There is a singular sense of feverish neutrality in Thanassis Valtinos’ writing. A cinematic poise, a travelling eye, a dramatist’s instinctive flair for tension, voice, climax, the lull that contains more menace than any thundering explosion; a perpetual game of darkness and light, an omniscient narrator who never divulges all he knows.
Valtinos was born in 1932 in Karatoula, one of the villages comprising the community of Kastri, the epicentre of the events, stories, lives, remembrances of Orthokostá, his 1994 novel which raised a whirlwind of reactions, attracting resounding praise and damning accusations when it was first published. He studied film in Athens then lived in West Berlin as a recipient of a DAAD fellowship, and in the US thanks to the International Writing Program (IWP), experiences which involved both displacement and a better sense of self-awareness; closer focus and a wider perspective.
Valtinos places great emphasis on authenticity, on an unflinching genuineness, on pure, unadulterated art and expression. He is someone who staunchly relishes communities, human give and take, language and echoes, stories. Orthokostá is an exploration of hatred, of the naturalness or not of the so-called instinct of survival. It questions the weight of history, of circumstances, of individual and collective reason, unreason and guilt. The narratives are like the oscillating echoes of souls – buried and unburied alike, innocent and guilty, all equally troubled, unable to find peace or to fall silent. The Greek Civil War – any internecine, fratricidal war – is a perennially unfinished business, an unendurable, festering wound that must, even if it cannot possibly, heal.
Whether the clash was between ideologies or between petty personal spites or interests, the culpability, the necessity for guilt and the imperative for contrition, remains universal, unmitigated and vital. People died indiscriminately – shot as traitors (ideological or national) or had their throats slit with the jagged tops of tin cans simply for being where a victim was savagely sought. The living had to survive somehow, with nightmares and especially with fear, suspicion, persecution and compromise. A mixed sense of weariness and euphoria followed the Civil War in Greece. Newspapers, once bought, were carried home rolled into cylinders to hide the front page, concealing the potential political leanings, intellectual curiosities or loyalties. At the same time, people pent up their feelings of anger, remorse, injustice, despair or disgust, in order to go on, to rebuild from the real ruins that surrounded them.
The powerful distinctiveness of Orthokostá is Valtinos’ strategy of channelling history, human experience, a micro as well as a macro focus through a documentarist narrative – a novel where fiction sustains reality. Through individual witnesses, multiple perspectives, a prismatic overview, the novel attempts to unlock boxes containing palimpsests of memory, to summon ghosts no longer belligerent yet eternally feisty, yearning to divulge truths, untruths, personal suffering, delusion or empty triumph.
Orthokostá is an epic nekyia. The dead speak, on their own or through the living, and will disperse in the end unable to provide a prediction for the future, a solution, an omen or a redeeming prophecy. Their spectral reality is the inescapable bind that has held Greece captive ever since – a prisoner to itself, to its own conscience and self-definition. The countless voices want to speak freely. When the unnamed interviewer intervenes to clarify or goad with questions and corrections, memory becomes fragmentary, resisting, contradictory and self-doubting.
One cannot select the voices of the dead, listen to some while muffling others, and this is a scathing critique, through self-exposure, of fanaticism and partisanship of all hues and colours. It is also a questioning of internationalism, of borderlessness, of a forced effacement of identity. Of what it means to belong, to think freely, to build and safeguard a community. Valtinos retains throughout the sense of rootedness, of an idiom intimately belonging to those sharing blood ties, traditions and a common earth: he too walked the same dusty goat-tracks and shady gorges as the voices speaking.
Orthokostá is a denunciation of horror, of cruelty and savagery, of the stifling of the most basic human instincts – humaneness and understanding. It is a severe j’accuse against a Left that betrayed the liberal principles it claimed to possess, a caustic condemnation of Soviet communism which for Valtinos caused incalculable material and spiritual damage: the “dictatorship of populism” that led 120 artists and writers, including Valtinos, to issue in 1989 a volume of texts in protest against what they saw as the destruction of a world. It is also a furious reprimand against the structures that should have held strong, the upholders of the law – where law there was none. An inevitable thorny subject is British involvement in the tribulations of the Greek Civil War – the irreconcilable, catastrophic rift between the Foreign Office and the SOE, the equivocal, ruinously contradictory decisions, instructions and directives that were issued, enforced, retracted midway, leaving all sides adrift in a storm.
Valtinos never humanises cruelty. Yet he does invite our deepest humanity when he confronts us with it. Every single testimony is a vulnerable confession of endurance, frailty, moral failure or monstrous outright guilt, above all of that Socratic state of aporia – the perplexity that cannot find its way to a solution. Valtinos demands that we share the role of witnessing our own humanity and inhumanity. He throws us right in the middle of this microcosmic labyrinth, from where we must find our own Ariadne’s thread if we are to transcend its death-narrative. As such, his novels, Orthokostá in particular, have the quality of parables: absorbing, multifaceted, urgent, simple and vitally significant.
This is a powerful narrative, a novel which by its unorthodox form produces a profound effect on the reader. As Valtinos insists, the caveat is that it should be read as a novel, a novel of the truth, and not as total history. Nor is it a total representation of the participating sides on a larger scale: this is neither all of Greek Resistance nor the Greek state, it is the microcosm of Kynouria, even as Valtinos confronts us with the terrifying potential that microcosms can have on the world at large.
Reviewed by Mika Provata-Carlone
By Thanassis Valtinos
Translated by Jane Assimakopoulos and Stavros Deligiorgis, with a foreword by Stathis N. Kalyvas
Published by Yale University Press, August 2016
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.
Read an extended version of this review at Bookanista
Image: Mika Provata-Carlone (Linotype, 2014)