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Monday, June 16, 2003

Arts & Letters

Lambrakis to Z: From the Historical to the Mythical

It feels very strange to read Vasilis Vasilikos’s Z again on the fortieth anniversary of Grigoris Lambrakis’s assassination and 37 years after the novel was first published. My initial encounter with it was through Costa Gavras’s film 23 years ago (which I first saw more than a decade after its initial release). Although I generally agree with Peter Pappas’s critical perspective on the fundamental differences in the ways we experience literature and cinema, I remember vividly that Vasilikos’s novel had taken complete hold of me as a reader, in the same way that Gavras’s film had riveted me as a spectator.

I came to the novel and the film in reverse order, but I immediately perceived the former as an excessive preface to the latter. Vasilikos constructed and narrated in a much larger scale what Gavras composed in a necessarily distilled manner. What had struck me then about Z was Vasilikos’s consciousness about the fact that he was writing a work of fiction in which he was nevertheless describing actual political realities and historical events. Invented stories can assume a certain inconsequence, which Vasilikos, to his credit as a novelist, has always understood — and combated. In the event, he took pains to avoid his novel’s over-fictionalization, provocatively (and politically) describing it as a “fictional documentary.” His constant preoccupation, which comes through in the narrative, is to approximate a “lived experience” and thus to express a personal, social, political, and historical condition that does not seem at all to be an invention. This continual exploitation, and trespassing, of the boundaries between fact and fiction defines Z as a novel.

Making my way through Z, it was clear that what Vasilikos had in mind was much more than a reenactment — or, even worse, an estheticization — of historical events. Z also expresses Vasilikos’s desire to set the record straight, to tell the story as it had been. Which is why Z spoke to the way I — and, undoubtedly, countless other Greeks of my generation — felt for the particular events and era memorialized by the book. Vasilikos was not writing history, of course, but he was consciously using Z’s literary structure to bring the reader back to the historical event that not only antedated the novel but also, in a very real sense, determined it.

It is a critical commonplace that the attempt to “recreate” a historical event through a fictional narrative is fraught with complications (to say the least), as literature is so often incapable of enclosing, and faithfully rendering, the actuality of experience (pace the critical platitudes about art’s “richness”). Vasilikos’s language, however, never becomes artificial; quite the opposite, it manages to beautifully reproduce the fact of that “lived experience” that is so seemingly easy to talk about but, in truth, so difficult to describe. One might argue, of course, that Vasilikos’s prose does not in the end achieve the immediate effect of Gavras’s Z (but can any prose really achieve the effect of film), but the novel’s structure and the writer’s narrative method together compose a coherent whole that moves beyond the mere mirroring of reality.

When I went back and read the critical reactions to Vasilikos’s novel, I was surprised that most focused on its ability to present a historical/real event with accuracy and the appearance of actuality. Critics praised Vasilikos’s authenticity, realism, and his consciously objective narrative technique. In doing so, they ascribed to Z a more or less descriptive character. But description in itself does not encourage reading. We want to read for many reasons that have nothing to do with referentiality. Narration-building a story — as well as anticipating what happens next, are some of the things that make us read. Z would obviously have been impossible — or certainly have been a much different work — without its historical/political framework, but it also aimed at something of greater consequence than simply bringing people’s memories back to an event with which they were already familiar.

In Cities of the Plain, Proust’s narrator describes experiencing the past through memory:

I had just perceived, in my memory, stooping over my fatigue, the tender, preoccupied, disappointed face of my grandmother, as she had been on that first evening of our arrival, the face not of that grandmother whom I had been astonished and remorseful at having so little missed, and who had nothing in common with her save her name, but of my real grandmother, of whom, for the first time since the afternoon of her stroke in the Champs-Elysées, I now recaptured the living reality in a complete and involuntary recollection. This reality does not exist for us so long as it has not been recreated by our thought (otherwise men who have been engaged in a titanic struggle would all of them be great epic poets); and thus, in my wild desire to fling myself into her arms, it was only at that moment — more than a year after her burial, because of the anachronism which so often prevents the calendar of facts from corresponding to the calendar of feelings — that I became conscious that she was dead. (p. 783)

In this particular case, distance and memory allow one to experience in a way that is much more effective than the experience of the actual event. The triumph of Vasilikos’s Z is its ability, through fiction, to construct a narrative that gives the reader a powerful experience of the actual events it commemorates. As I was too young to have direct knowledge, let alone understanding, of Lambrakis’s assassination, Z offered me a way to experience it. Vasilikos’s narrative process gave the text a timelessness that allowed me to penetrate the significance and meaning of the events. He succeeded in connecting the past with the present not superficially, but in a way that allowed me to understand what had already “passed” as part of an ongoing continuity and, therefore, of a (perpetual) reintegration. His was not a narrative that promoted discontinuity with the past; quite the opposite, it built a bridge to the past that allowed for a non-reductive reading of the present.

But that was then, of course, and this is now. Reading the novel again 23 years later, I realized that I was approaching it in a way that was fundamentally different from my experience the first time. Then, I was much more interested in the text as testimony to a particular historical period, and political situation. Now, I was surprised to discover that reality was not a concern of mine at all, and did not play a significant role in my experience of the work. This was no longer about a recognizable and specific historical time and place. I was not interested in looking for traces to real events. I was experiencing the novel not only as a work of its own particular time, but as of no time in particular.

Now, the story seemed to me to be much more mythical than historical. The beauty of Vasilikos’s narrative is that, read almost four decades later, it appears to have shed its documentary guise and become truly fictional. Most important, Z’s protagonist is now experienced not as a unique historical character but as a mythical one. Thirty-seven years later, Grigoris Lambrakis has really acquired mythical dimensions. In this transition from history to fiction to, ultimately, myth, Lambrakis is indeed alive today and will remain alive forever. Vasilikos’s conception of Lambrakis is similar in that sense to the Homeric perception of the hero: although there is, tragically, a finite nature to his life, there is no end to his glory.

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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