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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Arts & Letters

The Theatricality of Crime: Petros Martinides

Part 1: Reflected Fates


In memory of A. I. Bezzerides, 1908-2007

The necessary knowledge is that of what to observe. Our player confines himself not at all; nor, because the game is the object, does he reject reductions from things external to the game. He examines the countenance of his partner, comparing it carefully with that of each of his opponents.
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Continuing what has now become, almost accidentally, a series on contemporary Greek crime fiction (see this Website for my reviews of Petros Markaris’s books), I now turn to Petros Martinides’s most recent work, specifically, his trilogy, Moiraioi antikatoptrismoi (Fateful Reflections, 2003), H elpida pethainei teleutaia (Hope Dies Last, 2005), and O Theos filaei tous atheous (God Protects the Godless, 2006). Petros Martinides teaches architectural theory and criticism at the University of Thessalonikê; in addition to his publications in his field, however, he has also written books on literature, theater, and comics. Martinides’s multifaceted career is important since his novels reflect his many interests, to say the least.

The first novel in the trilogy, Moiraioi antikatoptrismoi, begins with a reference to a crime scene: the suspicious suicide of a well-known Greek poet and socialite, Maria Markatou, who was once romantically involved with the narrator’s own father, Nick Olmezoglou, a famous architect and scenic designer. Her demise is followed by that of the architect himself—likewise found dead in the bathtub of his hotel room—during a conference in Delphi whose subject is the dramatic cycle of the Atreidae. Around the same time, another murder takes place in the same area. The narrator then informs us: “I was forced to engage myself in a personal investigation about who could have directed the suicide of the poet, who tried to repeat the same scene by killing my father, and who, almost simultaneously, committed another crime next to the sacred Delphic landscape” (p. 10).

In the prologue, we are introduced to the narrator, a cultural anthropologist about to defend his doctoral dissertation who is long-estranged from his father. His academic background allows him to cite readily from literary works in order to contextualize his own experience (often with heavy irony) and reflect upon his social surroundings. This prologue provides us with an almost perfect illustration of what the reader is about to experience over the next 350-plus pages.

The first chapter of the novel takes us back to the narrator’s arrival in Delphi, where he was going to meet his father. The story is generally narrated by the young Olmezoglou, who, although not a detective or police officer, functions as one by observing and constantly analyzing the various elements and characters who appear in the story or are somehow implicated in the crimes committed. While he appears to be an outsider, he, too, is implicated in or at least partly related to the social milieu that he investigates. Critically, the plot is driven from the beginning by the narrator’s desire to understand who his father really was behind his mask of famous public figure, and to discover his own relationship with him. So the question becomes not only that of the killer’s identity but of the victim’s as well, and of the narrator’s ability to determine who his father really was, and of how his relationship to him affects his investigation. For that reason, and because of his relationship to other characters in the story, his search for meaning and order becomes increasingly complicated.

The location itself constitutes another significant element of the story. Most of the action takes place in Delphi, but at the end moves to Thessalonikê, where the crimes are solved. Besides Delphi’s obvious religious symbolism, it possesses a theatrical component as well. Not only does a violent drama (the Atreidae cycle) take place on the stage of its theater, but the crime scene itself takes on a theatrical dimension in its confinement of space and interaction of players. It is an unfamiliar location for a crime novel, and this unfamiliarity becomes indicative of the narrator’s (and, perhaps, the reader’s) estrangement from the place itself, and from the characters that inhabit it, including the narrator’s father. The narrator’s role, among other things, is to serve as a guide, to navigate us through this space and to try to identify and give meaning to its various components and elements. It is not accidental that, with the return of action to the big city (Thessalonikê, young Olmezoglou’s birthplace), the narrator is able to see things clearly and piece together the puzzle of the crimes. At the same time, the author fails to incorporate and explore the specificity of this remarkable city in his own narrative.

It is in Delphi, then, amid discussions and performances of Greek tragedy, that the author introduces a different performance. Upon his arrival, the narrator enters a different social space, one that parallels theatrical space and its performances, altogether new to him, and occupied by a hodgepodge of characters (and their performances). With a sense of detachment and a heavy dose of sarcasm, the narrator introduces us to various theater celebrities and intellectuals, and slowly provides us with more details and information about the context of Markatou’s life and death. Readers familiar with the genre will immediately recognize a common motif. More specifically, the narrator slowly introduces us to the microcosm, a plethora of characters and situations, in which he must labor to identify the person(s) responsible for the crimes. It is like a stage occupied by a number of characters that all, at least theoretically, appear to have a reason to kill. The narrative attempts, on one hand, to slowly penetrate and possibly remove the masks from the characters’ faces in order to reveal their true selves so as to “see” who would have had reason to commit the crimes. One can say a lot about the negativity involved in that kind of representation, and how it reflects on reality and the representation of a specific social group, but that is the least interesting part of the narrative. To quote from Steven Marcus’s introduction to Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op:

