Saturday, April 05, 2014
Every origin myth is a tale of creation, describing how a new reality came into existence. In a large number cases, myths of origin also justify the established order by explaining just how this order was established by sacred forces, or at least forces that are extra-ordinary. There needs to be some distinction between cosmogonic myths and origin myths, though this distinction is not always apparent and there can be overlap of both sides. . A myth about origin may necessarily pre-supposes the existence of a pre-established order, hence the need for a cosmogonic myth. This is the reason why in many traditional cultures, the recitation of an origin myth is often prefaced with the recitation of the cosmogonic myth.
In his soon to be launched autobiography, «Ελπιδοφόρο Χάραγμα του Μετανάστη» ("A Migrant's Hopeful Dawn"), successful entrepreneur and migrant Sotiris Manolopoulos, establishes both a cosmogonic and an original myth, one which he believes should determine the way the epigonoi of the foundation fathers, should live their lives and perceive their identity. This would appear to be an extremely novel approach to an autobiography were it not for the fact that drawing upon cosmogonic and foundation myths in order to establish one's place in the world has been a trait endemic within the Greek people since the time of Homer and Hesiod. In such a paradigm, time is displaced, so that the past is ever present.
It is thus typical that Sotiris Manolopoulos account of his own life thus begins with his characterization of it as an Odyssey. From there, he hastens to set out the cosmogonic myth, establishing his ancestry, his conception of same including the broader region in which he was born, inclusive of its native sons, the most prominent of these being none other than the Old Man of Morea, Theodoros Kolokotronis himself. From this point onwards, the themes that Manolopoulos' cosmogony concerns itself with are those of poverty, social exclusion, privation and austerity. Unlike many other locally produced autobiographies, though he is unapologetically nostalgic for certain aspects of his homeland, these being a sense of solidarity and the beauty of the landscape, Manolopoulos refuses to romanticize the cosmogonic topos. Instead, he casts a fierce, critical eye upon the social and economic conditions of his time and those who constructed it in that way. His story reads like the early life of Maxim Gorky, a long progression of valiant attempts to establish oneself, only to be stymied and obstructed at every turn, peppered with scenes of despair but also side-splitting humour, as evidenced by his narration of the time he dressed up as a devil during the Apokries and frightened the living daylights out of his fellow villages.
Despite his straitened circumstances and the immense, almost hysterical fear experienced during the German occupation and the Greek Civil War, a fear which he reproduces masterfully, Manolopoulos is ever conscious of inviting the reader to draw the appropriate conclusion from his experiences. Thus, from the narration of the history of his region, the author teaches the importance of a love of country and religion. The value of a good education as intrinsic to success in life is communicated through the author and his family's valiant attempts to secure him an education, at a huge cost. The value of family cohesion is also proclaimed, through the relation of a good many situations where it was only through the entire family pulling together, that the vicissitudes of life could be overcome. It is in this way that the elements that traditionally are held to comprise the Greek identity: Country, Religion, Family and Education are all dealt with through the prism of the author's experience. Another element that has traditionally been given less emphasis in the traditional conception of the Greek identity is resistance to arbitrary authority. Through Manolopoulos' account of his incessant efforts to better himself and irrepressibility, he establishes this trait as Hellenic and also as key to his own personal success.
In the period after Alexander the Great expanded the Hellenistic world, Greek poetry became replete with founding myths. Callimachus, most notably wrote a whole work simply titled Aitia, or reasons. It is within this sphere that Manolopoulos positions himself, chronicling his own unique role in the expansion of the Hellenic world, to the Antipodes. In his account, all the familiar elements constituting our Greek-Australian identity are there - namely that hard work, community cohesion and an adherence to the cosmogonic values of Country, Religion, Family and Education are the keys to success, which is to be measured in a transcendence of social class and economic prosperity, albeit in the author's case, with a few hiccups along the way. Thus, the mythomoteur, a lovely compound of the French words for myth and engine signifying the constitutive myth that gives an ethnic group its sense of purpose, is readily established for the latter, English-speaking generations by Manolopoulos, despite writing in Greek, though the publication of a translation of his work into English is pending.
Unlike most similar accounts, which present the Greek community as a sort of ghetto, connected but also somehow isolated from broader Australian society, Manolopoulos offers a model of complete integration, without this necessarily entailing integration. His fascinating account of a life spent largely in outback Australia is overflowing with admiration for the hardiness, generosity and resourcefulness of the Australians of the bush. Though his belief in the importance of upholding the Greek identity is pronounced, his account lacks the hysteria and exclusionism of others in the same genre, placing emphasis on the common condition humane. Quite often, he contrasts the generosity of outback Australians with the querulousness and paranoia of members of the Greek community. Conversely, random bouts of racism by drunks are given a humourous dimension and equally random acts of kindness by Greek migrants, particular at times when the author was in a precarious position, are extolled.
Despite the extreme and often agonizing difficulties experienced in the foundation of our community in a new land, a fact that Manolopoulos sees as the major component of our new identity, perseverance and hard work see him through the most dire of days. In keeping with established lore, Manolopoulos goes through the rite of passage of Bonegilla and emerges, ready to take control of his own destiny. Able through his ingenuity and Odyssean restlessness to establish himself as a prominent member of the Mount Isa business community, the indefatigable Manolopoulos then seeks to further the cause of the organized Greek community, assisting in the construction of the local church and school and then, conceiving of an ambitious plan to establish a Greek community within the abandoned mining town of Mary Kathleen. In doing so, he enlisted the supported of local state and federal politicians. One of the great 'what could have beens' of Greek Australian history, this episode alone affords great insights into the ingenuity of a civic minded man as well as serving as a cautionary tale as to how idealism and opportunity can founder on the suspicion, paranoia and inertia of our community. However one looks at it, it is a historical event that begs closer scrutiny.
Much like the ingeniously gadget friendly Odysseus, the author recounts how he made the news by designing and building his own mobile home, utilizing it for that most Australian of pastimes, the cross-country road trip. During his travels, his appreciation of his adopted country grows, as does his astonishment at the presence of Greeks in the most unlikely of places, which constitutes for him, a source of pride. In doing so, adopting Simon Goldhill's analysis of the myth-maker and poet Apollonius, who "employs the metaphor of sedimentation in describing Apollonius' laying down of layers "where each object, cult, ritual, name, may be opened... into a narrative of origination, and where each narrative, each event, may lead to a cult, ritual, name, monument," Manolopoulos is in fact, incorporating the entire continent of Australia into his unique mythology.
An eminently readable account, as history, mythology and autobiography, Manolopoulos' "A Migrant's Hopeful Dawn," embedded with its many Apollonian digressions is remarkable in performing the function of myths in providing explanations, and justification for our origins in this country and the manner in which we have developed. As such, it not only constitutes a foundation myth but also a genealogical tree and most importantly, an interpretation of the effect of personal moral choices. It is therefore a must read.
Sotiris Manolopoulos book: "A Migrant's Hopeful Dawn," will be launched by Dean Kalimniou at the Pontian Community, 345 Victoria Street Brunswick at 3:00pm, 6 April 2014.
First published in NKEE on Saturday on 5 April 2014