Journeys of the Greek diaspora
Stefanos of Limassol Call Me Emilios
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