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Friday, April 16, 2004

Book Reviews

Facing Facts

Facing Athens: Encounters with the Modern City by George Sarrinikolaou. North Point Press, New York, to be published in June 2004, 144 pages, $18.

Born in Athens in 1970, George Sarrinikolaou was 10 when he and his parents emigrated to New York City. Until recently, he visited Athens for a few weeks in the summers. Several years ago, Sarrinikolaou returned for a three-month, off-season sojourn, the basis for Facing Athens. Although the following is not revealed in the book, the author’s bio states that Sarrinikolaou was educated at Cornell and Columbia and now works in environmental policy.

You don’t need to know about my youth and education, but it seems only fair to say up front that I taught (in English) at the University of Athens in 1981-1982, and since then have a spent about a third of my time in Athens, rarely leaving the “daktylios,” the inner ring. I live in Exarcheia, Athens’s Four-A section: addicts, anarchists, aliens, artists.

As a long-time sometime resident, I’m not the intended audience for Facing Athens. Probably most readers of aren’t either, for much of what Sarrinikolaou says about the city and Greeks will be known to anyone with more than a tourist connection to Greece. Still, it can be useful to compare one’s perceptions of a place with another’s. In his prologue, Sarrinikolaou says he will walk where most Athenians and no visitors go. His most promising chapter starts in Omonoia Square, where historically resonant streets join and where recent immigrants gather. He walks toward the Acropolis on Athênas Street, buys black-market cigarettes from a Russian woman, and gives them to a person he assumes is Kurdish. Sarrinikolaou can’t or doesn’t communicate with either. He knows there are Asians and Africans just to the south, but he doesn’t walk there, doesn’t look around for people who could tell him what Athens is like for immigrants: the Pakistani grocer, the former professor from Iraqi Kurdistan, the Nigerian manager of a Western Union shop — all English-speakers.

Sarrinikolaou visits two Roma (gypsy) communities, but again has trouble communicating and spends less than an afternoon in each. Lacking information, he doesn’t ask a sociologist or interview officials or read about gypsies. He does, though, sympathize with their plight. He notices they are selling drugs but sees little difference between gypsies and those Greeks who are breaking other laws to make money. This seems a possibly perceptive comment until the reader realizes that Sarrinikolaou’s empathy for the gypsies, as well as for the denizens of Omonoia, comes more from his personal identification with these outsiders than from any significant knowledge of them. Although Sarrinikolaou claims to be heroically facing alien Athens, he’s mostly seeing his own alienated face.

Sarrinikolaou goes to Kêfisia, a posh Athenian suburb, and observes the designer boutiques. He follows the route of then-prime minister Kôstas Sêmitês from parliament to Sêmitês’s apartment near Kolônaki Square, an equally posh neighborhood in central Athens. In both places, Sarrinikolaou finds conspicuous consumption — of objects by the shoppers and of people by the gazers sitting in Kolônaki. If immigrants are difficult to understand, these brand-name scenes are easy to mock. Sarrinikolaou does. He has neither the time to wait and watch nor the subtlety to see how life in these spots might not conform to his fly-by judgments. A man who sleeps on a mattress in a rented room, Sarrinikolaou dislikes rich “others,” just as he sympathizes with poor doubles.

Not sufficiently moved to curiosity by either squalor or wealth, Sarrinikolaou seeks intensity at a bouzouki club, several churches, and three soccer games. He scorns the waste of money, the expensive flowers and drinks at the club, and he doesn’t dance. He believes elderly parishioners are mechanical in their rituals, and he finds the soccer matches barbaric (although he also seems a bit disappointed that violence doesn’t erupt). Lacking enthusiasm for anything, Sarrinikolaou puts himself where its absence will make him feel estranged, and then blames the place.

Sarrinikolaou’s most detailed and thus best chapters are not about the city but about personal experiences he is forced to undergo for an “extended” time. He spends an Easter weekend with family and friends in a Pêlion village. He records the usual specifics (the lamb, the toasts, nature), but there, too, he doesn’t share his companions’ feeling for the occasion. Our hero retreats from the village when attacked by fleas. Back in Athens, Sarrinikolaou spends painful hours with his grandfather and family in a horrible hospital, a public facility he doesn’t identify. When compelled to observe minimal care and doctor bribes, Sarrinikolaou shifts from his usual low-level melancholy to anger and then grief.

In the final chapter, where Sarrinikolaou visits the sites of his four childhood homes, what has been increasingly clear is made explicit: this book is about and for himself. A child exile, Sarrinikolaou refuses to face up to the adult city. Although poverty and domestic violence marked his youth in Athens, Sarrinikolaou still has a touch of the disease — nostalgia — that afflicts some other diaspora Greeks. But instead of converting nostalgia for the city that he says he loved into a quest for what remains (besides his actual homes) and for the good things that could replace his memories, Sarrinikolaou has gone looking for material that will indict the city. And if the findings don’t indict, Sarrinikolaou twists them, as he does the “mechanical” parishioners, to add to the charges. Along with nostalgia, Sarrinikolaou suffers from another flaw English has adopted from Greek: hubris. “I’m Greek, I know Greek, I know Greece, I don’t need to investigate and scrutinize”: these are the unstated assertions underlying the book.

