Saturday, March 19, 2016


Κόκκινη κλωστή, δεμένη, στην ανέμη τυλιγμένη, δώσ' της κλώτσο να γυρίσει, παραμύθι ν' αρχινίσει..

The above traditional saying, when beginning a tale in Greek, signifies the fact that in the Greek context, a tale is not woven but rather embroidered. Embroidery, one of the most ancient of the Greek arts and one of the most renowned handicrafts of Byzantium, enjoying an extraordinary flourishing between the middle of the 17th and the end of the 19th centuries is thus deeply interwoven within the Greek psyche as a constituent of the expression of identity, in a manner as flexible as no other.  For although styles and designs were transmitted either through commerce or marriage, strong regional patterns and techniques were preserved that persist in the common consciousness to the present day.

Greek embroidery was thus traditionally a vehicle for a community aesthetic. As such, embroidery, is a means of study of the political, cultural and economic influences on the different regions of the Greek  world and more besides. The decorative motifs were generally arranged horizontally, vertically, diagonally or in a circle with patterns repeating or alternating.

Kathryn Gauci, in her first novel "The Embroiderer" has been able to capture not only this tradition as a phenomenon, but also its methodology, which she expertly employs in the embroidering of her own tale. Thus, a story of breathtaking intricacy arises from the various silken word-threads that she loops over, under and through generations of Greek history. At the time of reading, some of those strands appear disparate or unintelligible. Some recurring patters take us on a journey of hope, renewal and almost inexpressible beauty. Others are dark, convoluted and dyed with the anguish of pain, fear and loss, so much so that their threads seem tortured and stretched, almost to the point of breaking. The analogy of threads also extends to the bonds linking the three main protagonists of the novel through their turbulent lives, together with the complex, colorful embroideries they created in fact or by analogy. It is only when the reader comes to the end of this magisterial work, that it is able to perceive, having followed the twists and turns of Gauci's pen, threading across the pages, the overall pattern, which is of life itself.

It is high time that the traditional handicrafts or artistic traditions of Greece served as an inspiration for the production of literature, and in her work, Gauci acquits herself adequately, placing herself on par with Orhan Pamuk's "Red,"  a story inspired and revolving around the tradition of Ottoman calligraphy, or Bahiyyih Nakhjavani's "Paper," a story revolving around the Persian art of paper-making. There is an inherent danger in such an approach however. A steady hand is required so that the subject matter and the motif is neither exoticised to the point of triviality or orientalised to the point of offensiveness. In Gauci's expert hands, the novel almost generates sensory overload-strong, evocative appeals to smell, touch, sound, and feeling - while remaining tasteful, restrained and highly disciplined. These sensory treats are as much a part of the story as the words themselves, as should be the case in a piece of skilled word-embroidery.

Of course what juxtaposes Gauci's work from other treatments of "oriental" handicraft is the fact that she refuses to be bound by borders, ethnicity, nationalism or time. Instead, her narrative embellishes and is embellished in turn, an international multi-ethnic and multi-lingual silken tableau that is a confluence of influences, conflicts and historical progressions. It is in her innate ability to highlight, shade, raise in sharp relief and parallel circumstances and characters, all the while achieving an equilibrium and mastery of pattern, that evokes and yet transcends definitions of tradition, without detracting from a highly crafted narrative, that her true genius lies.

The narrative itself has an inexorable sense of rhythm that lends the work an ultimately cinematic feel. This is a story that cries out for dramatisation. A late-night call from Athens pulls a young woman from 1970s London to the bedside of a dying aunt, the last link to the mother she never knew. Visiting a hitherto unknown homeland, the tightly wound threads of her family's past begin to unravel and she discovers a family history rooted in commerce and couture, intrigue and war, aristocrats and subversives. While embroidery is the thread that unites each successive generation, given that the family becomes skilled in embroidery and uses that skill to make a living, the family is blighted by a curse that determines the fates of all its members. Unlike the contrived magical realism of the acclaimed "Witches of Smyrna," which is overdone to the point of implausibility, Gauci's foray into the realm of the paranormal is both cogent and credible. History here meets tragedy in the most classical of senses as the fatal flaw within the contrary character of one of the main protagonists brings about pain, destruction but ultimately, in loss, redemption.  The sinuous path of fated, inescapable devastation is traversed via a narrative thread that takes us from nineteenth century genocide, through to the rise of nationalism, the Balkan Wars, the First World War ,the Asia Minor catastrophe and the Second World War. As history is made, four generations of legendary and yet redoubtable beauties  struggle to protect themselves and their family from the vicissitudes of fortune.

