Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Fighting against Demons

(cover of Scattered Clearings)

The writer Stratis Myrivilis was born in 1890 in Sykaminia on the island of Lesvos. He grew up in the village and when he was fifteen he went to the gymnasium in Mytilini. He later went to Athens to study law, but not for long, because when in 1912 the First Balkan War began, he joined the Greek army.

When he returned to Lesvos, the island had been freed from the Turks and was filled with refugees from the fallen Ottoman Empire. His first novel Life from the Tomb is about the soldiers’ dreadful life during World War I and is set in the battlefields. His third novel The Mermaid Madonna, about a foundling in a little village, made the fishing village of Skala Sykaminia famous. His second novel The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes, published in 1933, has something of both the other novels: the atrocities of the war and the life in a small community.

The story is set in a fictitious village on Lesvos. It is called Megalochori (the real village of Megalochori on Lesvos is above Plomari in the mountains), but it could have been Molyvos, because the village is on the coast and has a castle towering high above it. It’s said that a schoolteacher from Molyvos was the model for the schoolmistress with the golden eyes. She is the widow of the war hero Vranas and is the most beautiful woman of the village.

The main character Leon Drivas is there when Vranas dies in a military hospital. He promises the dying man to bring some personal belongings to his wife Sappho, who lives in the same village where Leon’s family has a summerhouse by the sea. When Leon returns from the war he and his sister go to their summerhouse in Megalochori and he meets Sappho. And you’ve probably already guessed it: he falls in love with the beautiful Sappho. The story is about Leon’s inability to give in to this love because she is the widow of his friend from the war.

And of course, a love affair is no simple matter in a village where all houses have ears and eyes. It is a very traditional village where they will not accept that the widow of a war hero finds another man so quickly. Sappho already turns the heads of all the village men, giving the women even more reason to gossip about this tragic character.

The story is set around 1930 and fifty years later the village is still full of gossips. You can read about this in a newly released Dutch novel, Scattered Clearings (Verspreide opklaringen; not yet translated in English), written by the Dutch writer Peter van Ardenne.

This is the story about Rudolph, a Dutch guy who went to Molyvos in the Eighties to fight his demon: alcohol. A friend advised him to switch the town cafes where beer and jenever flowed plentifully for a sunny island. So lonely Rudolph takes the train and boat to go to Lesvos and ends up in Molyvos.

There is no jenever in Greece but pretty soon Rudolph discovers that there’s as much ouzo flowing in the Greek taverns as ever there was jenever in the Dutch bars.

Rudolph is a foreigner in the Greek village, so he doesn’t care that the villagers know exactly which girls stay at his house and how often he struggles to get home after long hours of drinking. Nor does he care about the attractions of the island that his girlfriends enjoy. Better to go to the beach and have an ouzo party than to visit the Petrified Forest or Eresos.

He is taken in by a group of colourful people who the more they drink, the more discussions they will have, especially about the revolution. But just as Leon in Myrivilis’ novel does not like communism, Rudolph has no sympathy for a revolution. Both main characters dislike politics: Leon because of his experiences during the war and Rudolh, well, he doesn’t believe in anything.

Scattered Clearings is a beautiful book about a person who wants to stop drinking, which is a lot to ask. At the background is Molyvos in the Eighties, when there were few tourists, the only official accommodation being the Hotel Delphinia and most roads – like the one to Eftalou - still dirt tracks. The people of the village were very hospitable but, at the same time, also very gossip-like and quick in judging the libertine life of the foreigners. Even those who come from the ‘faraway’ city of Athens were considered as outsiders.

In those days, many foreigners had been coming to the island for a long time. They were not all like Rudolph, more like Saskia (one of Rudolph’s girl friends) and her father and his friends: writers, scientists and philosophers who were all well integrated in Greek life and knew how to handle the drinking. Lots of these people are still returning to the island and they know most of the villagers.

Peter van Ardenne also returned and has now realised his dream to write a novel. According to him ,it’s a not difficult read: about a cynical person who starts to realise what consequences his behaviour can have. If you were to count the number of bottles emptied during the story, it would be surprising for you not to be fed up with Rudolph who keeps on falling into his own traps – ‘one more glass and then I will stop’. He is cynical and can be pretty blunt, yet the reader will love him. And even though he regularly is too pissed to enjoy the island, there still is magic to be found in the author’s descriptions of island life.

Leon had to fight the demons of his war – the death of his friend Vranas; Rudolph has to fight as hard against his alcohol problem. Whatever demon the model for the Schoolmistress with the golden eyes had to fight is unknown. In Scattered Clearings there is the description how she died: a tragic death worth a novel.

The Schoolmistress with the Golden Eyes, Stratis Myrivilis, Efstathiadis, 2003

Verspreide opklaringen, (only in Dutch): Peter van Ardenne

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

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