Monday, April 03, 2006


There is a genre of autobiographical writing that achieved great popularity and public sanction in the Soviet Union that is known as Stakhanovistic, after the indefagitable model coal miner Alexei Stakhanov. The authorities of the time, inspired by such autobiographical works as Gorky's 'My Childhood,' which described the harsh social conditions of pre-Revolutionary Russia in vivid detail, would encourage ordinary members of the proletariat to record their experiences (and their devotion to the party) for the edification and emulation of all.
Nikos Vournazos' autobiography 'Going Solo' thoroughly resembles such works both in style and content. Much like its Stakhanovistic counterparts, it dwells much upon the social conditions that helped him to form a social conscience and a particular world view, one whose principles provided a yardstick and a source of strength throughout the rest of his life. In Vournazos' case, these principles, of morality, independence, love of justice and self-reliance as well his skepticism with regard to things supernatural are typical of the Stakhanovistic, self-made man. Belief in one's self is vital and the author views his own strength and capabilities as the deciding factors that helped him through such difficulties as the War, poverty, settling down in a new country and even cancer. They are also typical of the values prized by many first-generation Greek migrants in Australia.
If there is any justification for the rendering into English of further Stakhanovstic literature, it is not because of its quaintness, this book being written as it is, a decade after the fall of the political system that saw its genesis but rather, because Nikos Vournazos' account is truly representative of the lives and backgrounds of a multitude of Greek migrants coming to these shores. As his autobiography is written in the swansong of that first-generation's active presence within the Greek community in Australia, his attitudes and opinions are relevant to all of the three major components of Greek Australian history.
Like Gorky, who split his autobiography into three parts, ("My Childhood," "My Apprenticeship" and "My Universities") Vournazos also splits his autobiography into three. The first section deals with his early childhood in Greece and the privation he endured as a result of his family's social and economic class, coupled with the vicissitudes of war. This section is instructive as it explains why so many migrants of Greek extraction were forced to leave their countries and migrate to Australia. In Australia, the migrant narrative tends to be considered to begin upon their arrival on its shores and its causes are generally overlooked. Vournazos masterfully restores the balance to this narrative by providing valuable insight into the deep
traumas that caused the migration and his experience proves that while old wounds may heal, they never stop itching. Of these, injustice and privation vex Vournazos the most and he returns to them time and time again. To read this first section is to gain a deep understanding of the underlying conflicts, traumas and negative experiences which provided much of the motivation for immigration and also provide a good explanation as to why migrants behaved a certain way when they reached Australia as well.
Section two is concerned mainly with Vournazos' acculturation to his new environment in Australia. Of particular interest are his narration of his brother Dimitris' experiences of monocultural Australia and the ensuing cultural clashes that took place. Here Vournazos' narrative transcends the usual listing of differing traits existing between the two cultures and attempts to analyse and rationalise the differences in viewpoint and value system in a sensitive and sophisticated manner. Returning to his position of socialist realism, he proclaims that it is incumbent upon the migrant to become acclimatized to the culture his new country as a prerequisite for progress, without however forgetting or neglecting his origins. The contrast between Vournazos and his brother Dimitris in this regard, is a spectre that has haunted many a Greek family since their arrival to Australia.
Of the many values propounded by Vournazos as a prerequisite to success, one of these is strong family ties and cohesion. Throughout the autobiography, Vournazos freely acknowledges the debt owed to his family, provides lessons as to the consequences of removing oneself from the support of their family and in this represents chiefly, the sentiments of the vast majority of first generation migrants. If the Stakhanovites saw success as lying within the bosom of the Party, then surely Vournazos' counterpart is his family. He is also manifestly representative of them with regard to his attitude to hard work, business acumen and education. The chapter where Vournazos looks at the skyscrapers of Melbourne for the first time and says to himself: "I will beat you," is characteristic of an entire enterprising generation's attitude to life in their new country.
Throughout the book, the Stakhanovite Vournazos stresses the importance of improving oneself not only through industry but also through education. The story of a boy finishing high school despite the vicissitudes of war, rejecting a humiliating offer of charity to study at university and finally achieving this end in his old age is a profound and moving one.
Perhaps the most lengthy and indeed controversial section of the autobiography, is the last part, which deals with Vournazos' involvement in Greek Community affairs. Like his ancestors Pericles and Aristeides before him, after reaching a certain social and economic standing, Vournazos decided
to contribute voluntarily towards the welfare of the Greek community through its established institutions. Unlike the above, and like a Roman Cincinnatus, he tactfully withdrew when he considered he could contribute no more. Much of what is contained in this section is hotly disputed and as translator, I can make no warranty as to its factual basis. Its chief worth lies in it being characteristic of any Greek-Australian involved in community affairs. It is unashamedly passionate, forceful, at times sarcastic but always guided by what the author believes to be fair and true, especially with regards to the matters he sets out pertaining to the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria (GOCMV). It provides one with a fascinating perspective into both how Greek-Australian institutions were founded, how they were administered and what skullduggery and foul-play marred their operation. While Vournazos does not stop short of castigating those who he feels are responsible for the demise of various institutions, he does not absolve himself entirely of the blame either.