From what we come to learn in passing about Sarrinikolaou, he’s just not the right guy for the job of writing Facing Athens. He’s a non-smoker and vegetarian. He seems socially awkward. He doesn’t appear to have dates and believes that money endows native men with special sexual potency. He lacks a mentor who could explain Athenian matters Sarrinikolaou doesn’t have time to look into. He would like to be sensitive but instead is smug about Greeks’ failings. He rarely sees or thinks comparatively. How is Athens any more or less money-mad than his New York City? Are immigrants treated worse in Athens than in Rome? But the quality that most cripples the book is Sarrinikolaou’s anhedonia. He takes unreserved pleasure in two sights: poppies and swallows at the Parthenon and an empty soccer field. Sarrinikolaou is the kind of guy who would go to Paris and complain about the river.

Jewish friends of mine half-jokingly ask of a new book about Israel or Judaism, “Is it good for the Jews?” Athens and Athenians will survive Sarrinikolaou’s defacing. The Parthenon will remain, despite Sarrinikolaou’s complaints about the people who visit it, the photograph-takers and cell-phone talkers. Greek will continue to be spoken, sometimes very well by immigrants who must learn the language to make their way. My worry is that visitors returning from the islands or Olympic events might pick up Facing Athens at the airport and expect to find revealed the secret face of the city they didn’t explore. I can’t deny Sarrinikolaou’s experience, but most of what he chooses to offer is superficial, and he shows no interest in finding the nooks and crannies that Athenians, even those who have been in the city only briefly, come to know and treasure. Just in my neighborhood, he could have: talked immigration at the Greek Council for Refugees, eaten great cooked vegetables at Barba Giannês’s taverna, watched Albanian teenagers playing soccer with intensity and joy in a fenced basketball court on Strefê Hill, interviewed Afghans camped in Areôs Park, gone to two outdoor cinemas showing non-commercial movies, discussed methadone and music in Exarcheia Square, and observed plenty of Greeks enjoying the pedestrian-walkway cafes and funky shops of what Sarrinikolaou calls the “specter center.”

I almost never read travel books about Athens; the most recent was Patricia Storace’s Dinner with Persephone. Like Sarrinikolaou, Storace was fond of collecting negative anecdotes and making large social generalizations, neither of which were particularly convincing. But she did have strengths Sarrinikolaou lacks: she had studied Greek culture and spent a year in Athens. She was also a poet, rather than a journalist, and she found or created language that could register subtleties of scene and behavior. Sarrinikolaou is an energetic walker but a pedestrian writer.

What I think Athens needs in English is not more visitors’ “impressions,” but a native-born or resident cultural archeologist like Mike Davis, who has written two learned and passionate books about his city, another polluted basin, Los Angeles. In City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear, Davis displays a polymath’s knowledge of the ways a beautiful habitat has been destroyed by greed. Although Sarrinikolaou works in environmental policy, he devotes only one paragraph to the historical and economic factors that produced the jammed, sprawling, and nefos-clouded contemporary Athens.

Unlike some Greeks I’ve met, I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but reading Facing Athens I wondered about the people who would publish such a book. Do they know anything about Athens? Do they think Facing Athens reveals important unknown information? Do they believe the book shows a moving tragedy of displacement? The city (perhaps any contemporary city) deserves rage and love, informed anger at the politicians and profiteers who have made much of the center ugly and oppressive, knowledgeable love of the city’s entertaining oddities, still-generous natives, and interesting newcomers. What Sarrinikolaou gives Athens is a self-absorbed and self-pitying exile’s frustration and disenchantment that masquerade as reportage and analysis. What Sarrinikolaou gives his publisher — and American readers — is a work implicitly claiming the superiority of American life, a valuable commodity in these days of national self-absorption. And yet another work that makes Athens seem frightening, to be avoided. Which makes me think: Maybe the book is good for Athenians. Now all those Greek Americans and library philhellenes who might come over and make the city even more crowded will stay in the US with Sarrinikolaou.

One last thing about Sarrinikolaou: Athens is not his New York City, but a writer of Sarrinikolaou’s limited talents would never be able to publish a travel book about New York. Once again, Athens is the victim of the for-profit exploitation that the author condemns.

One last thing about me: if I’d known that a travel book like Facing Athens could be published by a major American press, I’d have written a better one myself. It would have been about Athens, not, like this paragraph, about me.

Tom LeClair’s novel, Passing On, was published last year by, which will release The Liquidators this winter.
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