How World War II played out in Greece

MY LAST LAMENT

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Claire Ho­p­ley Claire Ho­p­ley is a writer and edi­tor in Amherst, Mass.

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.

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