Saturday, January 29, 2011


If ever there was a Greek literary work deserving of translation into English, undoubtedly Vakina Panagiotidou’s first ever novel: “Triumph of Tragedy,” is such a work. In an age where the multi-cultural fabric of Australian society that has been taken for granted for so many decades is slowly unravelling, where fear and suspicion of the ‘other’ in the aftermath of the ‘global war on terror’ is more prevalent than ever before and the public can find in the terms ‘security’ justification for the exclusion and incarceration of the dispossessed who enter Australia in need of succour, Vakina Panagiotidou’s profoundly moving and holistic account of migrant life and acculturation in Australia is invaluable in recreating lasting awareness and sensitivity to the circumstances, perceptions and incongruities that form part of the migrant experience. I am honoured to have been entrusted with the English translation of the work, which shall be launched this year.
In particular, Panagiotidou expertly weaves a thoroughly engrossing narrative that faithfully re-creates the post-war migrant experience in Australia, the search for a home, employment and the indefatigable desire to improve oneself. Further, she focuses closely upon the particular conditions in her war-shattered home-country that precluded her, as well as hundreds of thousands of others, from remaining there. Her account is particularly sophisticated. Whereas the memoirs of many a Greek migrant allude simply to the stark poverty and misery of life in post-war Greece, Panagiotidou delves deep into the social fabric of its traumatised society, exposing the contradictions, hypocrisy and stagnation of a patriarchal society built so heavily upon privilege and vested interest, that it turned a vast section of its population into ‘misfits,’ who, deprived in practical terms of a livelihood, a possibility of marriage and of self-respect, had no other choice but to leave their homes and seek what we would deem to be basic human rights and living conditions, across the other side of the globe.
The need for respect and human dignity as a driving force for emigration is a topic Panagiotidou returns to again and again throughout the book. Too often, the migrant experience is considered in this country at least, to consist of migrants arriving on Australia’s shores in search of a better life, working hard and gradually attaining the lifestyle and financial ease that they so desired. Quite often, migrants themselves as well as their progeny, enmeshed in their own endeavours to secure their daily bread and by now well acclimatised to their environment through decades of integration, place undue emphasis upon the economic dimension of emigration, glossing over the psychological and emotional upheaval that it necessarily entails.
Yet just as the experience of emigration is incomprehensible without a consideration of its root causes, so too is an understanding of it superficial, unless its psychological and emotional effects are also considered. It is in this sphere that Panagiotidou especially excels herself. Her candid exposition into her travails provides the reader with an unparalleled both in clarity and intensity, insight into the turmoil, internal conflicts, doomed hopes, false expectations, despair and unexpected happiness arising from their arrival and settlement in Australia, making short shrift of the myth that all migrants had to do was to work hard in order to ‘make it.’ Panagiotidou, as heroine in her novel, battles denial, stress, euphoria, extreme depression, domestic violence, terminal illness and the loss of her child. She also experiences the indifference and sometimes, malice, of her migrant compatriots. This then is the unwritten, unspoken history of migration, one of immense anguish and upheaval and the ultimate triumph, is not surpassing such pain but adopting it as a part of one’s personal identity. This, then, is the justification behind the novel’s title.
What makes Panagiotidou’s exploration of the psychology of the migrant experience even the more so remarkable, is that it is not, as one would think, the result of years of study, reflection and re-assessment. The book was written at a time contemporaneous to the period it describes and this accounts not only for its impressionistic style but also its dramatic intensity and accuracy. Panagiotidou, through the use of simple, unaffected language, peppered with colloquialisms, immediately establishes a great intimacy with the reader, not only generously permitting them to become privy to her tortuous prevarications and sinuous internal monologues, which dominate the work, but also through direct addresses to them, to the extent where in a Freudian inversion, the alter-ego merges with the ego and it is uncertain who is speaking and we are, in consummate Brechtian fashion, unsure as to whether we are merely witnessing or rather partaking of the narrative ourselves.
Throughout the account, Panagiotidou does not shy away from being a vocal mouthpiece for social change, reform and self-improvement and her doing so in no way distorts the experience of character of the Greek migrant. Quite the opposite, it completes its faithful portrayal. For to have the dispossessed and downtrodden, possessed of little resources or education possess the foresight and the courage to uproot themselves from their native soil and try their future as grafts upon a foreign tree is an awe inspiring prospect. The social levelling that ensues from this experience is clearly enunciated by the iconoclastic Panagiotidou, who embarks on a succession of business ventures, some successful, others not so, stressing the equality between sexes and the sense of fraternity that is to be found within the Greek community of Australia. Indeed, Panagiotidou’s experience and thought process constitutes a chronicle of female emancipation, as she uncompromisingly casts off the fetters of the past and through her hard work and integrity, obtains the respect she so desperately seeks.
Panagiotidou’s candid chronicle of difficult personal relationships casts asunder stereotypes of traditional families within ethnic communities. Issues such as abuse, domestic violence and family dysfunction that are generally hushed up in recording the migrant story are here presented in all their heart-wrenching brutality, without mitigation or justification. For Panagiotidou, these are obstacles to be surpassed, but not without great emotional cost and isolation.
What is unsurpassable however, is the death of the author’s son. In many ways, it is the final capstone of tragedy in a life filled with adversity. It marks an appalling climax to the story, one which the author tells with heart-breaking sensitivity, despite the stark language she chooses to employ.
Ultimately, Panagiotidou’s chronicle concludes upon a despairing note. It appears that there is no rest for the wanderer. Her dreams of peace, success and family happiness are shattered. Of particular interest is the manner in which she records the fraternal bonds of mutual association and assistance that bound the youthful Greek community together slowly becoming eroded under the influence of financial ease and acculturation. There are many lessons to be learnt, especially for the latter generation, English-speaking scions of that community. While railing against the newfound materialism of that community, Panagiotidou paradoxically simultaneously laments her own inability to achieve a similar state of affluence, despite her most strenuous efforts in that direction. One cannot avoid the suspicion by the end of the narrative, that the ideal of the equitable and congenial community she and others like her had so espoused was slowly transforming into one where money and privilege are the measure of its constituents.
Vakina Panagiotidou has a story to tell and it is of such profundity that it will provoke and move all readers. The release of the book in English is a brave and bold gesture, sure to challenge stereotypes of the migration story and the myths of migrants themselves.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 29 January 2011