Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Reports from the Days of the Great Devastation



Karalis, Vrasidas. The Demons of Athens. Blackheath, NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2014.


"Call me what you like," begins the narrator, "a deserter, a traitor, a drifter; but I must write down what I saw."

From this dramatic address to the reader until the last line, Karalis pulls us by the shoulders into a conversation that is at times whispered and intimate, and at others one where he positions us as a sounding board as to a man raving; frequently we are cornered and eloquently harangued, while at other times we are guests wandering the dreamscape of a man "breaking away from the topographies of [his] beginning. Without narcissism or hubris:  re-tracking and re-enacting." Karalis is the archetypal “insider-outsider” who does not so much return to make his report, as drag us into the line of fire alongside him.

After the dramatic conversational opening (although conversation seems far too demure a term for the relentless, roller-coaster trip through a Greece devastated under Austerity policies between 2011 and 2013) we land with the narrator at Athens Airport. The customs official comments to Karalis (and ourselves) that "we are all broke" but wears, as is carefully noted by the author, a "Cartier watch and ... thick gold chain around his neck”. The narrative is thus framed with an image that recurs in increasingly monstrous proportions over the expanse of book: that of a belligerent, buffon-esque ruling elite bewailing their poverty and woes whilst existing, parasitically, off the everyday Greek citizen. Of these power-wielding elite Karalis has nothing good to say: "Greek language has a long history; in the medieval period, politicians, the politicals to be precise, was the name given to prostitutes. Actually prostitutes have a story to tell whereas these rejects of life can only destroy stories." (97)

But those stories are the ones Karalis is determined to tell— stories of those ordinary Greek citizens who must forage in dustbins, fight and kill, break laws, take drugs, drown their sorrows and questions in Turkish soap operas, or—and this is perhaps the most disturbing and unhinging for the narrator—even drown their own critical faculties, and with them the ability to act with agency and bring about change, in the notion of Greek history. “Two hundred years of independent life without politics,” Karalis writes, “History has become our own specific strategy for ignoring the present. History is our religion.” That the Greeks are stupefied by their own sense of "specialness" and their upholding of Antiquity—Karalis argues—means they are devouring themselves, and with their identity any last traces of true democracy. The irony of this is something he brings repeatedly to the fore, both in expository sections, and also by way of his personal interactions with priests, bus companions, tour guides, family and old friends; and politicians, such as here in an interview with a powerful right wing politician:

“A man from the conservative party talks to me … ‘We have managed to establish and impose a language without references—a language that distorts all attempts to find the truth, or anything truthful. Ethics and conduct for example are words which can only be used ironically — despite their weight in English or French. In our own language, which has produced them, they can be used only scoffingly and dismissively. We have suspended the valorizing function of language; so Greeks feel free to say whatever they like without ever thinking about consequences. And I can assure you: they are very, very happy with their value-less language! … They are Greeks only if they exist in a repressive society; their personal identity is consolidated through repression. They must define themselves through lies.” (173 -174)
 
Karalis, a student and teacher of Greek cinema for many years, in some ways has written this book in the style of a textual documentary, filled with conventions and motifs of the beloved old films that the narrator finds solace and validation in as he explores Greece. We see it in the way he tries to examine both the banality of existence in Greece as juxtaposed with the more elegiac passages that paint Greek society and culture in broader strokes. Passages such as: "the silent eye [camera] moves with affection and empathy over the shabby and cheap objects of everyday self-definition, the bed, the chairs, the table, the shoes, the clothes, the floor, the wall, the dust, the windows, the dishes, the food-remains. They are sitting next to each other; they whisper, they talk about absence and the significance of being in use." (78) Even his evocations of dialogue come with visual details, bordering on directorial instructions regarding how we might play the scene in our heads: "Horror falls into the roomthe atmosphere become ominous  even the lights feel the stress, flick flick flick ... Are they on strike again?” (79) Here he ties in the visual motif of the film as his literal lens through which to try and make sense of a country imploding; Karalis’ excursions into actual Greek cinemas are not only a form of relief to the chaos and violent social disruption outside (the burning of an iconic cinema, the destruction of computers by radical elements at the University, a bomb attack at a shopping mall, huge Muslim protests) but a way to present and make some sort of sense of the confusion, as in this passage:

"We arrive ten minutes before it starts. No more realism now: we enter the universe of Greek expressionism, as Nikos Koundouros imagined and instituted it back in 1955. The film is the most important testimony to the dark, secret and arcane society, unable to deal with itself, its duplicities, its dissimulations, its insincerities ... The silence of all viewers sets the tone -- and then the black and white magnificence explodes on the screen. Shadows move, shadows talk, angular shapes and pointed sharp objects cut through the anxieties of a society that is struggling to regain balance. ... Mother of course looks around: 'Lovely cinema,' she says. (91)

One of the hallmarks of Karalis' writing is his juxtaposition of intense, introspective passages with a quick, ironic gesture that throws the frame into some sort of humorous relief (is this the Australian side of him showing through? Is this one of the fingerprints of the outsider/insider?), this comment by his mother being a case in point.

The conceit of direct address to the reader feels right for this work—it brings the political and social crisis up close and creates an almost visceral quality to the experience. In his acknowledgements Karalis thanks Professor Stephens for helping take care of “stylistic excesses”, and indeed the writing style seemed to favor heavy, dense sentences and thick syntax. Sometimes this creates an unnecessary opulence, and even at times obscures the meaning, even as it conveys the suffocation and oppression of his time in Greece. "All Greek royals,” for example, “had the distinct propensity for kitsch decors and proletarian exhibitionism. The noble minimalism and luminous linearity of folk architecture never entered their world of asphyxiating baroque pretense ...On their emptiness the unfulfilled convergences of social classes imposed a sense of the manque on the citizens and instituted gratuitous hyperactivity without purpose or destination ... Their absolute insensitivity to aesthetics abolished all ethical valuation of social experience" (153)  Then again there are moments of contained and lyrical description, such as “It was a windy day, and leaves from dried rose petals were flying like lost souls around the cemetery.” (163)

Karalis has written a searing, brave and savage indictment of Greece, a sort of sociological Titanic whose destruction is both terrifying and compelling. He is attuned to the inner struggle he faces as he potrays Greece thus—it is far from an easy task on a deep level, yet one he feels, on reflection, that perhaps has its roots in his childhood. He shares the memory of a school excursion (one of several flashbacks throughout the work) to the Parthenon, the "Sacred Rock"  as he terms it. He notes his own act of sacrilege—his calling out that the emperor has no clothes—as he tells his teacher “this is just a heap of stones … It is an unlivable space,” and recalls the “thunderous slap on my face that threw me to the ground.” (89) At the time he remembers his teacher calling him a “sacrilegious little shit” and in a sense The Demons of Athens is a reprise of that role. He begs a good friend at one point, "’Give me some ideas,’ I implore, ‘to heal me and keep me awake. During these weeks I have plunged into an abysmally foreign country, and cannot find my way out.’ She says: ‘I have no time for your emotional and intellectual entanglements. This country is always your country. It raised you, it created you, it ascribed an identity to you. It even gave you something more important: the strength to negate and denounce it.’” (221)

And denounce it he does, but not without moments of affection and a sense of tragedy that rivals the catharsis of Oedipus Rex—Karalis speaks as one who finally understands, but even with “the saving grace of knowing”, the blood pours from his blinded eyes. 



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