Saturday, March 01, 2014
As far as it is possible for me to know, my earliest memories of being among Greek people are inextricably interwoven with the alcoholic beverage known as Victoria Bitter, herein after referred to as VB. As such, I am able to conjure up vague, sepia tinted images of sitting on milk crates in sundry persons' garages, listening to LP's reproducing the latest sounds from the motherland, while aged grandfathers, grand uncles and other male relatives spoke longingly of the village, their right hands lovingly embracing the neck of a 750ml, brown "long neck" VB bottle. If the said occasion for the gathering was a nameday, the heavy smell of the VB would be intermingled with the acrid fumes of Marlboro cigarettes, chemically conjoined with the fat laden aromas emanating from a well tempered barbeque upon which chops were sizzling, my folk having been here since the fifties and as such, possessed of the belief that a souvla was a frivolous extravagance.
Long necks were ubiquitous in those days. One could locate them at the epicenter of the table at Greek dances, flanked by the impossibly incandescent pink tarama-substitute and the olives. By the end of the dance, a multitude of said bottles would be lined up around the perimeter of the table, with some vest clad, open shirted, pencil mustachioed revelers clumsily gazing into their necks, in pursuit of remnants. Their wives would turn away from them in exasperation, fiddling the long stem of a brandy glass or a tumbler with lemonade. VB was off limits to Greeks of the fairer sex, and the logic behind this does not lie in sexism, but rather in there being need for a designated person to pull the men off each other, when, in their VB induced fervor, their discussion of community or overseas politics, would lead to exhibitions of amateur pugilism.
My first taste of VB was at such an event at the tender age of five. One of my uncles felt it would be amusing to offer me a glass of the amber coloured beverage. The heady smell, which to me was possessed of the disconcerting familiarity of stale urine assailed my nostrils, almost causing me to wretch. Summoning all my resolve, I took a deep long sip and before I knew it, I had consumed the entire contents of the glass. Soon after, a warm, floating feeling made itself manifest and the room to gyrate around me gently like a merry go round. There is not much else I remember except waking up in my bedroom to the sounds of my parents cursing my uncle, who soon after, appeared in my room, bearing a five dollar note and seeking indulgence. This, I found most pleasing and possibly lucrative, until the proceeds of the crime were confiscated by my progenitors and returned to the offender.
VB, I learned in my university days, was the drink of choice of the tradesman. In one of my summer jobs, servicing industrial scales, I was paired with a Greek-Australian gent whose family had been here since the thirties and whose knowledge of Greek was minimal. Before the days of the GPS, he knew the location of every single pub in Melbourne and his exact distance therefrom. At lunch, he would procure two 350ml VB bottles, lovingly secreted in an esky in his ute and compel me to accompany him in their consumption. "Get that into ya, old diamond," he would cajole. "Go, on, all the way down." His nostrils, the largest I have ever seen on a human nose, would flare continuously as he would down the beer in audible gulps. Then, wiping his lips on his sleeve which was covered in grease, he would invariably sigh and muse: "Yeah, beer's the only drink for the workin' man. Whisky makes ya silly and plonk'll rot ya boots." Then he would launch into a detailed and critical history of the development of drinking establishments in Melbourne, lamenting the loss of not a few waterholes, as faithless Melbournians sacrificed their passion on the altar of development and pseudo-sophistication. When I took my leave of him that summer, he made me promise that I would not drink any other alcoholic beverage until the end of my days. "If ya can't get VB, any other beer'll do," he proclaimed solemnly, grasping my hand. "But not light beer. Light beer's for poofs."
Such is the enduring allure of VB, that the memory of its taste lingers long in the memories of expatriot Greek Australians, subsisting on European beers in the homeland. I remember one overseas visitor, on a return visit to Australia after many years, staying at my parents' house, who, having the propensity to consume vast quantities of alcohol, made a voluble request for the provision of beer. My father, wishing to impress him, had already stocked the fridge with a surprisingly diverse array of European and Japanese beers. "What would you like?" he asked. "We have all the Greek beers here. Mythos, Fix... Heineken". The visitor's lips tightened as his eyes opened wide with horror. «Τι να τις κάνω αυτές τις μ...... μπύρες;» he finally exploded. «Φέρε μου μιαVB γ.....ω την [insert blasphemy here.]" Chastened and reluctant to deplete his own secret stash, my father hurried to do his bidding. I was then treated to a lecture by our connoisseur guest as to the relative merits of VB over all other beers in the world. When I timidly ventured to suggest that German beers were vastly superior since they were made without. preservatives and were discarded after seven days, I was ordered from table.
