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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Book Reviews

Athens Noir

Deadline in Athens by Petros Markaris. Translated by David Connolly. Grove/Atlantic, Inc., New York, 295 pages, 2004, $23.

Courtesy of Grove/Atlantic
Deadline in Athens is the first detective novel by Petros Markaris translated and published in the United States. Some American readers might be familiar with Markaris’s name, however, from his collaboration with the Greek director, Theo Angelopoulos, in the screenplays for Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), Eternity and a Day (1998), and, most recently, The Weeping Meadow (2004). Markaris’s fiction continues the tradition of the modern detective novel introduced in Greece primarily by the legendary writer, Yannis Maris, in the 1950s and 1960s, and Markaris’s novel, Nykterino Deltio in the original Greek published in 1995, is the first of three novels (followed by Amyna Zônês [Area Defense] in 1998 and O Tse Autoktonêse [Che Committed Suicide] in 2003) featuring the character, Inspector Haritos.

Following many of the traditional characteristics of the detective genre (see especially the work of George Pelecanos, reviewed in these pages), the novel takes place in contemporary Athens and focuses on the attempts of homicide detective Costas Haritos to solve the murder of an Albanian couple.

A bare mattress was laid on the concrete floor. The woman was sprawled on it on her back. She must have been around twenty-five….The man beside her must have been about five years older….The rest of the house looked like the house of anyone else who leaves one hell to go to the next: a folding table, two plastic chairs, a gas stove. Two dead Albanians is of interest to no one but the TV channels, and then only if the murder is sensational enough to turn the stomachs of those watching the nine o’clock news before sitting down to dinner. In the old days it was biscuits and Greeks. Now it’s croissants and Albanians. (pp. 2-3)

Initially, the crime appears to be a straightforward case involving Albanian immigrants in Greece, but the more Haritos investigates, the more complicated the case becomes. As Haritos reminds us in his description of the stereotypical attitude of the Greeks toward Albanians, “with terrorism, robberies, and drugs, who has time to worry about Albanians? If they had killed a Greek, one of ours, one of the fast-food- and crepe-eating Greeks of today, that would be different. But they could do what they liked to each other. It was enough that we provided ambulances to take them away” (p. 4).

Soon, however, things change, after a famous reporter (a Greek version of Geraldo Rivera), investigating the couple’s murder as well, is found murdered. At this point, the inspector’s investigation leads him into numerous directions that reach and threaten the lives and reputations of people from different levels of Greek society. It is no longer a matter of being Greek or Albanian. The more Haritos investigates, the more frustrated he becomes by all the different people and paths in the case, which involves not only multiple murders, but also child-smuggling, the release of a (supposed) pedophile from jail, secret relationships, and internal leaks. The story focuses on Haritos’s efforts to reconstruct and bring together these loose ends, as he ultimately presents both his superiors and us, his readers, with a coherent, linear narrative about who has committed the crime(s) and why. As is typical in this genre, we expect that the detective (or whoever is involved) will solve the case. In that respect, there is nothing different here. What makes the story interesting, however, is both Markaris’s skill as a storyteller and the way he represents the space of the city as a signifier of different social and political relations. The crime(s) and Haritos’s investigation allow the author to mark the historical territory and context of the country and its various elements.

Contemporary crime fiction (and I am thinking here of writers like George Pelecanos, Andrea Camilleri, and Henning Mankell) typically reflects on real-life social conditions within the constructed space of fiction. Likewise in Markaris’s novel: although the story’s focus appears to be on the crime, and on the psychology of its characters, it is a means at the same time to comment on contemporary Greek life and history, and on specific issues such as immigration and xenophobia, media and class. In this sense, the story, although local, makes a larger statement about contemporary life and its transformations in the age of global capitalism. It reflects on the anxieties of modern life, on the permutation of life by the mass media (Haritos at one point refers to a journalist as a “modern day Robespierre with a camera and a microphone”), and on the spectacle this creates. Significantly, Haritos is well aware (and, when he forgets, is reminded by his superiors) that he must carefully negotiate his position within a specific political discourse since he faces not only the political power and influence of the media, but also the power of the capitalist elite that is threatened in one way or another by his investigation. In an ironic twist, it is the old enemy—a former leftist prisoner whom Haritos, then a cell guard, met in jail during the dictatorship—that provides valuable information to Haritos about the case (in an act of solidarity among people of the same class perhaps).

Although the story takes place in Athens, we do not hear much about the bleakness of that modern city or how urban space and topography determine and shape the lives of individuals. We do not learn about the social transformations of the city in the way that Pelecanos, for example, talks about Washington, DC, or Mankell about life in Swedish towns. But we are told about the traffic and how long it takes the inspector to get from one place to another. Some of us, who grew up and spent considerable time in his city, can sense, perhaps, the parallels between this specific urban space and the miserable and empty life of Inspector Haritos, a figure of modern-day alienation who has closed all channels of communication with and affection for his wife, and whose private time is spent reading dictionaries. The inspector is essentially a middle-aged, racist, and misanthropic character who maintains cynical views on everything that constitutes his reality, and who manages to maintain a distance from human suffering.

In other words, Haritos is a police officer who was trained under the military junta and whose life is still haunted by that period. The novel addresses the ghosts of that traumatic period in modern Greek history and mirrors a world and a country that is suspended between its traumatic past and a present under constant transformation and change. Markaris returns to the past, perhaps, in order to emphasize the collapse of ideology or to remind us that former binary oppositions (between left and right, for example) are no longer valid. It must be said, however, that I found the relationship between the inspector and Lambros Zissis, the “retired leftist” (as he calls himself) and former prisoner of the junta, less than convincing (even in the spirit, one might add, of what the Greeks call ethnikê symfiliôsê, or national reconciliation), primarily because the author does not elaborate further on the effects of that past on contemporary culture and relationships. Nevertheless, Markaris uses Haritos’s investigation and the detective story in general as a way of investigating and reflecting on contemporary Greek life. In other words, Haritos not only investigates and presents all the facts about the crime to the reader; at the same time, he embodies the modern detective (or storyteller) who attempts to give us a multilayered picture of life in modern Greece. Markaris’s fiction (like his screenplays) is a journey into contemporary Greece. What makes it so interesting is precisely how it not only depicts an individual life marked by personal disappointments and crises but, more important, how it captures the nature of a country trying to recover from the catastrophes of the past and face the uncertainties of the present and future. The author successfully reveals the anxiety of a country trying to deal with change, and with the ensuing flow of illegal and legal immigration, the rise of violence, and the way that the mass media are affecting traditional forms of communication and even social structures. In the world of Markaris’s fiction, the old intolerance has been replaced by a new one: the Albanian immigrant is the other now, to be kept isolated. Through the eyes of Inspector Haritos, we become witnesses to the particularities of modern urban life, and to the specific conditions of market capitalism and its resulting alienation.

Apostolos Vasilakis teaches literature and philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
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