, clunky narrative.  What saves him is a marvelous knack for capturing time and place.  Specifically the charged and murky Europe on the eve of World War II, when decent people--or even thoughtful criminals--saw the world on a collision course with Hitler and Stalin, and scrambled desperately so as to minimize damage in the inevitable crisis.  It's period that we can consider with an odd mix of involvement and detachment-=-close enough so we recognize it, glossed over with the sense that at least we know How it All Turned Out (and not least, that we, somehow, are still here despite it all).  For Americans, at least, I think the Civil War has the same kind of fascination.

Spies of the Balkans, which I just now finished, must be the eleventh of his twelve.  Balkans is an odd title in the respect that the focal point is Greece, in particular Thessaloniki.  And grant that Thessaloniki is (or was) one of those cosmopolitan hubs, with Jews, Turks and, yes, ethnic Balkans such as Macedonians, Bulgarians and others, still the Greek focus is paramount and highly specific--Spies of the Greeks must somehow fail to convey the right message.

The copyright date is 2010.  One can't help but speculate that it was written to capitalize on the current uproar but no: the inflection point for the American collapse is the autumn of 2008, but things didn't go bollywackers in Greece until round the end of 2009, so it is implausible to saddle Furst with any such ulterior motive.  For all of that, though, it is fun to read the book in context, because it is a therapeutic reminder of an central fact easy to overlook in understanding the current calamity. Specifically: Greece has a history, more precisely a modern history, more precisely an almost impenetrable mare's nest of loyalties, betrayals, long memories and well-nourished grudges.   Moreover--I don't know, maybe it is because Greece is so small (somewhere around an eighth the size of Germany); maybe because they use that funny alphabet and have all those polysyllabic names--moreover it is a history we seem almost incapable of comprehending or even keeping in mind.

Furst's period is 1940-41, so has nothing to say about the bloody civil war that pitted communists against "democrats" at the end of World War II  (for that, go back and dust off a copy of Nicholas Gage's Elini).  Likewise there no mention of the "dictatorship of the colonels" that dominated the 1970s, although we are, here in Furst country, laboring under another and earlier military autocracy.   Likewise we're a couple of decades too late for the Turks, who left Thessaloniki as part of the great population dislocation of the early 20s: we are too late for it, but Furst's characters remember it, and it is part of the background of their lives (our hero dines out at a restaurant named "Smyrna Betrayed," and you can probably back-engineer that one for yourself).

What you do get is a sense of a country with a full set of internal animosities and resentments; a country with a tradition of banditry not long dead and perhaps not dead at all; and a country with a profound sense of insecurity about its fragility among its neighbors.  Most of all, you get the sense of a country that does not believe its fate is in its own hands. When I first went to Greece in the 80s, s friend told me that "a leaf doesn't fall in the forest here but what the Greeks believe the CIA told it to fall."  And the hell of it is, they probably had good reason to feel this way.  They'd been captives of the Turks until the early 19th Century. They'd been a pawn of European politics until the end of World War II, and of Cold War politics until 1989.  For Turkey or Europe or the United States, substitute Germany, and you have a pretty good idea of where Greek perceptions of the larger world might focus today.

1 comment:

dilbert dogbert said...

Buce, You and Haralambos at Hoocoodanode (Calculated Risk Comments) Should get together and talk about Greece. He is an American with a long time connection to Greece. Might be and interesting conversation.