Cave of Silence, Kostas Krommydas

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I didn’t buy many books while I was away, because I was carrying a few with me, plus a kindle, because I didn’t see that many English language books for sale in the second-hand bookstalls, because you know, well, weight. Still, I kept looking. On Santorini I browsed an apparently famous but ruinously expensive bookshop in Oia without being tempted, and then in an ‘ordinary’ bookshop back near our hotel the nice lady recommended I try this book by one of Greece’s more popular authors (She said. I can’t find anything about him).

Krommydas presumably wrote Cave of Silence in Greek as there is a very small credit “Translation-Editing: Maria Christou”, with the publishing info, although there is no Greek publication date. Some of the English constructions are a little clumsy, and some of the proof-reading leaves a bit to be desired (but that is true everywhere, these days) – as in horse’s reigns, for instance – but it reads well enough. The style is a little florid, though that is a function of it being a romance and not of the language.

Finally, as it is “based on a true story”, presumably the massacre by Germans of locals on a Greek island towards the end of the Second World War, I have looked up a bit of the background. The unnamed island* which is the focus of the novel was one of a group (the Dodecanese), with Greek speaking inhabitants, off the coast of Turkey, seized from the Ottoman Empire by Italy in 1912.

In 1939, Italy under the dictator Mussolini invaded Albania and threatened northern Greece. Greek forces resisted successfully until they were overrun by the German Army in 1941. The Dodecanese islands remained under Italian rule until 1943, when Mussolini was deposed. He formed a puppet government in German-controlled northern Italy and the Germans assumed control of the islands, withdrawing only towards the end of the war, when the islands finally reverted to Greece.

The novel takes place in two time-frames. ‘Today’, the narrator, Dimitri, is the male lead in a feature movie being made on another unnamed island in the Dodecanese group. The female lead, Anita, is German of Greek descent. They are in love.

Untamed passion set the rhythm of our movements, while the first rays of sunlight peeked through the thin curtains fluttering in the gentle breeze. We stayed there kissing, breathless, waiting for the intensity of our feelings to subside, letting our selves wallow in them.

“Good morning “, I said, brushing away the long brown locks that fell softly in her eyes. Her smile lit up the room. “Good morning”, she replied softly.

Dimitri has undertaken to spread his uncle’s ashes on the island, from which his mother and his uncle, her older brother, had fled as children, ahead of a German massacre in which their parents had died, at the end of the War. There is a mystery around Dimitri’s mother’s refusal to ever return to the island.

Back in Berlin, Anita’s mother is nursing her dying mother, Eleni, who came to Germany from Greece as a war-bride, also at the end of the war.

‘Before’ is the years up to and during the War. In 1938 Elini is a young woman on the island being brought up by her widower father. She wishes to marry Manolis, a young man who, with his brother operates a flour mill, but first she must spend two years at the University of Pisa where she has a government scholarship to study Italian (the Italians suppressed the use of Greek in island schools). A photograph is taken of her departure for Italy in which she is pictured being held by Manolis. By the time she returns Manolis is about to depart for Greece to fight the Italians. He is captured and for a number of years his whereabouts are unknown.

‘Today’ Dimitri takes a few days off filming and goes to the island, putting up in a b&b, meeting some locals, spreading the ashes. In Berlin, Eleni is about to die and wishes to get some stuff off her chest. There are strange coincidences about Elini’s drawings of a Greek island which Anita’s mother has not seen before and photos Anita has sent from the island neighbouring the one where she is filming. And of course there is the old photo of her mother in the arms of a strange man.

In 1945 Elini has been befriended by one of the occupiers, a German officer in a film-making unit. She rejects his advances. Manolis returns to the island to lead the resistance. Eleni and Manolis finally get to spend one night together. Manolis is betrayed by an informant. The Germans round up the islanders and threaten to kill them if Manolis doesn’t give himself up. He does, but many of them are murdered anyway. A few escape into the mountains and two children escape by boat. Eleni is taken, unwillingly, to Berlin by the German film-maker, who is killed in the last days of the war by Russian bombs.

