Tuesday, 7 February 2006


After a few days of beautiful spring weather again there are some bitter cold days with snow nearly up to Molyvos and the famous gale blowing from the North East. Even though the whole of Greece is upside down because of the eavesdropping scandal through mobile telephones, the Greek news still has plenty of time for the new heavy snowfall in the north and the middle of the country. They will not forget to show as well pictures of their neighbouring country Turkey which mostly gets even worse weather. This time they showed Istanbul where heavy snowfall made daily life kind of risky.

Whoever read the book 'Istanbul' by Orhan Pamuk, and especially took a good look in the book, knows that snow in Istanbul is not hot news. Besides the story of Pamuks beloved home and living town, there are plenty of black and white pictures in the book and many of them show that snow in Istanbul is a regular plague.

In 'Istanbul' Orhan Pamuk describes his young years, but the story is more an ode to a city that according to him is generating. Once it was a powerful capital of the Ottoman Empire with a lot of luxurious villas and other great buildings. When Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish state in 1923 a lot of foreigners, amongst them mostly Greek and Armenian people, were murdered and chased out of the country. The Turks had to start without these big trades people. They got a new alphabet and they tried to be as western a state as possible.

Orhan Pamuk was born in 1952 and was raised in a city where the once so gorgeous villas were left for western apartment blocks and the big country houses and palaces along the Bosporus got burned in fires that regularly broke out. The authentic wooden houses in many parts of the city also burned down or just collapsed. Then there started a furious growth of building, which meant that Istanbul grew at a very fast pace, along, between, at cost of and next to great old fortifications and whatever there was left of the mighty past. Reading 'Istanbul' from Orhan Pamuk you get homesick for this beautiful Istanbul without even having been there.

You will never have this kind of feeling about Lesvos, although this island has its own story of generating buildings. No hüzün, as Pamuk calls this longing for the past, although the buildings are collapsing in front of your nose. The old Hot Springs Hotel with the great Turkish arches at Thermi near Mytilini does not remind you exactly of a great time in the past. Nor the Hotel Arion that is slowly collapsing along the road to Molyvos gets you the feeling of hüzün for the good old eighties. It more makes you angry at a municipality that cannot deal with its buildings or building ground.

You do not get hüzün from reading the books from the well known Lesvian writer Stratis Myrivilis. Books like 'The Mermaid Madonna' and 'The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes' which are set on this island. The first book is about Skala Sykaminia where around 1920 big groups of Greek people who were chased out of Turkey had to be housed and integrated into the Lesvian life. The second book is set in the same time and is about a soldier who has to tell the widow of his mate that he was killed. These were hard times for the island, whose inhabitants only got back their Greek passports in 1912.

There is no Hüzün in the impressive book 'Birds Without Wings' by Louis de Bernières, who describes the chasing of all Greek inhabitants from a small village in Anatolia, Turkey. Though thanks to this thrilling story you somewhat get a view about what the earlier life in the Ottoman Empire looked like. Greek, Armenian and Muslim people were all living together without big problems. The expressive 'La masseria delle allodole' (the house with the larks) from Antonia Arslan is about the same drama, although this is written from an Armenian view. The enchanting 'Middlesex' of the American writer Jeffrey Euginides starts at the genocides and tells the story of a Greek brother and sister who escaped the slaughter at Smyrna (nowadays Izmir) and emigrated as man and wife to Detroit in America. You can find a little bit of hüzün in the nearly magic realistic book 'The Maze' by the Greek writer Panis Karnezis, although this might be more homesickness. After the war a Greek army gets lost in the hills of Anatolia and finally arrives at a remote village where the war never seems to have happened.

You do not get hüzün from a war. But you get a warm feeling reading the story of 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' by Louis de Bernières. Although there is the Second World War as the background, a love story that makes you nearly cry takes the better part of the book. We find that same war as the background of the book 'In the shape of a Boar' from Lawrence Norfolk. Here it is a terrific plot of old and new Greek myths that makes the book so thrilling. Another unforgettable book where no war is but where poverty rules all life is the family story of 'Kai me ton fos ton likon epanerxontai' (On the hour of the Wolf they return) from Zyranna Zateli. This story gives a view of the earlier life in Greece, a time that especially in the country and on the islands is not very far away.

There are too many books about Alexander the Great or Greek mythology. Especially entertaining is the book 'The Songs for the Kings' from the English writer Barry Unsworth who gives new life to the myths around the war of Troy. He writes memorable scenes like the one about the big and small Ajax who try to raise a kind of Olympic Games when their army is stranded because the Gods of the Wind do not want to help them get to Troy.

So you see, we do a lot of reading in times when we have power cuts and are chased to the open fire or when the sun shines that abundantly that we have to go and sit in the sun with a book. Winter on Lesvos is never dull and I do hope that with all those names of books which touch the Greek life I managed to give you a little bit of hüzün.

Copyright © Smitaki 2006

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