Yesterday I had a couple of ‘worthy’ projects to get going on, Cosima, Cotters’ England, so of course I farted around on the computer, read the Age and the Guardian, caught up on some bookmarked posts, played a bit of Solitaire, and finally took this little book from the shelf where it had sat untouched for years, read it straight through, no notes, and now am attempting a review while I retain some sense of what it was all about.
Fotini Epanomitis was born in Greece in 1969, the year her parents migrated to WA. The Mule’s Foal (1993) which takes the form of a series of fables about a Greek rural village, is her first and as far as I can gather, only novel, winning her the 1992 Vogel literary award for an unpublished manuscript by a young author. Attempting to find out more about Epanomitis, I googled her (of course) and as far as I can gather she earned herself a couple of degrees and disappeared into academe. The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature gives her a sentence under ‘Fictionalising Asia’ (go figure) while The Oxford Companion is only a little more generous with an entry that is mostly a summary of this book.
The Mule’s Foal is the story of a village of mostly ugly people who till the surrounding fields on the sides of the hills for tobacco and vegetables and run a few sheep and donkeys. The valley below is left to Turks who live on the village’s outskirts. There is a kafeneio where the people gather to drink and eat, a brothel run by the crone Mirella, a priest whose ‘housekeeper’ is Pourthitsa the Matchmaker.
At the centre of the stories is a baby which looks like a gorilla, which is not left out for the pigs, and who grows up to be Yiorgas the Apeface who revives the popularity of the kafeneio with his octopus stews but who eventually dies for love of the prostitute Agape whose look can stop a man’s heart.
This is the story of houses, of what happens in them and between them. This is the story of three houses. There is the House of Stefanos. Stefanos who was for a time the husband of Meta and the father of the feckless son, Theodosios. This is a house laid waste from the start.
Then there is the house of pappous Yiorgos. Pappous Yiorgos is the husband of yiayia Stella and the father of Vaia. This is an old house. A house that belongs to the daughters and the mothers of yiayia Stella. This is really the House of Vaias. This house is mysterious.
Then there is our house. The house I have made with Meta and Agape of the Glowing Face. People have called our house a house of sin, but you can judge for yourself.
Vaia whose face is filled with obscene longing is married off to Theodosios, but after one night together they choose to live apart. Nevertheless a baby results, the gorilla baby.
We go back a generation to Stefanos arriving in the village. He takes pity on Meta who at age 11 is being sold on the streets to keep her family alive, and buys her to be his wife, for two pigs and a cow. The villagers take bets on whether Meta will survive but “Meta survived those six months, and by the time she was thirty she’d had fourteen children and she’d become the biggest and most fierce woman the villagers had ever seen.” Stefanos becomes frightened of Meta and conspires with the other villagers to have her taken away and gaoled. Years later, she returns as a man and takes up residence with Mirella, but that’s another story.
Life goes on. Girls are kidnapped, raped and marry their rapists. One girl becomes pregnant to her older brother. A woman lives openly with her father-in-law. Vaia, by this time nearly 60, begins taking meals to Theodosios in the fields:
Apart from Stefanos (for whom they always kept a plate of beans), no one else should have known about these visits. But by that very same night every man, woman and child of the village knew that Vaia was seeing her husband. For the gossips this was even better than Old Koulousios and his daughter-in-law. There was talk for a while that Vaia was pregnant again. People whispered about all sorts of monsters she might give birth to. They said someone should tell Vaia about the place where Fatime went for her countless abortions.
Millenia of custom is overthrown when the League of Good Men persuade the villagers to drain and farm the marshes in return for which they are paid in tokens. The villagers rebel and burn their tokens but the League brings in gypsies and thieves to replace them, until at last the Good Men lie one by one with Agape, look into her eyes, and die.
This is a profane, exaggerated novella and to be honest I’m not sure what the author’s purpose was in writing it, except maybe to have some fun. It is possible the League of Good Men is a reference to the Colonels, the military junta which ruled Greece from 1967-74, but really I’m just guessing. Still, I enjoyed reading it and wish Epanomitis had written more.
If you’re wondering, the ‘mule’s foal’ is a miracle which occurs during a season of plenty.
Fotini Epanomitis, The Mule’s Foal, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1993