Saturday, March 19, 2011


Never has such a Rabellaisian in style book been published in the Greek language in Australia as Stratis Vakras’ “Alisavo: Chasing a Dream,” whose Greek edition has achieved great popularity, weaves together a masterly tale of triumph through adversity, punctuated by high farce and whose English translation was launched at the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria last Sunday.
Unlike its counterparts, the master painter of “Alisavo” loads his brush lightly so as to provide a palatable impressionistic vision of the social conditions that helped his heroes to form a social conscience and a particular world view, one whose principles provided a yardstick and a source of strength throughout the process of their acculturation to their new country. In Vakras' 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 myth of the ingenious, self-made man that comprises the archetype of the migrant in the popular conception of the migrant communities of this country. Belief in one's self is vital and the author views his characters’ own strength and capabilities as the deciding factors that helped them navigate their way through such difficulties as the War, poverty, settling down in a new country and even tolerance and reconciliation for those who flout social norms. 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 migrant literature, it is not because of its quaintness, but because this book being published as it is, half a century after the waves of mass migration that brought Greek people to Australian shores is not only truly representative of the lives and backgrounds of a multitude of Greek migrants coming to these shores but is also uniquely irreverent.
The canon of migrant literature tends to mythologise both the process of immigration and acculturation. Vakras’ candid account is valuable, because, being penned in the sixties, it provides us with a unique insight into this mythologisation process according to which the honourable but poor Greeks migrants were compelled to heart-wrenchingly abandon their beloved homeland and to re-settle in Australia, where, as honest and hard-working new citizens, they toiled to carve a niche for themselves in their new country. It is infinitely amusing to witness Vakras’ decidedly anti-heroic characters, possessed only of minute quantities of the above-mentioned qualities sub-consciously creating that myth before our very eyes, in order to provide meaning to their experience and a sense of purpose
As such, “Alisavo” introduces us to Gargantuan and Pantagruellian larger than life, implausible characters, whose adventures symbolize as well as summarize the lesser praised elements of the Greek migrant experience: deception, slyness, cunning and calculation. In adopting this approach, Vakras pays homage to the precedent set by the Byzantine Procopius, whose salacious ‘Secret History’ provides a valuable, ‘behind the scenes’ look at the reignof Justinian. However, unlike Procopius, we are caused to sympathise with our heroes’ prima facie negative traits as it is clear that these are a product of the heroes’ circumstances and are necessary for their survival.
Indeed in this world, where men can be tricked into marriage, donkeys can win horse-races and miraculous draughts of fish can be raised from the ocean, the true villains are not our self-interested heroes, who struggle to survive and to support each other but those who, like Memas, worship money for their own sake. There is something infinitely redemptive in the character of anti-hero Menilos, who, though he considers abandoning his wife many times, never does and is able to support and welcome his sister, after she has disastrously attempted to separate herself from the migrant patriarchal society that was transposed here.
Like Gorky, who split his autobiography into three parts, ("My Childhood," "My Apprenticeship" and "My Universities") Vakras also splits his book into three. The first section deals with his heroes’ in Greece and the privation they endured as a result of their 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. Vakras masterfully restores the balance to this narrative by providing valuable insight into the deep
traumas that caused the migration and their experience proves that while old wounds may heal, they never stop itching. 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 the heroes' acculturation to their new environment in Australia. Of particular interest is Vakras’ narration of the bewilderment and absolute feeling of loss that migrants such as Menilos felt upon arriving in a total unknown country and how it was only through the support of other migrants, that they were able to establish roots and re-difine their lives. In Vakras’ mind, salvation lies within a cohesive Greek-Australian community that supports its members and fosters their development in all spheres of life. Indeed, it is upon this optimistic note that he returns to close the narrative, though decades later and with the benefit of hindsight, it is questionable whether that feeling of optimism has endured.
The final part of the book, a redemptive look at the fate of Menilos’ sister, who chose love over devotion to the family at a time when these concepts were irreconcilable, is generous and courageous. In the end, though Menilos is very much the ‘macho man’ of his generation, his devotion to this member of his family helps him to overcome what his peers would have seen as the shame against his name. Here we see values held for generations slowly eroding under the pressure of acculturation but in Vakras’ mind, this is only done out of love and the need to support a family member and the member of the Greek community, in its wider context.
It cannot be ignored that much of the work is taken up with polemics against Christianity. It is unclear whether this is merely a motif to reflect a deprived generation tired of absolutes and fettered by prejudice seeking intellectual and financial emancipation in a new country, or whether this serves deeper purposes. However, the vast majority of factual matters pertaining to the theology and liturgical practices of the Orthodox Christian that are mentioned in the text, are totally incorrect. This seems, more than anything else, to reflect popular misconceptions and the lesson to be drawn here, seems to be that migrants’ achievements, borne out of their own toil, are their own and cannot be ascribed to celestial beings. It is interesting then that in concluding the narrative, the author, having rejected religion as a defining cultural trait of the Greek people, looks forward to a time when a second generation may, upon the supports provided by the toil of the first generation of Greek migrants, excel in all spheres of the mainstream community but also, maintain its sense of community, language and traditions, according to his conception of what these actually are. It seems to be for this reason, that the narrative is ended while the major characters’ children are still in their infancy. Much can be inferred therefore, as to the place of the second generation in the first generation’s conception of their role in Australian and Greek-Australian society, by this yawning lacuna.
Quite apart from its historic value or that it is representative of an entire generation, “Alisavo” 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 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 the entire book, in attempting to rationalise and make humourous the migrant experience, intended the first generation as its main audience. All the more reason to translate it I say.
For the youthful and inexperienced or unknowledgeable, “Alisavo” 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, Vakras speaks to all of us with warmth and humour, offering 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.


First published in NKEE on 19 March 2011