The narrative weaves and wends back on itself innumerable times. The juxtaposition of Dimitra Laskaris's delicate crystal saucer and embroidered napkin and the old seer's dire prophecy as the Ottoman Empire was ending exemplifies the tension experienced throughout the novel, in that for nearly each respite of peace and beauty there is one or more of death and destruction. Nonetheless, the women and their embroideries, stitched for themselves, for countless destitute women in the empire and beyond, as well as for the highest echelons of Ottoman and Greek society survive, as sharp and shining as their needles. Matriarch Dimitra, her granddaughter Sophia, and Sophia's granddaughter Eleni are thus not the stereotypical, yawnworthy one-dimensional strong, feisty heroines of many forgettable historical novels. Instead, these protagonists and the sum of their experiences the massacre on Chios through the end of the Second World Wat in Greece, appear remarkably contemporary.

Gauci's sensitive focus upon the successive female generations of a, to all intents and purposes,  matriarchal family would lead one to argue that "the Embroiderer" is a feminist novel, in the sense that the indomitability of the main characters and the manner in which they pursue their interests causes a significant shift in the gender norms of an otherwise monolithically patriarchal society. Furthermore, given this is a historical novel, Gauci's intergenerational treatment of her female protagonists renders her work a facilitator of an analysis of the Ottoman Empire and early modern Greece that takes issues of gender properly into account. It goes without saying that by focusing almost exclusively on the females of the family, Gauci is questioning and transforming androcentric systems of thought which posit the male as the norm. Her saga could thus be seen as not only revealing and critiquing androcentric biases, but also attempting to examine beliefs and practices from the viewpoint of the "other," in the process, objectifying women. Finally, in showcasing a group of enterprising and independent women, who through industry, flair and sheer brilliance are able to transcend the gender stereotypes for their age, for example by setting up successful businesses, taking lovers and even conducting clandestine intelligence operations, Gauci goes a long way in showing that existing inequalities between dominant and marginalized groups can be removed and that we can revise our way of considering the  history and society in which the narrative unfolds, so that neither male nor female is taken as normative, but both are seen as equally conditioned by the gender constructions of their culture, as indeed we, the readers, are. As a corollary, her portrayal of male characters is incisive and plausible, that of one of the protagonists' Russian lovers being of infinite value, as it appears to be a  "tame" counterpart to the unruly and primal immortal White Russian refugee characters Junkermann and Colonel Liapkin, created by Karagatsis.

Embarking on a narrative of such temporal scope is not an easy task and occasionally, Gauci's dialogue feels strained, as it appears that characters are explaining matters of context and history simply for the benefit of the reader. Despite this, Gauci expertly avoids being didactic. What people ate and drank, how they slept, worked, communicated, loved and lived within the framework of two religions, fundamentally different in philosophy, yet joined at the hip. All of this the author encourages us to appreciate in the course of her tale. Though over a century in scope, the pace of the narrative does not flag, nor is the reader tempted to skim over portions of the text; the excitement and tension of the plot is transmitted through the characters, all of whom are invested with uncanny authenticity, directly to the reader.

It is perhaps trite to state that the flow of people and the movement of ideas in the Aegean literal has been truly tidal, and "the Embroiderer" will allow the reader appreciate the profound fears and insecurities as well as the bad blood that have always underlain relations between both sides of the Aegean. The reader is especially made conscious of what happens as empires crumble: how the hatreds, which are largely subsumed in a working multicultural empire, rise to engulf both those who know their world is collapsing and those who see the chance to throw off the rule of the empire. Gauci's description of the sack of Smyrna is a harrowing work of art of its own accord. All of the tensions and tragedies of the period are superbly portrayed in this book and the scope and the timescale are handled with great skill.

Such verisimilitude is vital as the narrative draws to a close, for if time, events and conditions were not depicted so faithfully, its ultimate resolution, which sees all certainties turned on their head, as a final revelation proves that while ethnicity, religious and social identity are certainly germane to the human condition,  they are not absolute determinates of it, would not be nearly so powerful and moving as it is embroidered by the author.

"The Embroiderer," remarkably Kathryn Gauci's first novel is a must read by all of those who would understand the eastern Mediterranean, embroidery and life itself.

"The Embroiderer," will be launched by Dean Kalimniou and the author at the Greek Centre on Wedensday, 23rd March 2016 at 7pm.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 March 2016