How World War II played out in Greece
MY LAST LAMENT
It would be hard to count all the multitude of novels about World War II. But among the thousands written in English, few have focused on how it played out in Greece.
Of the two that come to mind, Evelyn Waugh made the 1941 Battle of Crete — in which he fought — the linchpin of the first volume of his “Sword of Honour,” in which the British retreat from the island robs the hero of his faith in human nature. Olivia Manning was also in Greece during the war. She was evacuated from Romania to Athens when the Germans marched into Bucharest, only to witness them invade Greece, draining it of food and other supplies, and terrorizing its people. In her “Balkan Trilogy” she gave these experiences to the central character Harriet Pringle, who sees records the ways war saps the civilians of country after country.
This is the history that James William Brown digs into in “My Last Lament.” Unlike Manning, who writes from the point of view of English outsider, his heroine and narrator is Aliki, a Greek villager tape-recording her memories of life during the war and the civil war that followed it. She got her tape recorder from an American researcher interested in lamenters — women who traditionally went to wakes and funerals to wail long dirges for the deceased.
Aliki is one of them, and the researcher wants her to record her laments. But Aliki cannot because they are extempore, consuming her with grief and pouring from her mouth in words she cannot remember. She is on firmer ground describing her life in the 1940s and early 1950s, when the Greeks had so much to grieve and lament about.
Aliki starts with the death of her father, shot by a German firing squad for concealing his squash plants. She’s taken in by Chrysoula, a neighbor with a small boy called Takis. Despite the Germans in the village, Aliki and Takis have fun — hunting for wild greens and snails, or playing cards — until Chrysoula takes in Sophia and her son Stelios. They are Jews, fleeing Athens to avoid being rounded up and taken to Auschwitz.
Sophia has a little money so Chrysoula is able to feed everyone on black market supplies. And Stelios becomes Aliki’s good friend, helping her learn to read from a copy of “The Iliad,” and introducing her to the traditional puppet theater and its myriad stories about Katzagionis, the wily baker who always survives.
Takis is jealous of Stelios. That jealousy never disappears, and it dogs Aliki and Stelios. By the end of the war Chrysoula and Sophia are dead, and the three young people are on their own, wandering first to Athens, where Stelios finds his family’s house, and eventually to Crete, where fighting among partisans is so intense that villagers live in almost as much dread as they did under the Germans.
Aliki and Stelios grow into young adults during this chaos. Takis grows too, but he also suffers periods of mental breakdown. He does things he doesn’t remember. Aliki feels responsible for him, often reluctantly so because she doesn’t know what he gets up to, and suspects the worst.
James William Brown deftly handles large amounts of unfamiliar information about the war in Greece and its grueling aftermath, and also about Greek village traditions and ways of thinking. He tells Aliki’s story by having her move between the past she is recording and contemporary events in her village, where a few survivors of the war still live. She returned there in 1960 when life had settled down — though animosities live long in a country that has had a history of fierce infighting in the two centuries since it wrested its independence from the Ottoman Empire.
At times, the logistics of Aliki’s post-war travels with Stelios and Takis raises questions of verisimilitude, and some readers would probably appreciate explanations of such phenomena as the British occupation and partisan fighting at the end of the war. The great strength of the novel is the powerful characterization, especially of the young Aliki, Stelios, and Takis. They come bounding off the page with their own concerns, their own points of view, and their own demons – not least about what has happened to their parents. Chrysoula and Sophia’s housekeeper Yannoula are also strongly drawn.
Combined with the descriptions of the puppet theater and the evocations of ancient Greece — which had its own history of devastating warfare — the deftly drawn characters with their heartwrenching quests makes this a gripping and illuminating tale.