The long neck is seldom found at Greek functions these days. We are a wine and coffee culture now, and the mega beer-swillers of yore, simply are not with us any more. Yet just the other week, at a function for the liberation of Ioannina at one of the Epirot clubs in Melbourne, peopled largely by people whose youthful days belonged to yesteryear, I was privileged to witness the revival of an old and hallowed custom - the ritual handing out of VB's, albeit in the 350ml size. In keeping with aged observance, beers were handed out to each male on our table and the only woman on our table, who just happened to the Greek Consul-General in Melbourne, Ms Christina Simantiraki, was pointedly left out. As the males on the table lavishly dished up praise as to her state of preservation, I noticed that the diplomat's gaze was fixed upon the bottles of VB. As the tension grew across the table, imperceptible to anyone else, I reached over, twisted the top and watched her beam with excitement, as just a hint of froth emerged. "Is that VB?" she asked. "Yes it is," I confirmed. "It is our national drink and it is imperative that you try it." With the subtlety of a connoisseur and the panache of a veteran, she took forth the bottle and raised it to her lips. Sadly, she was absent at the annual liberation dinner dance, where long neck VB's took pride of place on each table. Yet in crossing the great cultural divide and indulging in the ritual of consuming the saccharification of starch, she is now at one with us. Happy was the Babylonian who wrote in the Epic of Gilgamesh on the consumption of beer: "Fill your belly. Day and night make merry." It is our fervent wish that in the aeons to come, archaeologists will find a similar elegy to VB, penned by one of our own community poets. For VB is the epitome of us. It is hard and it is well-earned.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 March 2014
Saturday, February 22, 2014
GREEKS ON THE MARGIN OF HISTORY
The personage of Chris Moustakis has fascinated me for years. Possessed of a master’s degree in history from Harvard, he was one of Leon Trotsky’s secretaries in Mexico, just months before the old revolutionary’s assassination by a Stalinist agent. Moustakis is enthralling because he is so elusive. Appearing as brief footnote in the life of a great man, what insights could he have shed upon Trotsky’s character? What inside knowledge could have he gleaned about diverse topics pertaining to the Russian Revolution and the inner workings of the Bolsheviks? Sadly, there are a dearth of sources and we shall never know.
Chris Moustakis slight and mysterious presence on the margins of history is one but many. Scratch the surface of many a historical event, and chances are that you will find a Greek, however insignificant, having played a role therein. Take for example the British retreat from Kabul in 1842, marking the first of many failed attempts to conquer Afghanistan in the modern period. The British Army began its retreat from Kabul following the killing of the two British representatives there. The nearest British garrison was in Jalalabad, 140 km away, and the army would need to go through mountain passes with the January snow hindering them. 4,500 military personnel and 12,000 civilian camp followers set out for Jalalabad, on the understanding that they had been offered safe passage. However, Afghan tribesmen intercepted them and proceeded to massacre them during the next seven days. The British garrison in Jalalabad came across a Dr Brydon. Part of his skull had been sheared off by an Afghan sword and he survived only because he had stuffed a copy of Blackwood's Magazine into his hat to fight the intense cold weather. The magazine took most of the blow, saving the doctor's life. While Dr Brydon became widely famous for being the only survivor of the entire army, according to his own testimony, he was not alone. Apparently, a Greek merchant, a Mr Baness, also made it to Jalalabad, arriving two days after Brydon but surviving for only one day. Who this Mr Baness was and what he was doing in tribal Afghanistan is a complete mystery, yet it is absorbing to contemplate Greek merchants of the nineteenth century traversing such remote and dangerous areas of the world, all the while become witnesses to events that would eventually become enshrined in myth and legend. Baness, like Moustakis, is a tantalising signpost to a road that has now become lost in obscurity.
Other Greek merchants display a penchant for being in the right place at the right time. Take for example the massacre of General Hicks’ army in the Sudan by the followers of the Mahdi, one of the first modern Islamic fundamentalist movements that challenged the myth of the invincibility of the British Empire in Africa. Hicks’ force left the Nile at Duem and struck inland across the almost waterless wastes of Kordofan for Obeid, with a mission to smash the forces of the Mahdi. A month later, the army, misled by treacherous guides and thirst-stricken, was ambushed in dense forest at Kashgil, 30 miles south of Obeid. With the exception of some three hundred men the whole force was killed and the Mahdi was able to seize western weaponry. It was this massacre that caused the British command to send General Gordon to hold Khartoum, culminating in the famous siege, and of course, the construction of the famous homonymous movie, starring Charlton Heston. We know details of the massacre, because a Greek merchant, a M. Constantino, who happened to be travelling with the British Army, survived the massacre and gave a blow by blow account of it to the Times, in 1884, detailing how each protagonist was killed, as well as what weapons were seized by the forces of the Mahdi.
Fascinatingly enough, another account of the Hicks’ massacre as well as the arrival of General Gordon’s relieving force in Khartoum survives, this time, provided to the Cairo correspondent of the “Standard” in November 1884 by another Greek merchant, who was captured by the forces by the Mahdi and compelled to embrace Islam. Costis Mouskos, who renamed himself Abdullah, was captured by the Mahdist forces before the Mahdi took Khartoum and was privy to the Mahdi’s machinations in attempting to trap General Hicks’ army, stating that he had sent his solders out to track Hicks’ army, under the pretext of being friendly. Mouskos was a servant to the Mahdi and was thus able to pass on information about his character and personality. Further, he was permitted to go to Khartoum when that city was occupied by General Gordon and was able to get to know General Gordon and his subordinate Colonel Stewart. As a spy for the Mahdi, he was spared death in the ensuing massacre of the British garrison, making his way to Cairo, where he passed on valuable information about the Mahdist forces to the leaders of the British administration in Egypt, Lord Wolseley and Sir Evelyn Baring. All this, Abdullah-Costis Mouskos accomplished at the tender age of just twenty-three. In his account, he also mentions other Greek merchants resident at the time in Khartoum, dealing largely with ostrich feathers, ivory and gum.
To consider that one of the most profound historical events that shook and moved the British Empire to its core, causing it to question the Gladstonian policy of limited empire and instead discarding it for a Disraelian conception of an expanding empire, is known to us largely through the testimonies of a few obscure Greek merchants, plying their trade within the maelstrom of religious and colonial warfare, is to marvel both at the resilience and the determination of these unknown compatriots. Subsisting on the fringes of events far beyond their capacity to control, they either attempted to exploit the opportunities that arose through conflict to their advantage and lived to tell the tale.
