Saturday, November 14, 2020


Just before the commencement of the most important part of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the priest intones The Doors, the Doors, in Wisdom let us attend.” This is an injunction for the Doors of the church to be shut against the uninitiated, in order to allow awesome mysteries to unfold.  


Writer Dmetri Kakmi, in his recently published collection of short stories, The Door and Other Uncanny Tales,” operates in a similar fashion, ambiguously opening the door of his narrative to reveal hidden truths to us, while at the same time obfuscating these, releasing us when the pressure is too much, even as we come to realise that we have been trapped inside his discourse prior to opening his book. In Middle Eastern tradition, of course, the world is divided into various doors,” and it is for the reader to determine which of these worlds, if any the discourse is inhabiting. 


The characterization of the tales as Uncanny” is ironic on many levels. Described as not for the faint-hearted,” or in the tradition of Lovecraft,” they are in fact in keeping with an age old tradition that I call Balkan bleak,” a narrative lineage that presupposes the inimicability of both the natural and the supernatural to the human condition, one where moral compasses seldom point North and if even if they do, are unable to navigate one through the narrow backstreets of the irrational, or the cul-de-sacs of faith. In short, these are the tales our grandmothers would learn from their grandmothers, on those long cold winter nights before the fire, prolegomena that would provide them with at least some way of enduring, rather than understanding, the horrors of the real world, without. 


The Door”, the major story in the collection, is a case in point. A Greek-Australian gay artist paints an image of a door in his apartment. The Greek word for image, εἰκών, signifies a semblance, a likeness, or a phantom image. As the story develops that door and rather what lies behind it, an entire phantom world of repressed memories, trauma, rejection and despair, takes a life of its own. Inexorably drawn to that world, the protagonist finds himself trapped within it, as his doppelgänger emerges to take over his life.  


In this masterfully crafted fable, an exploration of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, where the Door’s Orestes Gallanos betrays his mother and is then set upon by the Furies of his own conscience, we are never able to separate myth from reality, nor are we given the opportunity to assess the authenticity of either world. How true” is a person who wallows solely in memories and injuries passed or imagined?  Similarly, how true” is he who shuts himself from that past to live solely in the present and what is “betrayal” are questions that are raised but deliciously unresolved, since the entire conundrum purportedly exists within the unreal. Embedded within the text, though, are biographical elements that form the secret, unspoken of histories of many migrant families in Melbourne, adding to the sense of unease. How did the writer come to discover, let alone reveal our family apocrypha? Like Pandoras Box, there are doors that best remain shut. 


Kakmis choice of a doppelgänger is also inspired. The motif of the malevolent twin has been present within Greek folklore since  Euripides’ Helen, whose eidolon, idol or icon, is the one that leads Paris astray and causes the Trojan War. Narcissus’ doppelgängers, his own reflection, also leads the hapless beauty to his own destruction and it is perhaps here that we could view elements of “The Door” as a cautionary tale against self-absorption, albeit without a moral, even as the process is inevitable. 

Perhaps the most harrowing and absorbing of all the tales in the collection is that of “Haunting Matilda”, which reads as an Australian retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Philomela. Raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, Philomelas tongue is cut off, in order to ensure her silence. She thus weaves a tapestry bearing witness to her crime, setting off a chain of events that will see her sister kill her child with Tereus and serve it up to him as a meal.  


The pre-pubescent Matilda too does not speak but neither can she weave tapestries. Her parents belong to a cult where it is believed that sex with Matilda will act as a conduit for ushering in primeval forces into the world. Consequently, they abuse her and allow others to do the same, cutting off her tongue so she does not speak and her fingers so she cannot write of her suffering.  


As Matilda is invested with chthonic powers that will enable her to wreak revenge upon her tormentors and regain the use of her lost appendages, again we are faced with the writers conundrums of amorality. Given that the restoration of Matilda by the supernatural beings is contingent upon her luring would-be abusers, killing them and stealing their appendages, thus perpetuating a cycle of molestation, we are removed from our Judeo-Christian world of righteous deities, to an Olympian and pre-Olympian world of jealous, malicious immortals who do nothing to protect the little girl and merely weaponise her suffering. Is her ability to control her defilement tantamount to redemption? Or, is she like Medusa before her, (and Matildas supernatural tentacles resemble Medusas serpentine hair), a captive tool of the gods?  


Just how whole can Matilda become when she assimilates the tongue and hands of the abuser? Indeed, how can we negotiate our place in such a seemingly unprincipled world, whose moral code, if one exists, is completely alien to us? It is in the raising of these insistent and cloying questions, carefully creating a climate of curated intellectual dysphoria, beyond the creepy that the writer reveals himself as a master of his genre, even as he exhausts elucidation of the term. 


The writers sensitivity to the liminal position occupied by children with regard to identity, time, or society is exemplified by the ghost’ stories The Long, Lonely Road,” and The Boy by the Gate.” In the first, partially told from the point of view of a dog, we are immersed in a world unable to determine whether a child belongs’ and is thus considered a recurrent threat. In The Boy at the Gate,” in an inversion of traditional social mores, the narrator learns at her cost that kindness to children is harmful, rather than beneficial. That is, if what we are dealing with, is in fact a child… 


If there is any redemption, however uncanny in the world of the Door,” surely this is to be found in the story “Light in Her Eyes”, a profound account of a woman seeking to come to terms with recently having an abortion through a stay in the country. In an ingenious manner, reminiscent of modern Orthodox icons depicting Christ gathering the unborn to him, through the intercession of a departed practitioner, a concatenation of extramundane forces coalesce to set her suffering at nought and then some. The unassuming manner in which the story begins, ill prepares the reader for the sharp swerve into the sphere of the numinous, heightening the emotional effect, when the main character by means of an act of absolution, which she as much confers upon herself as it is conferred upon her, is made bigger than her own suffering self, a remarkable re-working and exploration of the Annunciation story. 


We would do well to attend Dmetri KakmiThe Door” in wisdom. His firm, muscular prose, finely honed and polished with precision has a mellifluous, hauntingly resonant tonality, even as the master composer takes us through a number of key changes. Steeped in complex and timeless ancestral lore but propagating a topos all of its own, in which social hierarchies are reversed, continuity of tradition is uncertain, and fluid, malleable situations that cast doubt upon the future emerge, the Door is a perennial parable of the tribulations of the condition humane. As such, it must be read.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 November 2020