[The detective] actively undertakes to deconstruct, decompose, and thus demystify the fictional—and therefore false—reality created by the characters, crooks or not, with whom he is involved….His major effort is to make the fictions of others visible as fictions, inventions, concealment, falsehood, and mystifications. When a fiction becomes visible as such, it begins to dissolve and disappear, and presumably should reveal behind it the “real” reality that was there all the time and that it was masking (p. xxi).

And yet, the central role of theater and theatricality in Martinides’s work also underlines and emphasizes the significance of vision and the gaze, both in theater and the detective novel as well. The meaning of seeing, the relationship between the object of vision and its subject, the inverse relationship between the visible and invisible, or one’s ability to see clearly, are central to both theater and detective or crime narratives. The exchange and relationship between seeing and being seen (as articulated not only in the actual story, but also in Markatou’s autobiographical book, which provides the narrator with specific clues about the murders) become central to the narrator’s ability to solve the crimes. In an era of surveillance and omnipresent cameras, the one seeing easily slips into the role of the one being seen. He becomes the object of someone else’s gaze.

In the end, the key to the murders is an anonymous note that the killer writes: “And there where everyone is called M. One who sees is seen, indeed. But one who asks a lot, dies!” (p. 29) The note addresses the question of the relationship and exchange between the one who is seen and the one who sees, or more specifically how the one who sees is also under surveillance. The note reminds the narrator of Velasquez’s painting, Las Meninas, a work of art that interrogates the act of representation itself. As Michel Foucault noted in his famous reading of this particular painting (to which Martinides briefly refers) in his remarkable work, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences: “…man appears in his ambiguous position as an object of knowledge and as a subject that knows: enslaved sovereign, observed spectator” (p. 312). The painting addresses the peculiar relationship between the subject of representation and its object. One can occupy both positions. For Foucault, there is an exchange between subject (one who observes and sees) and object (one who is observed and seen), and, quite often, it is a reversal of roles. In Martinides’s story, the entire plot and key to the murder are based upon this ambiguous relationship and reversal between object and subject. This problematic of seeing and visual representation is central, not only because of the narrative’s focus on theater, but, more important, through the very theatricality of the crime. The act (or performance) of crime is captured on tape. Further, while the narrator himself appears to be the subject that investigates and sees, he is himself under surveillance. He who sees is thus also seen. This idea determines the relationship of many characters in the story, as well as the relationship between victims and perpetrators, and, finally, between the murderer and the narrator who investigates and sees.

Martinides’s novel works because he is able to take a very simple and often-used story line—a murder in a restricted environment (a hotel, a house, a train), multiple suspects, an investigator who puts things together—to intelligently address uncommon and often complex ideas about the technologies of visual representation, the interplay between different genres, and the relationship between image and language. The story takes us to different realms of investigation, sometimes criminal, sometimes esthetic or political, often linguistic. One could argue that, in the end, the meaning itself is disseminated through these different realms.

Nonetheless, in reading it, one is soon exhausted by the novel’s constant literary references and quotations, and its endless discussions of theater and anything else that crosses its author’s mind. While I often look for a detective or crime novel to build upon a central idea or motif by successfully interweaving different and heterogeneous elements or ideas, a writer should be able to employ complex ideas and keep the narrative simple at the same time. It is supposed to be a crime novel, after all. Martinides could have benefited from some editing since he is often carried away by his desire to comment on everything and a narcissistic tendency to expose the reader to his own knowledge and experience. I often felt that he was trying too hard to convince us that he had done his homework, that he could successfully write a crime novel while offering us his opinion on art, esthetics, theory, etc., at the same time. The problem is, this practice undermines the authority and reliability of Martinides’s own narrator. In reading the book, I often found myself wondering about the meaning of all those redundant and often tedious allusions and references. In the end, isn’t Martinides guilty of what he accuses some of his characters of doing? Early on in the book (p. 42), he writes, “Perhaps that is the epitome of the Greek intelligentsia: people who, in the middle of eating and drinking, mix up everything—sex and philosophy, politics and art, humor and the Bible—without any hesitation in staining the topics on which they focus in such a mixed-up fashion.” Indeed.

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