Fast forward to the Russian Civil War and the amazingly complex anarchist movement in the Ukraine, known as the Makhnovist movement, led by the anarchist Nestor Makhno. We learn that a certain Pontic Greek, surnamed Papadopoulos was considered to be so effective at fighting both the Tsarist and Bolshevik forces, that he was celebrated in a Makhnovist song and was renowned among the Pontic Greeks for decades. His fate, like that of other Greek Makhnovists such as the Mavroudis brothers has been lost, suppressed in the aftermath of the defeat of the anarchist movement by the Bolsheviks and they exist only as markers in the memoirs of the exiled Nestor Makhno. Somewhere, somehow, it is quite possible that local lore, in the form of memory or song survives and the participation of the anarchist Pontians in the Makhnovist movement offers tantalising opportunities in examining another set of relatively unknown Greeks, influencing the course of history from the margins.
Whether on the proscenium, or backstage, Greeks have the tendency of making themselves apparent in the most unlikely of places. From becoming prime ministers of Siam, to ruling Romania and beyond, it is for us to pay heed to the footnotes of history and do all we can to ensure that our fascinating compatriots who lurk within them, emerge in their fullness.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 22 February 2014
Saturday, February 15, 2014
THE MOBILE EPIRUS MUSEUM
In Orhan Pamuk's brilliant novel, "Museum of Innocence," his hero is so besotted with his beloved that he collects various trivial ephemera arising from the times that he has spent with her and houses them in an otherwise disused apartment. In this, he anticipates the Epirotes of Melbourne who are also so besotted with their culture, history, and the rural life they left behind, that they have, over the years assiduously preserved a large number of artefacts, evocative of times long gone, imagined, or reconstructed.
The culmination of nostalgia, an innate tendency to hoard and an acquisitive nature is the Mobile Epirus Museum, now in its tenth year of operation. During the most of the year, the Museum sleeps in various drawers, cupboards and μπαούλα of Melburnian homes. Come Antipodes Festival time, however, all lovingly preserved items are resurrected, dusted off and carted down to Lonsdale Street, where the indefatigable Epirotes attempt to reassemble their past for the eye of the passing connoisseur.
The collection is vast, and most likely, important. At this year's Lonsdale Street festival, the focus was on nineteenth century silver jewellery from Ioannina, the capital of Epirus, said to be the centre of traditional silver-smithing in Greece. The collection included a large number of ornate filigree headpieces, traditionally worn by brides, intricately crafter bracelets, long, complicated pendants, traditional necklaces dripping with Ottoman currency and rather large turquoise encrusted hoop earrings, proving that such items were in vogue much earlier than their popularisation by JLo. Also on display were a number of male items worked in silver, such as the traditional kiousteki, worn over the breast and a palaska, an intricately worked silver ammunition holder. All these items are authentic and have been lovingly kept or acquired by the Museum contributors.
Also on display was one of the many old icons belonging to the Epirus collection. This particular icon is rare, not only because it is two hundred years old, but also because it depicts John the Baptist holding an infant Jesus, surrounded by Saint Nicholas, Saint John the Theolgian, Saint Catherine and Saint Paraskevi, a novel and anachronistic combination. Executed in the traditional egg tempera on gesso technique, it is a marvel in miniature and was so appreciated by passers-by at this year's exhibition, that already, a focus on Epirotic icons is planning for next year.
The Mobile Museum collection also contains a large number of costumes from various regions of Epirus, both reproductions and originals. This year, pride of place was afforded to a one hundred and fifty year old female costume from the region of Zagoria, where remarkably, the fine embroidery in gold thread shows minimum wear and is intact. A lavishly embroidered male vest, approximately one hundred years old, was also on display.
In pride of place on the back wall of the Museum's stall hung a curved scimitar. This scimitar, with its intricate damascened blade and bone inlaid hilt is of some historical importance. It belonged to Esat Pasha, the last Ottoman pasha of Epirus and was handed over to a prominent member of Ioanninan society, after the city's liberation in 1913.
While the abovementioned items seemed to draw the attention of younger visitors as well as non-Greeks, most older Greeks were drawn by the collection of household utensils and cooking pots. Though not older than a century, all of these items (save for a copper souvenir plate depicting King Leonidas of Sparta which inexplicably made its way into the display, we suspect by the neighbouring Maniot stall-holders, though possibly the President of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia had a hand in this affair as well,) were in use by families and an examination of them, reveals where the tin lining has worn off. Older women marvelled at the old, hewn-wood bread making trough, while everyone's eye was drawn to the traditional working loom, upon which a volunteer was demonstrating traditional weaving techniques. This demonstration elicited the sharing of a number of stories by visitors, all of whom spoke of their own parents or grandparents working the loom. Most felicitously, a number of visitors, enthused by the re-awakening of long forgotten memories, generously offered their own lovingly preserved handicrafts, in the form of the traditional woven flokati blankets, or embroidered cloths and woven rugs for the collection. Augmenting the cross-cultural experience, an Assyrian visitor who asked to work the loom, demonstrated a totally different technique used in her homeland.
Standing in a woollen foustanella in the forty degree heat in order to provide some olde worlde colour to the exhibition is a difficult task but a rewarding one. The amount of interest generated in non-Greek visitors to the Lonsdale Street festival is immense and this comprises a novel way to showcase various, not so prominently accessible aspects of Greek culture to broader Australian society. Chinese-Australians were taken by the similarity of traditional Epirote demotic music, also demonstrated through live performances, to that of their own tradition and were enthralled to learn that the reason for this is that both traditions are based upon the pentatonic scale. Indian-Australians identified a commonality with the cooking implements and were enthused when being informed that it was the gypsies, who migrated into Epirus from India aeons ago, who brought with them and preserved, a culture of working in metal that has endured in both regions until the present day. On the other hand, Iranian and Arabian-Australians found commonalities in the traditional clothing and in the antique photographs of Ioannina, wherein the two mosques that remain in the city were featured prominently. They were fascinated to learn of the Islamic history of the city, the survival of some Islamic customs in the traditional life of the Greeks of the region and of course, of the respect of the Epirotes for the cultural monuments that the Islamic population of the region left behind them. It appeared that the possibilities for the forging of cultural links between diverse peoples and Epirus were endless.
