Either Side of the Barbed-Wire Border

Maria Margaronis

  • May Your Name Be Blessed by Sotiris Dimitriou, translated by Leo Marshall
    Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham, 84 pp, £8.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 7044 2189 5

Sotiris Dimitriou is best known in Greece as a writer of compact, sometimes brutal stories about people pushed aside by modern life. Distracted by obsessions and false hopes, his migrants, rent boys and heartbroken mothers are unaware of the forces that derail their lives. They might find momentary pleasure in a song, or in fragmented memories of the countryside – ‘meadows, daisies, nights and sweet eyes, dreams of youth, dim winters, old griefs, lost suns’ – but nostalgia for village life is only a trick of the trap that holds them.

The stories are widely read in Greece partly because they give a voice to people who are not often heard from, though their familiar presence is both a reproach to the country’s new prosperity and a reminder of the collective loss brought about by decades of rapid change. But the primary impulse in Dimitriou’s work is not documentary. The calamitous decline that one character after another suffers is sometimes melodramatic, sometimes moving, sometimes a vehicle for the reader’s instruction. Its persistence gives it an almost formal function, like sadness in the blues. Through their content, the stories force something new into Greek consciousness: aesthetically, they are part of an old tradition. The compression of feeling in the characters’ speech echoes the economy of oral literature.

That resonance, along with Dimitriou’s exact ear for the registers of language, lifts his work out of the swamp of ‘dirty realism’ which sometimes threatens to engulf it. Through regional dialect, urban argot and migrants’ broken grammar, he brings the irreducibly local to his cosmopolitan readers, tapping the emotional force and social precision of different vernaculars: ‘You’re in a Carolina rice household now,’ one Greek woman sneers to her despised Albanian sister-in-law. For all these reasons the stories are almost untranslatable, though Leo Marshall’s English versions in Woof, Woof, Dear Lord (Kedros, 1995) give something of their flavour.

Dimitriou’s first novel, May Your Name Be Blessed, is a more likely candidate for cultural migration: history is more explicitly present than it is in the stories, offering a handhold for foreign readers. The displacements that followed World War Two and the collapse of Communism in Europe are seen from the point of view of a family from Povla in Epiros, near the Albanian border. (Povla – now officially Hellenised as Ambelonas – is Dimitriou’s ancestral village.) But some of the novel’s background will be obscure even to Greeks, since it does not form part of the country’s public narrative.

The wooded mountains of Epiros became part of the Greek kingdom in 1913, after the Balkan Wars fought by Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria first against the Ottomans and then among themselves. Like Macedonia, annexed at the same time, Western Epiros had a mixed population not easily assimilated into a mono-ethnic nation state. The most fertile land remained in the hands of about twenty thousand Muslim Albanians or ‘Chams’ – in Greek, Turkotsamides – who had been the local beys under Ottoman rule. The Treaty of Bucharest which gave Greece its northern provinces also created the state of Albania, with a hundred or so Greek-speaking Orthodox villages inside its southern border. The two nations were officially at war from 1940 – when Italy attacked Greece from the Albanian mountains – until 1987, partly because of tension over these minorities.

During the Axis occupation, starvation was a constant threat. The Chams, already resented and marginalised by the Greek population, had become increasingly suspect; many had been interned by the Greek authorities as soon as war broke out. It was not difficult for the occupiers to find Albanian Muslims willing to act as their enforcers, and from 1943 Cham bands joined the Wehrmacht in razing Greek villages. To complicate matters further, the Chams were also unsuccessfully courted by EDES, the royalist Greek partisans armed by the British to counter EAM, the left-wing resistance movement. In 1944, EDES’s leader, the Epirot Napoleon Zervas, paid back their refusal to help him by ordering an attack on their villages. Eighteen thousand Chams fled across the border to Albania; their property was seized and redistributed to Greeks. Today there are perhaps fifty Albanian-speaking Muslims left in all of Epiros.

