The street rises and falls like a wave, surges again, swells, and falls again. These undulations give a sense of the neighbourhood, with its crests and hollows, its gentle slopes. It is a street leading into the city, when this story begins, once upon a time, at two in the morning, on a densely populated hill, on the night of 21 and 22 December 2010, on Irakleous Street, in Neos Kosmos, Athens, Greece.
‘What does a severed head look like?’ wonders Agent Evangelos.
He is standing in the street facing the Batman, a bar diminished by everything about itself: the green phosphorescence of its sign, the cheap alcohol it serves and its regulars, all participants in the death of a world, still devoted to the songs of yesteryear, and their youth pinned up on the wall – a photo of Theodorakis, a view of the Acropolis taken from the terrace of the Galaxy (another bar, on the twelfth floor of the Hilton), the faded colours of Greek summers on ads from the 1970s, and the round yellow sun on Olympic Airways posters. Every evening in Athens, the Batman’s customers carry on as if nothing had changed, although so much is dead and gone and despite all the pitfalls that await, the menace outside, beyond the window of the bar, on this street where Agent Evangelos is standing, uncertain about what to do next.
If there hadn’t been that phone call, that conversation with his colleague – with that severed head to blame for it all – this story would have been very different, it wouldn’t have taken the same form, would have been impossible to relate, have had neither head nor tail – ouch! He’d have ordered another drink and sat with his eyes closed listening to Kazantzidis; and if he had waited a little longer he would have been joined by Irena, the owner of the only jazz club in the capital worthy of the name.
When she comes to the Batman, Irina makes her appearance around 1.30, accompanied by a few musicians, an employee and her barman, an entourage drawn along in the turbulent wake of a ferry to the islands. Not for anything in the world would she miss an ‘after’, as she calls it, rolling the ‘r’.
Agent Evangelos likes Irina, her plump figure, her outrageous assertions, her inexhaustible affections, her generous love for the masculine gender – a generosity of being that turns her corpulence into a distinction. It would have been a different story, set here in the Batman, but very soon Agent Evangelos must be on his way. He goes back inside, for he has left his jacket on a hook under the bar. He pays what he owes, and leaves.
‘What does a head severed from the body look like?’ he wonders. A phone call has come; he must leave immediately.
Just a few more minutes and Agent Evangelos might have encountered Irina. That approaching sound of an engine is she; with one finger she manoeuvres the four-by-four, which has just stopped in front of the Batman. The passengers on the rear seat look out; all of them have seen the same things: glimpses of the city, the confused message of the streets, voiceless graffiti on the filmstrip of the walls, the weight of lowered shop blinds, the greenish glow from the forest of balconies, the squashed oranges on the asphalt, flattened candle flames. They have seen all of it go by, but driving along they passed no remark.
By Nicolas Verdan
Translated by W. Donald Wilson
Published by kind permission of Bitter Lemon Press. © Bernard Campiche Editeur 2015;© English Translation, W. Donald Wilson 2018.
Nicolas Verdan was born in Vevey of Greek-Swiss parents. He was a prominent journalist before turning to writing fiction full-time. He divides his time between Switzerland and Greece. He has won a number of literary prizes for his previous novels. The Greek Wall is his first work available in English.
W. Donald Wilson has taught at universities in the West Indies, the United Kingdom, and at the University of Waterloo. In 2013 he was a finalist for the French-American Foundation translation prize.
Photo of Nicolas Verdan © Louise Anne Bouchard