Particularly heart-warming was the passage of an innumerable number of younger members of the Greek community through the exhibition. Both their parents and the exhibitors took great pains to point out various artefacts that evoked aspects of traditional life, culminating in a photo with yours truly in Sarakatsanian form, said children posing with a traditional carved klitsa or Shepherd's staff, with some hesitation but no cringing. One could see their wonder at being able to examine, touch, ponder and peruse items of immense age at their leisure.
Without the support of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, year after year, the Epirus Mobile Museum's mission, one of outreach to the Greek, as well as the broader Australian community would not be possible. For it is one thing to be a repository of memories and quite another to be able to share them in a ware that they will be appreciated and touch another. On the strength of the support and enthusiasm of the community, the Mobile Museum is now planning a branching off into diverse areas of tradition, including an exploration of Greek typography during Ottoman times, Epirote printers in Venice being responsible for the printing of much of the literature that existed in Greek between 1600-1860. In the meantime, should you be walking down Lonsdale Street during the next festival in search of a souvlaki and come across a bespectacled individual incongruously clad in a sheep, step up and say hello. For if our vast collection of artefacts doesn't interest you, the home-made Epirotic tsipouro that we will shout you, surely will.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN NKEE on Saturday 15 February 2014
Saturday, February 08, 2014
AMBASSADOR DAFARANOS AND THE GREEK FINANCIAL CRISIS
"For what is Europe basically? It is an idea before it is a market. More precisely, it is only a market because it is , first of all, an idea. And it is this idea, a knot of the three threads of the mind of Rome, of Jerusalem and of Athens. If one of these threads is cut, it is the soul of Europe that will be lost. If we should come to lack one of these three elements, Europe as a civilization and a culture will collapse." It was with this thought-provoking quote from Bernard Henri Levi that Ambassador for Greece in Australia, Mr Haris Dafaranos concluded his recent talk for the Monash European and EU Studies Centre, on the Greek Economic Crisis.
Seldom has a Greek career diplomat been called upon by the Australian mainstream to provide a critical analysis of an event of such historical importance. That Ambassador Dafaranos was requested to do so says much for his standing as a diplomat, and even more as an analyst and critic of repute.
His lecture, delivered aptly enough at the Immigration Museum, to an academic audience in a packed auditorium, comprised of a multifaceted and sophisticated review of the causes of the Greek Economic Crisis, the response and the remedies, the impact on Greek society and the current situation, all through the prism of both a national and European/ International dimension.
Unlike many of his counterparts, who have shied away from analysing events in the country they represent, Ambassador Dafaranos sees it as beneficial to engage with the broader community, offer pertinent facts about Greece and allow the community to draw its own conclusion. It was for this reason, that his digression on the etymology of the word "crisis," coming from the word «κρίσις,» meaning evaluation in order to pass judgment, was so appreciated by his audience.
Ambassador Dafaranos, in assisting his engrossed audience in forming their own judgment of this weighty matter, identified a number of key causes of the Crisis, causes that were domestic, European and International in origin. Firstly, he spoke of Greece's entry into the Eurozone in 2001 despite the fact that according to many analysts, the country did not meet the convergence criteria, either on government deficit of national debt. Secondly, the laxity of the Europeans in not implementing the stipulations of the fiscal discipline imposed by the Stability and Growth Pact. He then went on to mention that the Global Financial Crisis exposed many Greek vulnerabilities, such as a non-competitive economy, a weak administration, a tax evading mentality, over-borrowing and of course, over-spending. Coupled with this, according to Ambassador Dafaranos, was the fact that Greece had for years, inherited economic weaknesses which had been exacerbated through incentives in the form of low interest rates and the tolerance by the Eurozone institutions, such weaknesses being a lack of competitiveness and the significant account deficits in trade that were accumulated, Greece being a country where growth depended on consumption based on borrowed money.
Boldly, and without attempts at obfuscation, Ambassador Dafaranos mentioned that some analysts believe that Greece embellished her public debt and budget deficit, hinting that the European Union if not complicit in this, at least turned a blind eye, allowing Greece all the benefits of a single currency as well the opportunity to accumulate enormous debt, due to the low interest rates afforded by Eurozone membership. This practice, he was careful to point out, is not specific to Greece but rather seems to have been the norm internationally at that time. Indeed, the Ambassador took pains to point out that the Greek crisis should be seen as a systemic European crisis and that the bailout that ensued, albeit with stringent austerity measures, should be seen as a desire by the IMF and European banks to limit contagion, in the event of a Greek default, to other countries possessed of similar circumstances.
The draconian fiscal reforms Greece accepted in exchange for the bailout, according to the Ambassador Dafaranos, have brought about an unprecedented recession and extremely high unemployment. He pointed out that unemployment has risen to 27%, youth unemployment to 59% while those on the poverty line are at 31%. Pensions and superannuation have been cut by up to 40%. Meanwhile, reduced public spending has had severe repercussion on health and education services. Nonetheless, the budget deficit has been drastically reduced by 13% of GDP, lost competitiveness has been regained through internal devaluation of wages and for the first time, a primary budget of 860 million euros has been achieved and net growth of 1% is expected in 2015.
