- Eleni by Nicholas Gage
Collins, 472 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 00 217147 3
Those Greeks who grew up in the Civil War knew there was an enemy – but didn’t know who the enemy was or where he would come from. The memory, from my own childhood in Salonica, of my father’s shop being taken over by a Communist group is crosscut with memories of hush-hush accounts of police tortures suffered by my uncle for supporting the Communists. For a long time after the Civil War ended, our street games re-created it in all its tactics – prisoners, hostages, raids: but if one of us said, ‘I’ll tell my father the officer,’ the fear was real. As tangible as the preposterous iron bar guarding the door of a modern Salonica flat well into the Sixties, and as preposterous as the convoy of tanks in the peaceful streets of the city in the dawn of 21 April 1967.
Vol. 6 No. 3 · 16 February 1984
SIR: An unfavourable review is one thing, an unfair review another. An unfair review, it seems to me, is one which intentionally or unintentionally misrepresents the contents of the book; it is unfair not only to the author but also to potential readers of the book, and it should not go uncorrected. I think that Julietta Harvey’s review of Nicholas Gage’s Eleni (LRB, 19 January) is such a review. Ms Harvey charges that ‘Mr Gage’s portrayal of the civil war is partial, misleading and undocumented.’ But the book is not intended to be a portrayal of the civil war, and it gives every evidence of being thorough, accurate and painstakingly researched as an account of his mother, his family and their village during the period covered by the story. Mr Gage describes his methodology: ‘Every incident described in the book that I did not witness personally was described to me by at least two people who were interviewed independently of each other …’ Nobody who has suffered the murder of his mother and the total deracination of his family from their home and way of life could expect to be completely objective about the circumstances. But Ms Harvey’s review does no sort of justice to the scrupulousness of Mr Gage’s method and wrongly contrives to present the book as biased and romantic.
Ms Harvey’s second criticism is more interesting, because it strikes at the heart of what is the subject-matter of the book rather than what is not. She describes Gage’s treatment of his mother as sentimental and him as ‘satisfied with the archetype of the Mother … or with the other archetype of the one noble person in an ignoble world determined to destroy her’. She goes on to say that Eleni does not fit this archetype because she is materialistic and cruel. Ms Harvey talks of the ‘resounding echoes of capitalised sentimentality in the Greek words Mana, Mitera’. Anyone who regards it as sentimental to describe an eight-year-old boy and his siblings as addressing someone as Mother has an austere view of the world indeed. But the charge that the author sees his mother as an archetype (always assuming that we know precisely what is meant by that word in the context) is more difficult to rebut and may be true; and, if true, may be one of the central strengths of this very strong book. Some people are more ‘archetypal’ than others, and find themselves in more ‘archetypal’ situations. For an author to convey the archetypal in such cases, provided that he does not ignore everything else (which, by Ms Harvey’s own account, Mr Gage does not) is not to render his account superficial or sentimental. I expect it would be anathema to Ms Harvey to see the shadow of Antigone behind Mr Gage’s Eleni, but to other readers it might be a provocative and natural line of inquiry. Certainly in trying to establish that Eleni is not noble (her word, not Mr Gage’s), she seems to go off the deep end. That ‘money and property mattered’ must have been, not a sign of ignobility, but a necessary prerequisite of life in the Mourgana mountains, and hurling stones at mules part of a means of transportation. (I would not wish to treat the fate of the poor old mule lightly, but it is interesting that a closer reading of the text reveals that Ms Harvey quite misreports this incident.)
There is no doubt that in the last paragraph of her review, Ms Harvey makes it clear that in her opinion Mr Gage should not have written his book but should, like Stephanos Tassis, have ‘listened silently … and returned to his card game’. It is my opinion that, had he done that, we would have been deprived of an honest, deeply moving and truthful book.
Julietta Harvey writes: As to methodology, Mr Gage also says: ‘Following the example of Thucydides, “I put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments proper to the occasion, expressed as I thought he would be likely to express them.” To bring characters in the book to life, I have sometimes described their thoughts and feelings as well as their actions.’ In a text consisting of edited, unidentified tape-transcripts augmented by unsignalled improvisations – in which no checkable source is given for any of the ‘facts’ – how is the reader to know where fiction stops and truth begins? Mr Gage seeks to combine the authority of history and the liberty of fiction without recognising their distinct responsibilities.
Of course Mr Gage attempts to portray the civil war: not only are the events in Lia described with an implication of their typicality, but every chapter in the book is prefaced with an account of the general history of Greece at that point. It is important for such a portrayal to be impartial, accurate and documented. Mr Sheil does not help Mr Gage when he claims both that the book is ‘thorough’ and ‘accurate’, and that ‘nobody who has suffered the murder of his mother … could expect to be completely objective about the circumstances.’ On the subject of Eleni, the reader of my review may see that Mr Sheil misrepresents my point, argument and very words. What I said was that Eleni ‘must have been a tough, shrewd, brave woman’ free from the ‘self-involved sentimentality’ her son imposes on her. I drew attention to those few places in the book which give glimpses of a much more plausible and interesting woman than the saintly archetype Mr Gage is bent on presenting; and I indicated the complexity of passions and fears on both sides that create the atrocities, and the tragedy, of a civil war. (I concede that the mule took a week to die, following Eleni’s ‘blind’ hurling of stones at it.) I don’t regard it as sentimental for an eight-year-old boy to call his mother ‘mother’ – but the book is not written by an eight-year-old: it is written by a successful author, who attacks with adult vengefulness, and who cannot simply hide from criticism behind the wounded child. Nor did I mind the sprinklings of Classical antiquity (Antigone, Clytemnestra) at the end of the book – it’s common practice when exporting Greece.