Saturday, June 13, 2020


It is autumn in Greek Melbourne. At least that is what one is to understand from the front cover of author and academic Dr Christos Fifis’ latest book, «Ελληνοαυστραλιανά Διηγήματα,». The iconic Arts Centre Spire looms fragmented behind a foreground of dense, russet coloured foliage. The inference is clear: Winter is coming.
Comprised of a collection of short stories, in «Ελληνοαυστραλιανά Διηγήματα,» Dr Christos Fifis continues in the tradition of Greek-Australian literatures’ founding fathers, Alekos Doukas and Giannis Lillis, providing a mosaic of disparate but thematically connected snapshots into the lives of Greek-Australian migrants, exploring not only the manner in which they acclimatized and acculturated to their new realities, but also, importantly, examining their backstory, for as a pre-eminent cultural historian, Dr Fifis is sensitive to the importance of understanding the context in which each individual was compelled to migrate to Australia, assessing the effects of various events upon their psychology, in order to analyse how these played a role, were perpetuated by or coloured the migration experience in each individual case. This emphasis on the psychology of his subjects, is characteristic of much of Dr Christos Fifis’ writings and in this collection, we are given insight into how political persecution, civil war and poverty continued to haunt migrants in Australia and still do, even to the present and how these undercurrents formed largely unspoken of fault-lines within the broader Greek-Australian migrant discourse.

There is a palpable sense of urgency about , «Ελληνοαυστραλιανά Διηγήματα,». It would possibly be incorrect to call each piece comprising the collection a ‘story.’ In the author’s sparse writing, there is no development of three dimensional characters, no portrayal of landscape, no lyricism or artistry of the word. Instead, it would be more fitting to render the word «Διηγήματα» as “narratives,” for these are mere sketches, brief summaries, a pocket compendium of lives in transition, recording impressionistically, the fleeting presence of the first generation, before their light fades forever. Throughout, Dr Christos Fifis is conscious that the people the subject of his study are lapsing into oblivion and consequently, he seeks to preserve their broad outlines for posterity. We don’t know what they looked like, we don’t get to hear their voices, but through the medium of the author, we are granted access to their pallet box of emotions, most of which are coloured by a sense that they are indeed in the autumn of their lives, and are about to fall from the Greek-Australian tree.
The brief snapshots indicate the author’s departure from the realist and plot-driven literature characterising much of the first generation of Greek-Australian writers, populated by Promethean, elemental people of action and permeated with nostalgia. Although “Greek-Australian Narratives” contains a multitude of realistic details, the focus is not on the development of a tight plot or of a coherent evolution but on a multiplicity of perspectives and on the formation of experience. The protagonists, remarkably introspective and passive, do not plausibly function as centres of a plot. While there is an array of symbolism in the work, it is rarely defined through explicit "keys" leading to moral, romantic or philosophical ideas. The significance of what is happening is often placed within the memory or in the inner contemplation of what is described. This focus on the relationship between experience, memory and writing and the radical de-emphasizing of the outward plot, suggesting a Proustian approach to time and memory could arguably only have become possible now that the first generation is contemplating its own mortality.
Thus if anything, Dr Christos Fifis’ compendium of the memories of guerilla fighters, of elderly women resisting the gentrification of Melbourne’s inner suburbs and thus ending up without a support network and alone, of children beaten up at school for being Greek, of students in Greek learning and growing into their own sexuality, of self-made businessmen decided to create Institutes of Greek language as a lasting legacy, of fading elderly members of Democritus discussing ideology over a game of cards, embodies and manifests the principle of intermittence, where existence invariably signifies a multiplicity of perspectives and multiple facets to reality as it pertains to the Greek-Australian migrant discourse. Evidently, in Dr Christos Fifis’ view, this iridescence never resolves itself completely into a single point of view. Accordingly, it is possible to project out of his compendium a series of presumptive and disconnected authors: The renderer of an expiring society, the depicter of stark reminiscence, creating his own romanticism, the ark of the past. For this is Dr Christos Fifis’ central manifesto: that his work of art can recapture the lost and thus save it from destruction, at least in our minds. The act of writing and reading the “Greek-Australian Narratives” in fact signifies, that art triumphs over the destructive power of time.
In this respect, the question must be asked: For whom does Dr Christos Fifis wish to save his dying world? He is writing in the Greek language, in a space and time in which English is fast replacing Greek as the dominant language of the Greek Australian discourse. Evidently then, he is not addressing his work to the latter generations of the Greek community, who ostensibly constitute that community’s future, unless they are proficient in Greek. Is this then a corpus of mystical lore available only available to those worthy few who attain the requisite skills to unseal its arcane secrets? If so, the author is requiring of the would be reader a good deal of linguistic and spiritual preparation.
Alternatively, the author, by choosing to preserve his reminisces of lost time in Greek, is reversing the entire migrant experience and setting it at nought by removing it from its Australian context and positing it squarely within the Hellenosphere. In this manner Dr Christos Fifis is pursuing a perspective of Greek migration and settlement to Australia as being rightfully a part of the corpus of Greek history and culture. It will be for others, not him to create an Australian context for the sum total of our sojourn here. Whether those who have not stayed in Australia will be interested enough or able to appreciate his references is something that begs for future examination. Yet that is the interesting thing about arks. They are built to withstand Deluges and they provide enough resources to provide a foundation for reconstitution after catastrophe. Given that the history of Greek migration to Australia has occurred in periodic waves that have not yet abated, the author’s conviction is both wise as it is steeped in the knowledge of Greek-Australian history that has constituted his life’s work.
The perceptive reader will find embedded within the short vignettes, known and unknown personalities of the Greek Australian community of Melbourne. In its pages, an Edenic, rural way of life, gives way to the Industrialisation of our grand metropolis of the South, with the social ramifications of gentrification, discontinuity of communication and values owing to language loss and social evolution. The book comes to an abrupt halt with the resolution of the son of one of its characters, a Greek-Cypriot who fought for the British at El Alamein, to look further into his father’s remarkable life. The injunction is clear: We are all called upon by the author to seek the hidden gems of experience embedded within our own family histories and contribute to the building of a collective ark which shall be the repository of the memory of our existence as an integrated entity. To do this, requires guidance, sensitivity and knowledge. These are the tools that Dr Christos Fifis’ humbly and reverently, sets in our hands, by means of his latest publication.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 June 2020