Regardless of what Ambassador Dafaranos sees as Greece's slow, painful but inevitable crawl into fiscal responsibility and structural reform, he did not shy away from pointing at some of the social and political issues arising from the imposition of fiscal measures that have brought the country to its knees. Touching on issues pertaining to national dignity and sovereignty, he also spoke of deteriorating living conditions, as a problem of refinancing the real economy through national and European mechanisms, stating that these conditions are unsustainable in the long run.
The novelty of Ambassador's Dafaranos' analysis of the Crisis, lies in his humane and all-encompassing approach to it. There was no attempt to gloss over governmental deficiencies and he readily admitted that the country bears a certain responsibility for the failings in governance that sparked the Eurozone crisis but which, as he points out, were not its cause, this being rather the incomplete and haphazard nature of the union of Eurozone countries, each with different structures, competitiveness and levels of development. The speaker also took great pains to dispel certain stereotypes about Greeks such as laziness, tax evasion and profligacy. In doing so he paid tribute to the stoicism of the Geek people who have made tremendous sacrifices and endured privation during the past six years in order to set their country back on track, paying in fiscal measures to the value of 70 billion euros. To the Eurosceptics, Ambassador Dafaranos stated that it is significant to note that despite the social and financial upheaval, in June 2012, the majority of the Greek people voted in favour of remaining in the Eurozone, an expression of their enduring attachment to the European dream and its ancillary values.
It is refreshing to listen to the views of an ambassador, who unlike the stilted delivery of some of his predecessors and their tendency to lapse into tangents on topics that do not interest an Australian audience, is a skilled communicator. Ambassador Dafaranos certainly knows how to talk the talk and make expert use of the jargon that is required in order to get one's point across. When spoke of the Greek people "taking ownership of the crisis," his audience nodded appreciatively and the growing appreciating and sympathy for the Greek people among them was palpable. In an audience in whose country sections of the media have adopted a critical and often derisory stance against Greece in general, the absence of negativity and complete lack of prejudice was remarkable. The Ambassador's contention, that Greece's crisis will prove the catalyst for the commencement of a discussion as to the handling of the Global Financial Crisis within the context of European financial and political structures, along with his belief that the Greek people should be admired for their sacrifice and endurance were warmly received by the audience.
The proof, if anything of the success of Ambassador Dafaranos' disarmingly engaging style comes from the written comments of the audience, ranging from: "Extremely insightful to hear a first-hand account' of the Greek dimension of the Eurozone crisis from H.E. Ambassador Dafaranos" to "'The ambassador's being honest about [his] feelings for [his] country, willingness to share' and candid responses were greatly appreciated." It can only be hoped that further expert forays of this nature into the mainstream of Australian academia and beyond will do much to augment Greece's image within the broader framework of society and add to enhanced and nuanced understanding of the herculean tasks that Greece faces ahead.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 8 February 2014
Saturday, February 01, 2014
THE GREEK GATSBY
I had reached halfway through M Karagatsis classic novel “Junkermann,” about the life and times of a particularly resourceful White Army refugee who settles in Greece and achieves the pinnacle of success when I experienced an inexorable sense of deja vu. The setting of the novel was particularly Greek and particularly distinctive, especially in its depiction of Piraeus just after the First World War, this being the epicentre of much of the plot’s unravelling. Yet somehow, the characters seemed all too familiar, both in their backgrounds and attributes and I agonised over trying to locate the source of my niggling suspicion that somewhere out there, there exists Junkermann’s literary doppelganger.
My epiphany was received in the guise of an advertisement for the latest film adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic “The Great Gatsby.” It was only then, when viewing Leonardo Dicaprio’s sybaritic cheekbones that I was able to make, not a few connections between the two works. For starters, both Junkermann and Jay Gatsby are former soldiers who find themselves destitute and socially disconnected in the aftermath of the First World War. Similarly, both protagonists steadily achieve positions of great affluence, acquiring vast houses intended for the purposes of receiving the women that they love.
The cluster of common themes and characters appear to be too dense to be just a mere coincidence. Gatsby is described by his associate Wolfsheim in the following way: “My memory goes back to when first I met him,” he said. “A young major just out of the army and covered over with medals he got in the war. He was so hard up he had to keep on wearing his uniform because he couldn’t buy some regular clothes.” Eerily, Karagatisis’ Junkerman is described as a Finnish nobleman, who after the defeat of the White Army by the Bolsheviks, flees in the only clothes he owns, his army uniform: «Φόρεσε βιαστικά τη στολή του—άλλα ρούχα δεν είχε.»
Both Gatsby and Junkermann also engaged in nefarious activities to acquire their fortunes quickly. Gatsby does so together with Meyer Wolfsheim, a notorious gambler and bootlegger: “I found out what your ‘drug-stores’ were.” He turned to us and spoke rapidly. “He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drug-stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That’s one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn’t far wrong.”
In January 1921, Junkermann flees from Istanbul, where he had been making a living selling pharmaceutical products and drugs, and goes to Greece where the drug business is too firmly in the hands of a dangerous trio to be worth trying to break into. Like Wolfsheim, one of the trio is a Jew named Eskenazy:. « Ήταν τρεις τότε, που κράταγαν τα πόστα: ο Λεουσάκος ο Καλαματιανός, ο Τζιέρογλου ο Κόνιαλης, κι ο Εσκενάζης ο Εβραίος. Οι μεγάλοι όμως δούλευαν με άνεση και σιγουράντζα· είχαν σχέσεις, επιρροές, πολιτικές προστασίες και, το κυριότερο, μπόλικο χρήμα για να διαφθείρουν συνειδήσεις.»
