Saturday, December 08, 2012


After reading Irena Karafilly's novel, "The Captive Sun," Louis de Bernieres commented: "I enjoyed this book immensely.Karafilly succeeds brilliantly where I had decided not even to try."

There is no doubting his sincerity. It is a considerable challenge to produce a work on such an epic scale, covering an immense breadth of time and event, without lapsing into superficiality, or, as often happens, a plot so intricate and tangled that it cries out for sequel upon best-selling sequel of declining value. No, works of this nature require the brush strokes of an impressionist who is able to dextrously and subtly convey the essence of the historical period to which s/he would have us bear witness. Irena Karafilly is just such a writer, and through her masterly, painterly strokes, a canvas encompassing much of Greece's twentieth century history unfolds before the reader, in all of its painful and tortuous vitality.

According to the author, a Canadian who divides her time between Montreal and Greece, "The Captive Sun," took seven years to research and write, after gestating for a decade. The story was inspired by an obscure poem about a Greek village woman, who immolated herself on Lesbos in the late 70s.

'Living in the village of Molyvos,' Karafilly explains, 'I learned that she had been the local midwife and, long before that, a schoolmistress rumoured to have collaborated with the Germans, and reportedly dismissed for her political views during the civil war. There was a lot of contradictory information, but everyone seemed to agree that she had been beautiful, well-educated, promiscuous, and exceedingly outspoken. The same woman is said to have inspired Myrivilis's Greek classic, "The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes," but the two characters have little in common other than their profession and their golden eyes.'

Karafilly is an award-winning writer, journalist, and aphorist, whose depiction of modern Greek history is as precise as it is fair-minded. Even more remarkable, for an outsider, is the author's understanding of the dynamics of that history and its impact on the Greek people. As a result, using the island of Lesvos as her microcosm, Karafilly's treatment of Greek history, commencing with the aftermath of the Asia Minor Catastrophe and culminating in the ignominious storming of the Athens Polytechnic, offers a psychological profile of an entire nation. Particularly refreshing in her approach is the ability to convey just how fluid historical events can be for the Greek people, along with their capacity for living simultaneously in both past and present. The author's treatment of her backdrop is thus generous, evocative, and informed by a strong aesthetic sensibility.

"The Captive Sun," a compact tome of some 470 pages, manages to overlay the masterfully dramatised historical setting with a skilfully interwoven social perspective. The main thrust of the novel is a brilliant and nuanced portrait of Karafilly's heroine, Calliope Adham, as a surprisingly liberated, quintessential Renaissance woman. Her fictional journey is thus a juxtaposition of the paradox of an enlightened individual longing for the exclusionary contemplation of philosophical truths while simultaneously throwing herself, with varying degrees of gusto, into the intricate complexities of communal life. A bookish iconoclast, Calliope is forced to navigate the rigid shoals of prescribed behaviour, while also retaining a sense of individualism. As the plot thickens, the author acquits herself dextrously by weaving the development of her heroine's character into the temporal and political changes of her country. We can thus measure the slow emergence of the fiercely independent Calliope within a traditional village environment, even as we track the slow and inexorable slide of that village in and out of occupation. By the time we reach the sixties, we come face to face with a self-confident, totally liberated Calliope, who, though increasingly European in outlook, remains passionate about her own culture and homeland.

Calliope Adham's rich love life is also granted a tempo that mirrors both her own development and that of her country, rendering "The Captive Sun's," literary merit all the more exceptional. Calliope's abiding and continuous love for a German officer is the fulcrum upon which much of the novel rests. Yet this is no ordinary romance. Not only is the heroine ostensibly consorting with the enemy while participating in underground activities, but in doing so she is undertaking a form of resistance unique in its own right. It is fascinating to note how the heroine's love for the cultured German officer develops as her literary knowledge and self-awareness expand, and her own involvement in the resistance movement deepens. Karafilly's treatment of the various sexual encounters that are portrayed within the novel are possessed of a highly emotional timbre that emphasizes their over-all effect on the heroine's psyche, transcending and deconstructing pre-conceived ideas of identity, self-definition, and gender roles. There is no gratuitous foray into love's conventional mechanics here, but rather a considered insight into the psychology of various forms of love and how these are influenced by, and in turn influence, the world around us. Karafilly's sexual scenes are poignantly written, forming yet another tableau upon which love, politics, and literary aspirations seamlessly mingle. (And by the way, Karafilly is also refreshing in her almost perfectly consistent adoption of a precise transliteration of Greek names in order to better convey their phonetics to the reader.)

A best-seller in Greece, "The Captive Sun," is a tapestry that is lavish without being grandiose, haunting without being repetitive, and meticulous without being convoluted. That it succeeds in chronicling the story of an extraordinary woman and her lifelong struggle against social and political tyranny is due in large part to the telluric nature of Karafilly's writing style, a style that is as elemental as Greece itself.

"The Captive Sun" is a highly accomplished, thoroughly researched, and compelling read.


"The Captive Sun" is published in Australia by Pan Macmillan and in Greece, under the title, "Η ΑΣΥΜΒΙΒΑΣΤΗ ΜΟΥΣΑ," by Psichogios Editions.

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First published in NEOS KOSMOS on Saturday, 8 December 2012