Meanwhile, Dimitri is joined on the island by Anita, and from one of the escaped villagers they hear the story of the massacre, in which Eleni features as informant and traitor. Dimitri realises that his mother and uncle were the two children who escaped, and that they had apparently been betrayed by Anita’s grandmother. The breach between the lovers is immediate and unbridgeable.

There are of course a few more twists which it would be un-reviewerly of me to reveal, as the novel draws to a satisfactory conclusion.

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Kostas Krommydas, Cave of Silence, Dioptra, Athens, 2016. Translation-Editing: Maria Christou


*Early on, the author refers to the island as Krifó or Kryfó which appears to have the meaning ‘secret’. Googling ‘Krifos’ brings up “an isolated small cove that is located under rocks full of caper and it has a cave. Sweet water streams out of the cave’s bottom” on Leros in the Dodecanese Islands – this pretty much matches “the cave of silence” of the title, though Leros is probably more settled, has more towns, than the island in the novel.

Kalymnos, where George Johnson and Charmian Clift spent a year (here) is also one of the Dodecanese Islands.

Travels in Greece, Charmian Clift

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Charmian Clift (1920-1969) was a well-loved writer, though more by women than by men probably, famously married to journalist/author George Johnson (1912-1970). The two met at The Argus in Melbourne in 1946 when Clift was a fledgling reporter and Johnson was an editor and renowned war correspondent. They began an affair, for which they were sacked – mostly because Johnson was already married but also, I think, because they were not discreet.

They moved to Sydney, Johnson secured a divorce, they married, and they began co-writing novels, winning a prize with High Valley in 1948. Next stop was London in 1951 after Johnson obtained a prestigious position there with Associated Newspapers. But after only a few years they moved again, to Greece, with the intention of living as cheaply as they could, as full time writers of fiction.

Clift and Johnson were ten years in Greece, one year on the island of Kalymnos, close to the Turkish coast, the remainder on Hydra where they used all their savings to purchase a house. They had two children, a boy and a girl, Martin and Shane, born in Sydney, and another son born on Hydra. Clift wrote about living on Kalymnos in Mermaid Singing (1958) and about their first year in Hydra in Peel Me a Lotus (1959). Travels in Greece (1995) is a combination of the two.

Johnson had had little early success as a novelist, tending to rush his writing, and was probably happy to co-write with Clift, to take advantage of her greater attention to style and detail, although he continued also to produce novels on his own, finally achieving critical and financial success only after the end of their time on Hydra, with the fictionalised account of his boyhood, My Brother Jack (1964). Johnson, followed later by Clift and the children, then moved back to Australia. Clift was a script writer on the ABC TV series of My Brother Jack which aired in 1965, and began writing columns for the Sydney Morning Herald, soon achieving a large following.

In 1969 Clift, who like Johnson, had a drinking problem, suicided with an overdose of pills. Johnson’s entry in the ADB (here) says that Clift may have feared what Johnson might reveal in the second part of his fictionalised biography, Clean Straw for Nothing (1969) which came out a month later. This implies firstly that Clift had something to fear, presumably Johnson’s jealousy of her real or imagined affairs on Hydra, and secondly that she had not seen any earlier drafts of Johnson’s novel, which you would think unlikely, given their former collaboration.


At this point it occurs to me that the subjects of this and my previous review both died by suicide. If you are thinking along the same lines then I strongly suggest you talk to someone about it. I had a shot at it myself, as a young man, when my first marriage failed, and as it happens I was found and resuscitated. I have since had occasion at different times to rely on family, friends, workmates and counsellors, and they have all helped.*


Clift and Johnson’s time-out began on an impulse. They had often talked, when “outside in the Bayswater Road the night was the colour of a guernsey cow, and on the pavements the leaves lay in a sad yellow pulp”, about chucking in the London grind and moving to an island:

Perhaps if that very day we had not met, by accident, a friend newly returned from Greece who had asked me to come into the BBC to hear a radio feature he had made on the sponge-diving island of Kalymnos …

It burst like a star, so simple and brilliant and beautiful that for the moment we could only stare at each other in wonder. Why the devil shouldn’t we just go?