Subsequently, like Gatsby and Wolfsheim, Junkermann tries gambling: «Απελπισμένος από τα φαρμακευτικά προϊόντα, άρχισε ν’ανιχνεύη τα τυχηρά παίγνια.» Eventually he becomes a bank clerk, a position similar to the occupation of Nick Carraway, the narrator in The Great Gatsby, who is in the bond business and owns “a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities.”
Further parallels can also be found. Gatsby selects his palatial home as it offered a clear view of the home of the woman that he loves, Daisy. Similarly, Junkermann sees, near his mansion, the house
of Voula, the girl he loves without knowing yet that he loves her. Just as Gatsby sees a green light that burns all night at the end of Daisy’s dock across the bay Junkermann sees Voula’s window, which is lit late into the night.
As if that were not enough, jazz, so central to the Great Gatsby, also plays a role in Junkermann. There is always a jazz orchestra playing in Gatsby’s garden during his parties and the book is sprinkled with other references to that musical genre. Interestingly, in Junkermann, there a subtle association of his lover, Dina is made with jazz music. A big band is playing the song, “Stormy Weather,” on the terrace of the Hotel Mediterranean in Thessaloniki where Junkermann, who has fallen in love with her the day before, watches her dance.
Further, psychoanalysis, a novel science in its infancy in the twenties when both books were written also feature prominently, even to the extent where in both books, characters engage in self-analysis in an Austrian restaurant, Diver in Innsbruck and Mazis in Vienna. Both are dining alone on food with German names, which are spelled out in full. Diver reflects on his relationship with his wife, Nicole, whom he has left behind while Mazis thinks of the four years he spent in Vienna, far away from the girl he eloped with. While Diver considers that he “could have had a good share of the pretty women of his time for the asking”, Mazis remembers all the girls he had in Vienna: «Έκανε ζωή έντονη, γεμάτη ηδονές, χάρηκ’ ελεύθερα… Όλες τις γυναίκες που βρέθηκαν μπροστά του.»
It turns out that much academic ink has been spilled over the question as to whether Karagatsis had read The Great Gatsby when he penned the thoroughly enjoyable Junkermann. Gunnar De Boal points out that Karagatsis, while possessed of excellent French, only had rudimentary English and that F Scott Fitgerald was little known in France, let alone in Greece where his works passed by unnoticed, at the time when Karagatsis was writing Junkermann. Nonetheless, the similarities between the two works and the fact that Junkermann also includes elements of Tender is the Night, a novel only translated into French in 1951, suggest that Karagatsis must have read the work in English.
Yet Karagatsis cannot be accused of plagiarism. His tale, though incorporating elements of Fitzgerald’s work, is a different one and his plot ultimately follows a different course, not being intended so much as an illustration of determinism, but, rather, of the awakening of sleeping humanity and of the emptiness of a world from which the people who gave meaning to it have disappeared. As such, it is a work of continuity that draws inspiration not only from Fitzgerald but from a multitude of other European authors, including Stendhal, Balzac and Baudelaire, in the same manner that Seferis was sufficiently inspired by T. S Eliot’s Waste Land, to write his classic: «Μυθιστόρημα.» Further in his treatment of sex as antagonistic and violent, where men force themselves onto women and women submit, or interestingly enough, where promiscuous women who are “tamed” by sexually aggressive men revenge or try to revenge themselves on their aggressors, he is in the company of many other Greek novelists such as Thrasos Kastanakis and Tasos Athanasiadis, occupying a fifty year bloc of Greek literature. The sexual neuroses these writers exhibit deserves a diatribe of its own. Finally, it should be read in the context of Karagatsis’ “Acclimatization under Apollo” trilogy, which also includes the works: Colonel Liapkin and Chimaera.
Junkermann is a thoroughly engrossing read. Though its sequel, describing the death of the main protagonist verges off into the surreal and in part, the incomprehensible, the reader is at least able to establish a close relationship with him, in a way that Fitzgerald avoids in relation to Gatsby. As a Greek offshoot of the western tradition of the novel, it deserves closer examination, celebration and, quite possibly a Hollywood movie, all of its own.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 February 2014
Saturday, January 25, 2014
I have been fascinated by bees ever since the time that I had, as an infant, I shrank in fear at the appearance of Mr Doobee making an appearance on Romper Room accompanied by an ear-splitting racket, as well as having the misfortune of treading one and being stung on the sole of the foot. My tears of pain were coupled with amazement when I learned that a bee invariably dies when releasing its sting - paying the ultimate price for spite or aggression. Yet it was growing up among family with agrarian roots who displayed an inordinate respect and decided lack of fear vis a vis the honey bee in particular, that my love of the bee became further cemented. Customs such as informing the household bees of the death of a member of the family may seem quaint, but they also serve to highlight the closeness of the relationship between mankind and their purveyors of honey.
We have two natural hives in our backyard, both on the same tree, wherein the geometrical artistry of the bees can be appreciated to the full, for these being native, rather than aggressive, Africanised bees, they seem not at all concerned at the proximity of mere humans, even ones mesmerised by the smell of their so easily accessible larder. One approaches with reverence and awe, and withdraws quickly and discreetly, bearing back golden goodness. The manner of the withdrawal is vital, for bees can, to use the scientific term, "smell fear." According to one uncle, who recently returned to the motherland and was charged with his aged mother with the weighty task of tending to the family hive, so powerful were the bees' olfactory capacity to sense his fear, that they swarmed after him, causing him to take refuge in a shed and project fly-spray at them. When his mother was able to appreciate the extent of the massacre, she broke down and wept, piteously.