Meanwhile, the sixty or seventy thousand Greeks walled up in Enver Hoxha’s Albania suffered with the rest of the population; more so if they identified themselves as Greek or spoke their language in public. Though some married Albanians and moved north to Tirana, in general they remained the last significant ‘unredeemed’ Greek population in the Balkans. (Greeks of an irredentist cast still tend to inflate their numbers by classifying all Orthodox inhabitants of Southern Albania, whether Greek, Albanian or Vlach, as ‘Northern Epirots’, though Greece long ago gave up any expansionist aspirations.) With the collapse of Albania’s Communist regime in 1991, many of these Greeks, together with their Albanian neighbours, poured south across the border. Members of the Greek minority fare better in the labyrinth of Athenian bureaucracy and on the street, but they have not been welcomed as long-lost brothers.

This is the history against which May Your Name Be Blessed is set; but it is not, in any conventional sense, a historical novel. It is not concerned either with the fate of the Chams (who play a very minor role) or with ethnic tensions. The angle is resolutely personal, the language unapologetically difficult. The novel’s opening pages let you know that it is wartime, the early 1940s. The parcels and money from America and Australia have been cut off; marauders have swept through the village, taking what oil, clothes and livestock they could find. But all this is told in an unspecified country idiom, with a tumble of proverbial phrases and unexplained references: ‘The trough’ll turn nether side up on us’; ‘Turkotsamides’; ‘rebels’. Clues to the speaker’s identity are packed into figures of speech: ‘They burned the village afterwards. You’d sweep the besom round and nothing’d get in the way.’ This woman has no use for perspective: the broom and the burned village, the domestic and the communal, the teller and the listener coexist on the same flat plane.

Alexo, as we later come to know her, is 15 when the story begins. She tells of her wanderings with a group of women through villages on both sides of the frontier with Albania, in search of grain and oil: ‘Frontier meant as we knew it, with the mind; for it hadn’t soldiers or barbed wire.’ The copper pans the women have brought to barter are taken from them by Greek partisans, and they are reduced to begging from both Greeks and Albanians. (The distinction between them is not emphasised; it is not always clear which ethnic group a character belongs to.) Adventure may turn into Nightmare in the space of a sentence. The women see the sea for the first time: ‘a vast plain rippling below us, as was golden in the sun’. Some of them are raped by Albanian men in a chapel where they take shelter. One woman, Kaisarina, is lost in the snow on Mourgana, the mountain above the village. Alexo’s sister Sophia falls ill; she decides to stay with a cousin in the Greek village of Perdikari, just inside Albania, while the others go home. By the time spring comes the frontier is closed, guarded by soldiers and dogs, and Sophia is cut off.

Dimitriou reflects the fracture in the women’s community by handing the narrative over to Sophia, trapped inside Hoxha’s Albania. Not even letters are allowed across the frontier, less than ‘a three-hour tramp’ away.

The historical disruptions that produce the barbed-wire border also affect the characters’ experience of time. Alexo’s story unfolds in an eternal present: we learn that the events she describes took place many years earlier, but her urgent telling is barely shaped by retrospect. For Sophia, time moves in fits and starts: ‘Three years passed and one afternoon we saw a throng of people coming down the mountain’; ‘with todays, with tomorrows, the years passed.’ The long prison sentences handed out by the authorities reinforce the feeling of suspended animation: ‘They were as nothing to them, the wretched years. They were like weeks, like days.’ The people of Perdikari are uprooted and moved north, away from the border, to share houses with Albanian families. Sophia marries a Greek she meets in Albania, but he is arrested as a dissident and jailed for life after celebrating the birth of his son too loudly with Greek songs. After thirty years, a letter comes from Alexo, from her old home. Sophia feels ‘as if my family’d come out the ground’; but she does not return.

Sophia’s grandson, the narrator of the book’s third section, who comes of age as the Communist Party begins to lose its grip on Albania, is the one who goes back. With many others, ‘Albanians as well as Greeks’, he makes his way over Mourgana under gunfire to find the land of his dreams. In some ways his experiences mirror his great-aunt’s more than forty years before. He is amazed by the things for sale in the Greek village of Filiati – ‘electrical goods, clothes, fruit and vegetables of every kind’ – just as Alexo was by the abundance she found in Argyrokastro (in Albanian, Gjirokaster): ‘wares of all kinds, clothes, shoes, combs, jewellery, thread, sweets’. But while Alexo’s journey was meant to be a round trip, her great-nephew travels one-way.

