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Greece’s Fear and Yearning Crystallized in Fiction

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

By Christos Ikonomou

The recent history of Greece is a story of depravity and devastation. When the funds from European Union programs arrived in the 1980s and ’90s, government officials of all parties squandered them or used them to dig foundations for bed-and-breakfasts in the middle of nowhere — sites without access roads, electricity or water — only to abandon them, while farmers falsified their records to receive grossly inflated subsidies, allowing corruption to soak through every cell of society. After the global financial crisis of 2008, the economy shrank by a quarter, unemployment reached 25 percent and property prices collapsed. The longest recession any capitalist economy has ever witnessed, the Greek crisis plunged the country into social unrest and prompted more than 350,000 professionals to migrate abroad.

“In order to save Greece, first we have to lose it,” Christos Ikonomou writes in “Good Will Come From the Sea,” and it is through this dark but discerning prism that he considers the precariousness of his country’s fate. A novella consisting of four connected stories, the first installment of a projected trilogy, “Good Will Come From the Sea” is set on an imaginary island in the Aegean that serves as a proxy for Greece — a place to which displaced Athenians are forced by unemployment and other economic necessities to flee and start their lives again.


The island, which resembles a pair of handcuffs, is a complete world unto itself, with cliffs, bays, lakes and streams, olive groves, caves, bridges, mills, chapels, lighthouses, harbors, boatyards and a volcano. Here, the Athenians are bullied by the natives, who regard them as invaders and fear they will try to take over their island. To the Athenians, the islanders are “the rats,” who try to pass off Chinese garlic and Dutch tomatoes as local produce.

“Greece has more cartels than Colombia,” Frankie, a transplanted Athenian, mutters. The Athenians have arguments with fishermen and taxi drivers; a baptismal font is stolen from a church to be sold for copper; and an idealistic newcomer named Tasos is tied to the hood of his truck and run through the carwash for the crime of trying to sell scallions and tomatoes at the local farmers’ market. Tasos subsequently disappears into a cave, walking alone into the darkness. When another character, who dares to return to Athens to work for a wealthy businessman, also disappears, his father roams the island begging anyone he encounters to help him find his son. “If you lose your father they call you an orphan,” the father laments. “If you lose your wife they call you a widower. If you lose your child, what do they call you?”

In Ikonomou’s world, the island is a prison and the sea forms the bars. Yet he approaches the grimness and desperation of his characters’ lives with lightness and humor, in an idiomatic Greek seamlessly translated by Karen Emmerich. In one story, the narrator notes the Chinese tourists who arrive on the island in droves to find a local boy named Elvis, a survivor of three shipwrecks; Chinese girls dressed as brides have their photographs taken while sitting on Elvis’s lap. The Chinese perceive the boy’s fate as a sign of supreme luck, an irony not lost on the island’s struggling residents. Ikonomou is fond of oxymorons — life only starts to mean something once you understand that life has no meaning — and of contradictions, especially those embedded in romantic encounters: “people who say you’re my forever person on Monday and by Tuesday say you’re getting too clingy.” He registers the astonishing beauty of the Aegean landscape next to the mundane details that have regrettably come to represent Greece — “the Heineken and moussakas, the ouzo and sardines.” In his prose, the lyrical and the rough are always intertwined.

“Good Will Come From the Sea” follows Ikonomou’s “Something Will Happen, You’ll See,” another story collection about the lives of working-class Athenians, which won a prestigious national award. Together, these books make a persuasive case for regarding Ikonomou as Greece’s most original and perceptive chronicler of his country’s fears and yearnings. “If you’re in need, if you’re on the outside, you’re a foreigner everywhere,” a woman says to her husband in “Kites in July,” the last story in “Good Will Come From the Sea.” Fear, Ikonomou suggests, can make you a foreigner in your own land, yet it’s also what makes you human: “If you haven’t felt like a coward you won’t ever be a man.”

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