Napoleon, rumoured to have been of Greek descent adopted the bee as a personal emblem and Nikolaos Glykys, the famous Greek printer of Venice who set up his printshop during the seventeenth century and singlehandedly set about ensuring that some type of Greek scholarship survived the Ottoman conquest, through the production and dissemination of high quality Greek ecclesiastical and ancient texts, also adopted the bee as his emblem but the Greek appreciation of the bee seems to date to primordial times.
The word Melitta, or Melissa, seems to derive from the semitic "Mylitta," who was the love goddess of the Babylonians and the Arabians. Cementing this Middle Eastern connection with the bee as deity is a fragment of Orphic poetry, where Melitta is referred to as the hive of Venus:
"Let us celebrate the hive of Venus, who rose from the sea: that hive of many names: the mighty fountain, from whence all kings are descended; from whence all the winged and immortal Loves were again produced."'
When not acting as a hive, Melissa acted as a protectress. In the guise of a mountain nymph, she was, according to one variant of the story, charged with hiding the infant Zeus from the baby-eating mania of his father Cronus. She was responsible for introducing safe drinking practices to the god, feeding him goat's milk from Amalthea, the bounteous goat and plenty of honey, so much so in fact that the king of the gods developed a permanent taste for it, even after deserting his cave for the luxuries of Mount Olympus. Sadly for Melissa, Cronus apparently became aware of her double dealing and by way of punishment, transformed her into an earthworm. Zeus on the other hand, in his infinite mercy, changed her into a well proportioned bee, the idea of changing her back into her original form having eluded him completely.
Melissa, in her previous nymph-form was, according to the antiquarian Mnaseas, responsible for the preparation of honey as a drink, in the form of mead. According to Mnaseas, Melissa first found a honeycomb, tasted it, then mixed it with water as a beverage. She taught her companions to make the drink and eat the food, and it is for this reason that the bee was named for her, and she was made its guardian. The purpose of this myth apparently was to rationalise the gradual civilization of mankind. Apparently, it was only under the guidance of the good nymph Melissa that men turned away from eating each other, or babies, in the case of the Grandfather of the gods, to eating only the humble but sweet fruit of the bee's regurgitations.
In years to come, honey would become a constant ingredient in libations and rituals to the dead. The ancient Greek philosopher Porphyry stated that honey was a symbol of death, and for that reason it was usual to offer libations of honey to the divinities of the underworld. The Greek historian Plutarch wrote, "Mead was used as a libation before the cultivation of the vine, and even now those.who do not drink wine have a honey drink."
Bees were also used as a symbol of rebirth, in ancient Greek mystery rites. Thus, Porphyry, wrote that the priestesses who served the goddess Demeter, where known as Melissae. These Melissae commemorated a previous elderly priestess of same name, who was initiated into the mysteries of the goddess by none other than the goddess herself. When Melissa's neighbours tried to force her to reveal the secrets given to her during her initiation, she refused to open her mouth. As a result, her neighbours tore her to pieces. Disgusted at the loss of a diligent employee, the goddess Demeter , sent a plague upon them, causing very angry avenging bees to be born from Melissa's corpse. but Demeter sent a plague upon them, causing bees to be born from Melissa's dead body. From Porphyry's writings, scholars have also learned that Melissa was the name of the moon goddess Artemis and the goddess who took suffering away from mothers giving birth. Souls were symbolized by bees and it was Melissa who drew souls down to be born. As Porphyry stated: "All souls, however, proceeding into generation, are not simply called bees, but those who will live justly, and who, after having preformed such things as are acceptable to the gods, will again return to their kindred stars. For this insect loves to return to the place from whence it first came, and is eminently just and sober.therefore we must admit that honeycombs and bees are appropriate and common symbols of the aquatic nymphs, and of souls that are married as it were to the humid and fluctuating nature of generation."
Caches of votive metal bees have been found in Greece, at shrines, proving that our desire to leave "tamata" to the gods in exchange for, or anticipation of services rendered, pre-dates Christianity. The fact that here in Melbourne, hundreds of Greek-Australians lovingly maintain hives in their backyards, underscores the age old relationship we enjoy with the bee. Not a few times have I been invited to a nocturnal barbeque, only to be issued with a caution to keep one's voice down and switch of the lights so as to not disturb the bees. In breaking news, it is worthwhile mentioning that we also have our own Macedonian bee. Representatives of various Macedonian hives have commented that they feel fortunate that members of the Former Yugoslav Hive of the same region have not yet been made aware of this, for once they do, they fear that they will claim all the honey from the said hive, as well as the invention of the hexagon. Even as we speak, apian scientists are hard at work proving that whereas Former Yugoslav Hive bees have danced Slavonic dances since the 7th century, the Macedonian bee dances in Hellenic geometric forms, generally around Melissa cake stores. Receive then Apis Mellifera Macedonica, a worthy counterpart of Apis Mellifera Cecropia, the southern Greek bee, in the sure knowledge of the transmigration of the soul, in the shape of a bee, otherwise known in the vulgar parlance, as buzzing off.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 January 2014
Saturday, January 18, 2014
In the vernacular, a kopanos is held to be a person possessed of sufficient mental and physical density as to render themselves able to be pummelled in frustration, hence the verb «κοπανάω,» wherein the hapless kopanos is a mere passive recipient of a perpetrator’s violent largesse.
The fact that Kopanos also denotes a settlement in Naousa, Macedonia may or may not be a running commentary on the relative intellectual gifts of its inhabitants, yet if the advertisement accompanying this diatribe is to be considered, which is the brainchild of the peach growers of Kopanos, some things are better left unsaid.