Indeed much of this section is concerned with explaining the rise and in one case, fall from prominence of two presidents of the GOCMV, Christos Mourikis and George Fountas. In keeping with the book's Stakhanovite quality, this narrative resembles greatly the clash between the brilliant, idealistic yet fatally flawed Trotsky and the dark, malicious and master manipulator Stalin, given that these are the respective attributes attributed to the parties by the author. This dualistic method of approaching the historiography of the GOCMV is quite novel and the reader is left to make up its own mind as to its plausibility. At any rate, the author in his introduction states that he attempted to recount events the way he saw and experienced them and viewed from that perspective, his account is an invaluable prosthesis to the corpus of literature about this subject.
There is a despairing quality to this final section of the book, the despair of an individual having high hopes for the future of the Greek community in Melbourne seeing his efforts come to nought. Vournazos' prognostications as to the survival of Greek institutions in Melbourne are not overly optimistic. Interestingly enough, he does not view the next generation with the same amount of hope as others of his generation. His view of youthful involvement in Greek community affairs is slighting and deprecatory. He tends to place youth in two categories: those who are ambitious and become as 'corrupt' as the first generation or those who are idealistic and are either purged or manipulated by the first generation to achieve their own ends. Here the reformist Vournazos calls for a change in structure and attitude which is of great interest. Finally, though he cannot bring himself to say it he admits defeat, intimating that today's youth do not share the same interests as their senior counterparts.
Interestingly enough and this again is a characteristic of his generation to a great extent, Vournazos’ interest in the community institutions he has participated in or has come across, seems to be centered upon their structure. Thus the state of the GOCMV’s finances, or those of the Nunawading community and their property holdings or building projects are seen as measures of success and are of primary concern. Similarly, Vournazos’ extremely brief exposition of the role played within the Greek community of Australia by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia is solely confined to speculation as to the extent of its property holdings and the way it operates as a legal entity, glossing over its cultural, educative or religious role. Like many of his compatriots, Vournazos’ worldview of social realism does not allow for the supernatural and his chapter on the Archdiocese is closely reminiscent of an early Soviet copy of ‘Bebozhnik,’ in which similar themes are expounded.
In this respect, what is particularly fascinating about ‘Dancing Solo’ is the way the author sets out his vision and suppositions as to the way the Greek community should operate. A GOCMV divorced of partisan or other influences occupies pride of place with the Greek language newspaper ‘Neos Kosmos’ paradoxically acting as its mouthpiece, chief critic and guardian of its moral integrity. The role of an ethnarch-archbishop is abjured though the author castigates the current prelate for supposedly lacking the attributes which the author himself believes a prelate should not possess. The Brave New World of a Greek community without institutions as that which is slowly emerging in our times among the later generations, rendering the classification, existing since the Greek Civil War, of people via the ‘group’ they belong to almost impossible is looked upon with horror and trepidation, so much so that this concept receives only one sentence.
Quite apart from its historic value or that it is representative of an entire generation, 'Dancing Solo' is an engrossing read. The language is simple and cascades onto the page with the freshness of a mountain waterfall and this is a chief characteristic of the author himself. The narrative maintains a steady pace and is kind to those who know little of the complexities of Greek village life or life in Australia. The third part of the work presupposes some knowledge of the workings and structure of the Greek Community but this is not an insurmountable obstacle to its appreciation by any means. One cannot escape the feeling that this third part, more despairing and introspective than those preceding it, intended the first generation as its main audience. All the more reason to translate it I say and i thank the author for entrusting t me, the translation of this important work.
I first knew the author by reputation, then as a client and finally as a member of the family which took me in and guided me along my first steps into the 'real world.' 'Dancing Solo' is therefore in keeping with this tradition. For the youthful and inexperienced or unknowledgeable, it is instructive, for the experienced, reflective and conclusive, a repository of sage advice and passions that have not died down after so many years. Despite his passions, his pet-hates and his righteous anger, Vournazos speaks to all of us with the warmth and concern of a close family member and offers his life experiences to us as a lesson and a resource upon which to draw, with the generosity and open-handedness that is so characteristic of him.
Dancing Solo will be presented at the Morthcote Town Hall on 9 April 2006 at 3:30pm
First published in NKEE on 3 April 2006