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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Book Reviews

Illegal Zone

The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life. Men lived among mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realised that they were poetical: it may reasonably be inferred that some of our descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the mountain peaks, and find the lamp posts as natural as the trees. Of this realization of a great city as something wild and obvious the detective story is certainly the Iliad….The lights of the city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are the guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the reader does not….A city is properly speaking more poetic even than countryside, for while nature is a chaos of unconscious forces, a city is a chaos of conscious ones.
—G. K. Chesterton, A Defense of Detective Stories

After reading and reviewing Petros Markaris’s Deadline in Athens, his first novel translated into English, I was motivated not only to read the author’s other two novels (as yet unpublished in the United States), but also to examine more broadly the contemporary tradition of Greek crime fiction in its social and cultural context. Markaris’s second book, Amyna Zônês (Zone Defense, 1998), shares some of the characteristics discussed in my review of Deadline in Athens for this Website (see my “Athens Noir,” September 8, 2005). The novel begins with the now-familiar Inspector Haritos and the interruption of his vacation on a Greek island, first by an earthquake and subsequently by the discovery of a soccer referee’s body. From the story’s very beginning, the reader glimpses Inspector Haritos’s attributes: he is a very intelligent but often cynical individual whose grouchy if not misanthropic nature would have made him a perfect character for Molière. The earthquake provides the author with the opportunity not only to sketch Haritos’s personality, but to provide a subversive description of some of the most visible aspects of contemporary Greek life and the modern Greek psyche. Through “peripheral” events, whose importance to the plot of the crime story is minimal, Markaris provides insight into the society that frames his world. We read, for example, about the islanders’ reaction to the earthquake and the role of the media in shaping public consciousness and outrage toward the state. In a classic, if perhaps rather exaggerated, scene, the islanders welcome a helicopter bringing help to the earthquake victims:

The helicopter touches the cement, the door opens, and a young woman about 25 years old comes out, full of make-up and adorned, one of those we called minxes [sousourades] in my village.
“We’re here!” she cried jubilantly.
Suddenly the people burst into applause and she was moving full of airs and graces. Behind her, however, instead of tents and blankets, appeared a bearded man with a camera on his shoulder, and two guys who unloaded boxes, tripods, and spotlights.
“Hey, they’re from the television,” a disappointed voice is heard, and the clapping goes flat, like a soda whose bubbles are settling down.
“Are you from the television?” The mayor approaches the girl ready to draw his sword.
“Later, later,” she brusquely responds. “I want to see the collapsed houses first. Do you have any here?”
“No, luckily we don’t, but….”
“I told you, you won’t find anything,” says the cameraman to the reporter. “We came for nothing; let’s go.”
“Impossible,” she says and grasps the microphone. “We’re late and I’m going to miss the window.”
“But do only the demolished houses matter?” says the mayor, full of indignation. “We’ve been in the streets, under the rain, for five hours, without lights, telephones, and we don’t dare return to our houses; and no one cares for us. What should we do? Do we have to demolish our own houses for you to show some interest?”
“This is it!” she cries enthusiastically. “The criminal apathy of the state! Who’s the mayor? Do you have a mayor here?” (p. 22, this and all subsequent translations are mine)

Although the story begins on the island, we soon move to Markaris’s more familiar urban territory, Athens—a city plagued by a garbage strike, a familiar experience in the summer months.

The center of Athens is littered with the garbage that the rain sweeps along. You reach your destination crossing the National Park of garbage: Milko boxes, plastic bottles of Coca-Cola, empty beer cans, and empty containers of Fage yogurt. And let the radio claim that the sanitation workers’ strike is over. The trash remains unassailable. Obviously, they’re waiting for it to dry in the sun and then come out and collect it. (p. 133)

The urban space reflects the decay and corruption of the world that Haritos navigates in his pursuit of the people involved in the referee’s murder. It is also quite clear that, by mapping this urban territory, Markaris traces and reflects on the changing city, and on how that change from the old to the new country and culture is mirrored by the urban topography. In addition, upon his return to Athens, the inspector is asked to investigate the murder of Dinos Kousta, a nightclub-owner and well-known figure of Athenian nightlife. Moving slowly and following Ariadne’s thread, Haritos comes face to face with the complicated milieu of crime and the “diaplekômena symferonta” (or “interlocking interests,” to use one of the most popular phrases in Greece today), in which the world of nightclubs and nightlife mixes with the behind-the-scenes reality of soccer. The structures of power are no longer clearly distinguishable or identifiable. As it turns out, Kousta was also the owner of lower-division soccer teams and therefore knew the referee whose murder Haritos first set out to investigate.

