Saturday, February 01, 2014
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