Of course Greece is nothing like the paradise he had imagined. He meets his relatives in Povla, but does not stay with them; he finds a cold welcome in the Greek towns: ‘People began to wish us gone. They said we’d mired the place in dung. So many as we were, where else’d we do it? We’d do it outside – nowise’d they ever put us in their homes.’ After being penned into a football stadium with thousands of others by riot police, he manages to get to Athens, where he wanders from labouring job to labouring job, often cheated of his wages: ‘I didn’t think much on it all. On television they showed it different.’ He joins the other illegal immigrants who populate the city’s building sites; learns that his best friend has died in Athens; is filled with homesickness. In the book’s last pages, a young Greek is unexpectedly kind to him, which makes him think, to his surprise, of his sister Tsilo and imagine her reaction to his homecoming: ‘Look, mam. He’s here. Spetim is here.’ In this moment of intimacy and distance we finally learn his name – not Greek but Albanian. He ends ‘in two minds’, uncertain whether to stay or go.

May Your Name Be Blessed was published in Greece in 1993; it was, and remains, intensely topical there. Hundreds of thousands of migrants from Albania and elsewhere have entered the country in the last ten years, some of them, like Spetim, risking their lives to do so. In a country of traditional emigration, nearly a tenth of the population are now recent immigrants. The resulting tensions haven’t been eased by the fact that the newcomers’ labour has helped lever the country into the European single currency. In this context, May Your Name Be Blessed is an oblique challenge to Greek prejudices. The Greek minority in Albania, whose trials are so vividly described in the book’s middle section, is everywhere an object of sympathy (though this is not always practically expressed towards those who make it to the motherland). But the novel as a whole, and especially Spetim’s story, implicitly questions the distinctions some would draw between ‘Northern Epirots’ and Albanians, or Greeks and immigrants, laying bare an infinite regress of displacement and migration. From the beginning, home is a mirage, abandoned first by the men and then by the women in search of the means to live.

Like Dimitriou’s short fiction, May Your Name Be Blessed is presented not as a political work, but as a story about the incompatibility of history and belonging. Its loyalty is to the characters’ experience; its emotional force comes from the way it seems to speak directly out of the community whose scattering it traces, through the Epirot dialect that unifies its disparate stories. (The dialect varies subtly as the characters move through space and time: in the Greek you can see that a few English words, like ‘group’ and ‘motel’, have crept into Spetim’s 1990s speech.) But it also depends on a high level of artifice: the ‘uneducated’ language is carefully poeticised (no one actually speaks in quite this way); images and characters intricately mirror one another. The book belongs quite consciously to a Greek tradition of literary ‘oral’ narratives. In particular, it is related to a short novel by Stratis Doukas, published after the last great wave of refugees entered Greece in the 1922 exchange of populations with Turkey. A Prisoner of War’s Story[*] also presents a migrant’s adventures in his ‘own’ words, without political judgments; its account of a ‘returning’ Greek more closely bound to the landscape of his home than to any nation state also draws attention to the artificiality of borders. The parallel reminds us to compare recent migrations with the older one, now seen as heroic but also resented at the time. And both novels, by implication, make the point that in order to become visible to a wider world, the local must leave its origins behind.

What happens to such a text when it crosses the further border of a different language? There can be no linguistic equivalent to Dimitriou’s Epirot Greek: as Leo Marshall says in his translator’s preface, it would be absurd to use a Welsh or Yorkshire dialect. Marshall has approximated a solution by inventing a non-specific rural English, smattered with words like ‘twinter’, ‘cozen’ and ‘thitherwards’. This takes some getting used to, and a few phrases jar as archaic, but it is surprisingly effective; if anything, the language is too fluid and transparent in comparison with the Greek, which is thorny even for native speakers. Of course, a great deal is lost: the texture of the words, and their historical and geographic specificity. And the language is only half the battle: to remove this book from the culture in which it was made is to risk reducing it to an anthropological document, or a homily about displacement. Marshall has resisted the temptation to make Dimitriou ‘accessible’, and stayed close to the rhythms of his prose. What remains, in English as in Greek, is a sense of the value of the untranslatable, of what is bound to a particular place and time.

[*] Translated by Petro Alexiou (Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham, 1999).