Jour­neys of the Greek di­as­pora

Ste­fanos of Li­mas­sol Call Me Emil­ios

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Christopher Bantick Christopher Bantick

By Anna Kan­nava Ilura Press, 235pp, $24.95 By Emil­ios Ky­rou Self-pub­lished, 254pp, $30

AL­THOUGH both of th­ese books are set partly in Greece, it is the jour­neys made from there to Aus­tralia that res­onate through­out them. Both are mi­gra­tory sto­ries, each with en­tirely dif­fer­ent out­comes.

Call Me Emil­ios is a clas­sic mi­grant story, par­tic­u­larly when one con­sid­ers the fact its author, Emil­ios Ky­rou, is now a jus­tice of the Supreme Court of Vic­to­ria. I grew up in a Melbourne sub­urb that be­came a cen­tre for the Greek di­as­pora in the 1950s and 60s, and Ky­rou’s story is that of many Greeks I still know — those who ar­rived with a suit­case, no English lan­guage and an in­tense de­sire to bet­ter them­selves and their fam­i­lies.

Ini­tially, the book is set in Greece, specif­i­cally, the vil­lage of Sfikia. The back­story of a ru­ral vil­lage life of hard­ship and sac­ri­fice goes some way to ex­plain­ing the mo­men­tous de­ci­sion to come to Aus­tralia, as Ky­rou’s par­ents did in 1968.

Work­ing in fac­to­ries and tak­ing any job avail­able, even to the risk of dam­ag­ing their health, Ky­rou’s par­ents gave their all for their chil­dren. This is some­thing Ky­rou ac­knowl­edges in poignant grat­i­tude. More­over, while he is now at the very top of the le­gal pro­fes­sion, he has never for­got­ten his ori­gins.

While the book fol­lows the tra­jec­tory of an able boy who was suc­cess­ful at school and then later at univer­sity, it is the colour that Ky­rou gives this ex­pe­ri­ence that adds to the book’s force as a mi­grant nar­ra­tive. Part of this is found in how he was treated at Broad­mead­ows Pri­mary School. Ky­rou re­counts the level of school­yard racism with sear­ing clar­ity; it went be­yond name call­ing and marginal­i­sa­tion be­cause of his Greek back­ground. The fall­out of racism shows this grad­u­ally can erode an in­di­vid­ual’s self-worth — or be a spur to suc­cess. In Ky­rou’s case, he not only re­mem­bers the daily sac­ri­fice of his par­ents for his and his brother Theo’s life in Aus­tralia, but how he wanted to be re­garded as hav­ing as much value as the next per­son.

In one sense, it is a sim­ple story of a de­ter­mined mi­grant son mak­ing good, yet to as­sess the book on this level alone would be wrong. What Ky­rou demon­strates is that one life can be a lens to sharpen our aware­ness of what the mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence was like more than 40 years ago, and still is for many. Many mi­grants strug­gle with is­sues of iden­tity and de­spite this achieve ex­tra­or­di­nary suc­cess — an ac­com­plish­ment both coura­geous and heroic.

How very dif­fer­ent this story is from Anna Kan­nava’s Ste­fanos of Li­mas­sol. Kan­nava’s death from can­cer in 2011 was a dou­ble tragedy — first, that it was a life cut short too early, at the age of 51, but also be­cause that death robbed Aus­tralia of a fine writer and creative mind, par­tic­u­larly given Kan­nava’s achieve­ments as a film­maker.

This book re­flects the mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence in two ways: the flight from Cyprus by many Greek Cypri­ots in 1974 af­ter the Turk­ish in­va­sion, and the re­turn to Cyprus by Despo, a mar­ried and child­less woman of 40 who vis­its the land of her teenage years.

The shadow of the 1974 in­va­sion is never far from the cen­tre of the nar­ra­tive thrust. While the book is not po­lit­i­cal or na­tion­al­is­tic in its tone, it refers to this mo­men­tous event in re­cent Greek his­tory by way of peg­ging the prompt for Despo’s fam­ily’s rea­son to leave.

Even so, Ste­fanos of Li­mas­sol is at its heart a deeply ten­der love story. There is the kind of re­straint and re­gret here so en­dur­ingly evoked in JL Carr’s A Month in the Coun­try. Despo re­turns to Cyprus to stay with her aunt leav­ing her hus­band, Alekos, at home in Melbourne.

While in Li­mas­sol, she en­coun­ters Ste­fanos, her first love and a man still un­mar­ried but flir­ta­tious and at­tracted to Despo. Ste­fanos is known as a wom­an­iser. He mea­sures out his life through the lovers he has had. Still, this Lothario in a white suit is frag­ile and it is Despo’s re­turn that high­lights how pur­pose­less his tran­sient life has be­come.

Their at­trac­tion is im­me­di­ate and yet Ste­fanos too is torn. He is in love with Katya, a Rus­sian pole dancer, but he can­not for­get the in­sis­tent ap­peal of Despo. The in­tel­li­gent use of back­story en­ables read­ers to un­der­stand the kind of women whom Ste­fanos pur­sued and mostly con­quered. This ranges from the age­ing pros­ti­tute Mar­garita, his kin­dred spirit, to Eleni, the most de­sir­able girl in Li­mas­sol.

While the novel asks us to be pa­tient with Ste­fanos’s phi­lan­der­ing as a way of un­der­stand­ing his char­ac­ter, it is Despo who holds greater in­ter­est. She has in­fin­itely more to lose, not least a faith­ful hus­band, should she be­come Ste­fanos’s lover. What oc­curs is per­haps a sur­prise, but yet, so right.

We do not hear the kinds of re­flec­tive comment from Ste­fanos that Despo gives through­out the book. She eval­u­ates whether she can have Ste­fanos, whereas Ste­fanos reck­lessly as­sumes it to be the case. It is a mo­ment of painful recog­ni­tion when she says: She told her­self that that man rep­re­sented noth­ing more than the prom­ise of pas­sion as un­der­stood through the feel­ings of a child, most of which had eluded her ever since.

This is a pro­foundly mov­ing story and one that will re­main with read­ers. Many of us have been there and Anna Kan­nava knew it.

Post-war Euro­pean mi­grants ar­rive in Melbourne

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