Monday, February 02, 2004


When Mimis Sophocleous, the erstwhile director of the Modern Greek Program at RMIT, left Australia to set up his own publishing house in Cyprus, he left this country with a secret. That secret was that he had discovered within the Greek community, a writer of unprecedented quality and not only that, a writer who shared his passion for his homeland, Cyprus and had delved deep into history to bring to life a period that we know little about.
Enter Betty Coracas, or as she prefers to be known in the literary world, Donna Raven, which is of course a direct English translation of her name. Born in Limassol, Cyprus in 1951 and migrating to Australia with her parents in 1954, Betty is a remarkable woman, widely traveled and in true Renaissance style, a universal person, with a degree in Commerce and interests so diverse as poetry, writing and painting, in which field, she is self taught.
In keeping with her Renaissance attitude to life, Donna Raven is captivated by her Cypriot heritage. In a land where worlds, traditions and aspirations collide, subsume each other or merge into an exotic vitality of spirit, everything is possible. Betty revels in the complexity of Cypriot history, its tolerance and permissiveness as well as its role as a cultural and political entrepot of the Levantine World, a true jewel of the world’s desire.
Her recent historical novel, Daughter of Venice, is a much needed foray into the world of Renaissance Cyprus. Sadly, our view of Greek history has been clouded by one hundred years of narrow nationalism in which the sojourn or rule of other peoples in our lands has been either ignored or seen as an aberration. Traditional Greek history remains focused on the essentially “Greek” experience,” disassociated from its geo-political context. The fallacy of this approach forms one of the driving forces behind Donna Raven’s book, a historical drama on the life of the last queen of Cyprus. How many of us know that Richard the Lionheart, the darling of English history actually conquered Cyprus and was married there, or that the Frankish knights actually established a kingdom on this island, introducing feudalism and chivalry, jousting and all those elements we usually associate with the technicolour world of Hollywood chain mail movies?
The other driving forces of course are Donna Raven’s continuing love affair with Cyprus and the artists’ instinctive sense of a good story.
And Daughter of Venice is truly an engrossing novel. Light and easy to devour, the reader is immediately through the art of Donna Raven’s pen, transported hundreds of years into the past, to the sunny Mediterranean. Flung into the midst of labyrinthine Venetian diplomacy, byzantine plotting and treachery, the reader follows the life story of Caterina Cornaro, daughter of one of the most powerful families in fifteenth century Venice, with bated breath. We see her, an innocent girl in a cloistered Venetian household where every single one of her activities is heavily regimented set her soul free in the pluralistic and permissive society of Franco-levantine Cyprus, a melting pot of cultures, religions and political agendas.
Donna Raven artfully thickens the plot. Caterina Cornaro is officially adopted by the Venetian State as “Daughter of Venice,” so that she may marry the rogue King of Cyprus. This is not a fairy tale of princes and princesses though. When the robust King James dies amidst rumours of foul play, Caterina, at the tender age of nineteen, is forced to assume the reigns of power alone, as regent for her young son, also doomed to die as a baby. In the years that follow, she finds herself at the centre of the competing on her island by the then world powers: she fights off her sister in law’s attempt to remove her from the throne and dexterously balances the diplomatic intrigues of Venice, Naples, Rhodes, Mameluke Egypt and the Ottoman Empire until personal tragedy and increased aggression causes her to make fatal mistakes. Venice assumes control of Cyprus and she is caused to abdicate and retire to the Venetian town of Asolo, where she becomes a great patron of the arts.
This is history and it is fascinating. Donna Raven’s eye does not only pierce the veil of the Frankish ruling class of Cyprus however. Her artists’ touch gently paints a picture of the humbler echelons of Cypriot society, the Cypriot peasant who patiently labours under his foreign master, secure in his faith and his love of his natural environment. The interwoven motif of faith is of vital importance. It is to Orthodox clerics that the Venetian Queen turns for solace after the death of her child and it only through them that she is able to transcend the usual cultural barrier of east/west, ruler and ruled, mix with her people and be loved by them. Donna Raven is also through her personal experiences shed some insight into the mind of the young Queen and humanize the chronicles wherein her story has been originally recorded. She weaves a rich tapestry of loves, illegitimate children and unexpected twists and turns of plot that serve to ornament a narrative already richly studied with cultural, linguistic and historic gems. How much of Donna Raven is in the Queen? “There is a bit,” the author laughs.
So is Donna Raven’s Queen a feminist icon? She certainly is a passionate woman and a woman who loves, whether that love be directed to her paramours, her children or to her nation. She also is a strong willed woman able to defy the odds and remain in power. At the end of the day however, she is a victim of her patriarchal society and able to resign herself to her fate.
Donna Raven’s book is a valuable addition to the corpus of Australian literature and a credit to the vitality of the Greek community, providing new insight into our history and serving thus, both an educative and entertaining purpose. It also serves as an example to other budding writers out there that our history is an untapped mine of inspiration. A sequel, dealing with the descendants of the Queen is envisaged, after the ever busy Donna completes her latest projects, children’s books, which she has authoured under the name of Penny Crow. The truly inspiring “Daughter of Venice” is available at all Readings stores, and at Collins South Yarra. Go and get it. It is a must read.


first published in NKEE on 2 February 2004