The advertisement, which coins the word “peachy,” attempts to sell canned peaches to, among others, Australian buyers. How peachy this campaign is proving to be is difficult to gauge, especially given that so far, I have only been able to locate the advertisement in full page format in the pages of NEOS KOSMOS, giving rise to a justifiable belief that the Kopanoi are labouring under the misapprehension that only the Greeks of Australia constitute a target market for the purchase of canned peaches. This of course is despite the fact that, if one accedes to the Kopanoi’s exhortations as featured in their advertisement to visit their website , one is able to ascertain that their campaign forms part of a programme referred to and known as “Information, Provision and Promotion Measures for Agricultural Products in Third Countries (Turkey, Australia). We learn that said programme was initiated in 2011 and will be completed in three years. We also further learn that this campaign is funded by Greece and the European Union.
The reason why one feels the need to visit the website is simple. From a cursory glance at the full page advertisement, one cannot easily understand what the Kopanoi wish us to do, or indeed, what they are advertising. By plying us with dietary information extolling the health benefits of canned peaches, in dubious English, (“cool, juicy and full of favour, peach offers a large amount of vitamins and low calories”) do they wish us to eat more canned peaches, or in particular, ones produced by them? Or, given that there is a dearth of information as to where the consumer can locate Greek canned peaches should they be moved by the desire to do so, either in the advertisement or on the accompanying website, is this advertisement more geared towards possible wholesalers of Hellenic peaches?
In this at least, the website is revealing. Standing behind the Kopanoi is the Hellenic Canned Fruit Industry Network, whose stated aim is to “improve its members role in vaster international markets.” Underlying this imperialistic move for peachy lebensraum and fruity ostpolitik, we are further told that said company wishes to “increase its market share by all means, mainly in the countries of Eastern Europe, which due to political and social changes can be seen as promising markets, as well as in third (sic) countries, such as Turkey and Australia.”
Ina sense therefore, we are treated not so much to a culinary seduction whereby we will be caressed and cajoled into preferring Greek canned peaches above all others, but rather, a declaration of war, via which Macedonian peaches will commence their slow but steady march over Eastern Europe to third countries, whatever that means, and from there, conquer the world. Such a declaration makes sense, when one considers that it was Alexander the Great himself, who introduced the peach into Greece after his invasion of Persia and indeed, the reverse eastern reconquest of the peach may be a historic inevitability of the type that is impossible to forestall. Indeed a marketing campaign showing a Macedonian peach impaled upon the sarissa of a Macedonian soldier crushing all before him underfoot, accompanied by a caption that reads: “Peaches: Resistance is Futile,” would be more in keeping with the tone of the website in question.
For it is a sad fact that yet another campaign for the promotion of Greek products has gone horribly wrong, especially in so far as Australia is concerned. After all, it is questionable how the Kopanoi feel that they will be able to make inroads into our country when they refer to it as a “third country,” in a manner that implies that it constitutes a foreign planet that needs to be colonised. Instead of bombarding us with nutritional information as to the health benefits of the peach, information that they would have known, had they conducted even a minute amount of research, we already have in Australia, the Kopanoi fail to realise that we have, especially in Victoria, a local canned fruit industry of our own. In this respect, they should be exploring ways to compete with an already domestic market rather than pretend that one does not exist. One way of doing so of course, is to capitalise upon a Macedonian tradition of peach cultivation that exceeds two millennia.
If the Kopanoi extended their research further, instead of squandering Greek and European Union funding on inept and quite frankly, embarrassing, ineffectual and incomprehensible advertisements, they would come to understand that the canned fruit industry in our state is in trouble and temper their approach accordingly, creating a campaign that would tease and entice the consumer, rather than boldly trumpet an amateurish business plan that would ensure that no serious business partner would go near them, let alone market or purvey, what are in fact, very nice peaches indeed.
The good Kopanoi at the Hellenic Canned Fruit Industry Network have also failed to comprehend one extremely important fact in relation to Australia: Ours is a food culture. Food is celebrated and explored in the media, in the form of cooking and game shows, in restaurants and in the domestic sphere to an unprecedented level. The way to the Aussie’s heart, both male and female is these days, well and truly by way of our stomachs, and all the Kopanoi have to do is already draw on popular traditions that esteem the peach, in conjunction, famously with cream, whipped or otherwise, according to one’s predilections, as an article of seduction, romance and decadence, in order to market the fruit of their labours effectively. Drawing the two strands, those of tradition and of sensuality together, a campaign that features the lusciousness of the peach with time honoured Greek know-how, in which the Australian public is told that when it comes to lasciviousness and fruit, Greeks do it better, couple with raunchy cookbooks entitled: “Greek-style: The devouring of the Peach,” would work wonders for the Macedonian fruit industry. Mentioning as an aside that Alexander and his soldiers were possessed of posteriors as firm as Greek peaches might also go some way in furthering the cause of the said stone fruit.
It is perhaps, meet to conclude this exposition into the marketing techniques of the Macedonian phalanx by noting that on the peachy website, the irrepressible Kopanoi have seen fit to conduct a poll on the information provided, in which they ask pertinently: “Are you satisfied with the information about the DAIRY products presented in the webpage?” It goes without saying that one hundred percent of all those responding, wholeheartedly and somewhat breathlessly affirmed their satisfaction.
To the Kopanoi of the Hellenic Canned Fruit Industry Network, therefore, this observation on the relativity of the peach by the master, Pablo Picasso: “One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite - that particular peach is but a detail.” Until next time, stay juicy.