Slowly and methodically, Markaris traces and adumbrates the fabric of modern urban life and the disintegration of more traditional social norms and structures. Sometimes directly, but often not, Haritos becomes the witness to a life and a world in which everyone seems to be a guardian of some secret—a world in which (to repeat the cliché) it is impossible to distinguish between the innocent and guilty, the good and evil. This is a world in which the political actuality and social fabric are transformed on a regular basis, as they become increasingly part of a more globalized form and order. Of course, that makes it all the harder for Haritos to keep up with the investigation, since it is not just a matter of finding the person(s) behind the crime. In the event, he is less a police officer than a crucial witness whose gaze reflects a more complicated and less transparent political and social arrangement. An anachronistic and often conservative figure, he is not always able to make sense of what is taking place even within his own life and family.

Markaris’s world is a place where notions of legality and legitimacy have been deconstructed, where the interests of the politicians and people like Kousta “interlock.” Through his references to soccer “interests” (or, as they’re called in Greek, “paragontes”) and populist political figures, the enormous economic stakes involved in soccer, the relationship among various agents of the underground economy, and the influence of polling firms, Markaris masterfully portrays a world that is very familiar to Greeks. After all, what Greek is unaware of the colorful soccer paragontes and team-owners who, through their actions and behavior, often monopolize the nation’s attention? Who doesn’t know of their well-known connections to the world of nightlife and organized crime? Or of the financial scandals and wrongdoing that have become part of the country’s daily routine? And, finally, what about the daily media bombardment of polls that tell Greeks everything they presumably need to know?

In the middle of all this stands Inspector Haritos, navigating and negotiating carefully since there is no longer a clear demarcation between who is inside or outside the bounds of legitimacy. Markaris’s fiction makes clear that very few people are really innocent: everyone is morally implicated in this lousy world. As the title of the novel warns, Haritos finds himself confronting a “zone defense” that makes it difficult to reach the goalkeeper or even the opponent’s area. In this story, Haritos is not only vulnerable and exposed to his superiors’ intrigues and ambitions, but indeed to the entire political structure and context in which he operates. And if that were not enough, he has to deal with his poor health. Having suffered a minor heart attack, Haritos appears to be a more vulnerable man, who has to negotiate his power and role not only with his superiors but also with his own wife and daughter (the latter becoming his official driver at one point). The figure of Markaris’s detective has become more human, and thus more susceptible to both political and natural forces. By the end of the novel, Haritos appears to jump from one world and text to another, momentarily transcending himself and recalling some of the classic detective figures of earlier times—even while his action brings him back to a hospital bed.

Markaris’s second novel contains some of the main elements that we encounter in his first book although this one seems to have more of a local flavor. One could argue, however, that, in the end, the Greek world described in the novel is just another example of similar phenomena that we can easily discover everywhere. Still, despite its heavy dose of cynicism, Markaris’s fiction mirrors contemporary Greek life—or, if you prefer, a reflection of Greek life as presented daily by the media. We might debate the accuracy of this representation of modern life and its anxieties, but we would nonetheless have to agree with Markaris’s claim in a recent interview that the “detective novel becomes more and more social, and in its Mediterranean form, more political. It’s not going to be long before we define the detective novel as a social one with a detective plot.” (Eleuterotypia, Bibliothêkê magazine, 8/5/05)

Overall, this is a compelling novel, and one that faithfully records a society in transition and the increasingly internationalized nature of its organized crime. Markaris is a great storyteller who is particularly talented, in his simplicity and liberal dose of humor and irony, at describing a culture suffering the strains of modernity. What is missing in this novel, however, is a more conscious engagement with the past—and, more specifically, Greek history—as a way of understanding the present, and its personal stories and identities. Nonetheless, although the author departs from the turbulent and complex past of modern Greece that he touches upon in his first novel, he will return to it in his third and finest novel, O Tse Autoktonêse (Che Committed Suicide, 2003), which I will discuss in my third and last piece on Markaris’s work.

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