So we did.

We had no means of communication other than sign language, and we had a bank account that didn’t bear thinking about. Still, we thought we might be able to last for a year if we managed very carefully and stayed healthy. We had for some years published a novel every year or so, not very successfully, but we thought that it might be just possible to live by our writing when our capital ran out.

Clift’s writing is straightforward and clear, bringing to life the people they live amongst, and mixing in lots of geographical and historical background. Her own family we don’t get to know so well. George it seems is generally upstairs typing while Clift gets on with the shopping and cleaning, or he’s with her down at the local bar, and the kids are off playing. I enjoyed both accounts, but the first, Mermaid Singing, more than the second, Peel Me a Lotus. The former has a friendlier feel, as Charmian and the islanders, with the utmost goodwill, learn to understand each other and become friends. So much so that, at the end of the book, it comes as a bit of a surprise when they decide to move on.

Surprisingly, disappointingly, there is nothing at all about Clift’s and Johnson’s collaborative writing, or indeed about Clift’s life as a writer, at all. From that point of view, Park and Niland’s lightly fictionalised account of their first year together as struggling writers in Sydney, at about the same time, The Drums Go Bang (my review), is both more informative and more entertaining.

The people of Kalymnos are friendly, but seemingly without personal boundaries, living as they do (did!) in houses with a single bedroom and one sleeping platform for maybe 10 people. Locals wander in and out of the Clift/Johnson house at will, all the family’s activities are observed by hordes of children, it is not possible to walk anywhere alone, without people making it their business to be your company.

Peel Me a Lotus begins with Charmian pregnant with their third child – only ever called ‘baby’, as far as I can tell – on Hydra, having purchased a two storey house from the many empty since the glory days of the previous century, but waiting for the interminable renovations to be completed before moving in, and waiting desperately for the return of the only half-way competent ‘midwife’, before giving birth.

This book is more concerned with the activities of the other expats – not Leonard Cohen, who doesn’t arrive on Hydra until not long before the Clift/Johnsons leave – though George and Charmian still have friends in the local community. Clift is concerned that the charm of the island is being lost as it becomes a summer holiday destination for Athenians, as well as the latest resort for the usual suspects attempting to live cheap.

For it is now apparent that the yearly passage of the smart, penniless, immoral, clever young people – Creon’s ‘bums and perverts’ – has had its inevitable effect. This beautiful little port is to suffer the fate of so many little Mediterranean ports ‘discovered ‘ by the creative poor… We are watching the island in the process of becoming chic.

You will be pleased to hear that ex-Mrs Legend and I found, and the Greeks we spoke to agreed, that Hydra is probably still the least spoiled of the tourist islands. Perhaps the town, pop. 3,000, is too small to ever become a major tourist destination. Hope so!

These are interesting and well-written books with just one discordant note. Lisa at ANZLL in a recent review (here) on Clift’s newspaper columns published as a collection of essays after her death as Trouble in Lotus Land, Essays 1964-1967 (1990) said that Clift had disappointingly expressed the view that she had left school at fourteen because there was nothing they could teach her that would be “of the slightest use”. It was obviously a view she held seriously, leaving her children to the vagaries of Greek village school education, in fact, on the evidence of this book, not paying them much attention at all.

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Hydra, 2017. I believe the cave where Clift and her kids swam is just outside this photo, to the right

Charmian Clift, Travels in Greece, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1995. Previously published as Mermaid Singing (1958) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959)


I’m now home after a marvellous trip, my first and only probably. On the evidence of this past month, if I were to spend that ‘mythical’ year in Europe it would be in Paris, where I could pick up the language, where there is so much to do, and from where the whole of Europe is accessible by Fast Train network. Returning to earth, I have a couple of books left to review, Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers written while he was living in Hydra; and Cave of Silence (2013) by Kostas Krommydas, recommended to me by a friendly lady bookseller on Santorini.


*Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia1300 78 99 78

The Mule’s Foal, Fotini Epanomitis

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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