Imaging (in) Greece
- Sheila Fischman (Translator) and Pan Bouyoucas (Author)
Aegean Tales. Cormorant Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Marianne Apostolides (Author)
Swim. Book Thug/Literary Press Group of Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jodi Lundgren
It is difficult not to romanticize Greece as an intact culture with ancient roots when reading Pan Bouyoucas’ The Other, one of two novels compiled in the volume Aegean Tales and originally published in French to considerable acclaim. Bouyoucas’ villagers on the island of Leros frequently invoke mythological figures such as Charon and Morpheus and allegorize each other with nicknames. In the aftermath of World War II, the protagonist, Thomas, earns the name Tripodis: searching for parachute silk as a gift for his beloved, Olga, he picks up a “pine cone” that is actually a hand grenade. One of numerous explosives left behind by the Germans, the grenade blows off his leg, which forces him to use crutches. Thomas abandons his dreams of marrying Olga and sailing the seas and sinks, instead, into a melancholy life of mending fishing nets and drinking ouzo.
Bouyoucas’ pellucid style and short chapters create a strong sense of forward momentum. When Tripodis cannot get over the past (“dreams in which he had two legs repeated with such regularity that he felt as if he were leading a second life”), a boat arrives carrying Olga and her husband—who is Thomas himself, the two-legged Thomas who avoided the hand grenade. This plot twist satisfies a deep human urge to know what would have happened if we had made another choice at a key moment in our lives, and, as a “tale,” the narrative easily incorporates the uncanny presence of a double.
Anna Why?, the second novel in Aegean Tales, depicts a surprising ménage-a-trois among a nun, a novice, and a deacon who cohabitate temporarily in a desolate, mountain-top fortress on Leros. Maximos, an icon-painting deacon, has followed the novice to the island because he fell in love with her before she entered religious orders and changed her name from Anna to Veroniki. Rebuffed, he attempts suicide, after which the older nun—a professional physiotherapist—massages his injured flesh in a highly sensual manner: “Today, she rubbed the fingers on my right hand one by one, very gently, up and down. . . . She uses exactly the right pressure, sliding her fingers along my skin,” Maximos tells Veroniki. Jealous and indignant, the novice takes action that brings the novel to its climax.
Both of Bouyoucas’ novels are told with a fable-like omniscience that shows readers the big picture, if at the cost of deep intimacy with individual characters. The anguished query of the title, “Anna Why?” is indelibly painted on rocks which Anna (as Sister Veroniki) will overlook from the fortress for the rest of her life. Maximos’ question means, in part, “Why did you reject my love and take religious vows?” It provides great satisfaction when the reader (though not the deacon) eventually learns the answer to this question. Bridging an eleven-year time lapse, the narrative ends with the kind of resolute closure that befits the “tale” genre.
At the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of psychic distance, Apostolides’ brilliantly-structured stream-of-consciousness novel, Swim, is also set in a Greek mountain village. After her father dies, Kat, a thirty-nine-year-old mother and graduate student, travels from Canada to her father’s hometown of Loutra, which is famous for its healing mineral pools. Immersed therein, Kat sets the goal of deciding whether or not to leave her husband while she swims one lap for every year of her life: “if she can specify the moment when the marriage ended . . . then she’ll know her decision.” She swims for the duration of the novel, reflecting on not only her marriage but literary theory, her childhood relationship with her parents, her eating disorder, and the birth of her daughter.
Apostolides beautifully captures the fluid rhythm of swimming, often using dashes and slashes: “She swims—past him / he whose body displaces water through force—his stroke—onto her, who swims in challenge / engagement—he’s gone.” This fluidity gains significance when Kat recalls her professor’s (and future adulterous lover’s) definition of desire as “rotation, revolution, motion.” By Lap 23, Kat’s decision about her husband seems made: “She wanted to shout the problem: her betrayal, his depression, her hatred of this, her loss (complete) of belief and trust and faith in him / her / them—and love and honour and family / vows.”
Kat believes that attending graduate school will enable her “to continue to write, bolstered by theory.” Maybe so, but Apostolides’ own direct quoting from the likes of Lacan and Kristeva limits her audience and makes Swim at times seem oddly dated, like a belated contribution to the postmodern metafiction of the 1980s. Language-centred writing lives on, of course, and fans of lyric prose will savour this intelligent, finely-crafted text as much as those seeking an absorbing yarn will enjoy Aegean Tales.
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MLA: Lundgren, Jodi. Imaging (in) Greece. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #205 (Summer 2010), Queerly Canadian. (pg. 133 - 134)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.