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Monday, March 17, 2003

Book Reviews

The Few Things I Know About Vassilis Vassilikos

The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis by Vassilis Vassilikos. Translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich, New York, Seven Stories Press, 2002, 356 pages, $24.95.

I first met Vassilis Vassilikos almost 25 years ago in New York, and I remember being very shy in his presence — he was, after all, famous — despite his genuine warmth, natural charm, extraordinary lack of self-consciousness, and strangely poignant, ironic humor (attributes I thought then, as I do now, of a deeply humane character). I don’t remember what was discussed over dinner — the conversation was, for the most part, between Vassilis and my husband, Peter — but I realized immediately that Vassilis was also terribly kind, for he insisted upon including me (despite the fact that I remained tongue-tied) by speaking English rather than Greek, of which I understood not a word then (something Peter and our Greek friends always forgot to do). I also remember being struck by his flawless English, by the two packs of cigarettes he carried (both of them opened, and most of them smoked by the end of the meal), by his rather handsomely unkempt appearance, and by the fact that, at dinner’s end, he studied me unabashedly and pronounced my face bucolic. It was a word I looked up later that evening.

We became friends, despite my being mortified at my deficiency in my own language and the fact that I struck anyone as rustic-looking. And because Vassilis doesn’t know how to be otherwise, he also became a benefactor of sorts — of many sorts, I should write. One day, he bestowed a used VW upon us. In 1983-84, we rented (for next to nothing, for we didn’t have that much) his house in an Athens suburb during the nine months Peter spent as a Fulbrighter. Vassilis — then a director at ERT, in the heady days of Papandreou’s first socialist government — often turned up on the doorstep to drag us off to dinner or to film openings, literary readings, bouzouki clubs, and day excursions, which he used as excuses to feed us and free us from our (partly self-chosen) isolation. Years later, when we were visiting Vassilis in Rome, he insisted upon taking us to Spoleto, where the linden trees were in bloom and opera arias drifted upon air. He was, this is to say, naturally and unceremoniously generous (and not only with us); and, just as impressive to my very impressionistic mind, there seemed nothing in this world outside his curious, incisive grasp of the immediate.

Vassilis had — and has — a mercurial penchant, however, to wrap the immediate in broader context, and when he mused aloud (which he did constantly), it was always to reveal that what we see is never the only thing there, that what is said is only a part of the unsaid, that everything begs interpretation and reinterpretation. That he was incapable of sarcasm made his oftentimes very funny asides poignant, and the irony of his remarks underscored their profundity. Once, in Loutsa — which qualifies as one of the ugliest seaside towns on the face of the earth — Vassilis paused before a half-constructed, squat cement home and surveyed the pylons with their steel-rod reinforcements jutting from the first-floor roof to the height of an imaginary second-floor ceiling. There you have it: the Greek dream, he told me. In Kolonaki Square over coffee one evening, he surveyed the passersby and the scene, and noted sadly: There are two classes in Greece: the eponymous and the anonymous. Of Bellini, Vassilis remarked under Spoleto’s lindens, he had no doubt the man hated women: only misogyny could have inspired those soprano, voice-ruining arias. Of a fellow writer who had returned to Greece from abroad and remained there during the dictatorship, only to leave Greece for abroad after the fall of the junta, Vassilis said to us, in a bemused moment but with great sympathy: The poor guy, always out of step with history.

The last time Peter and I saw Vassilis, almost a decade had transpired. I realize now that our meeting then probably occurred in the same year that his “revised, definitive” Livanis edition (1996, in Greek) of The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis appeared. Vassilis looked little changed, though upon our leaving he leaned toward me and sighed, Ah, just think, I knew you when you were young. Bucolic-looking, I corrected him, and he laughed. Aging — that inescapable signifier of time’s passing — seemed to be on his mind; and, indeed, The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis begins with a reunion between old friends separated by the years (of Thrassakis’s exile) who find themselves, movingly, almost unrecognizable to one another. Aging is a preoccupation inseparable from others in this extraordinary novel, the same preoccupations I recognize emanating from the man through the writer: the significance of exile (and the consequences of return), time as something indivisible from history, the nature of narrative, and the mysteriousness of identity.

Who’s who
“How little we know of a man’s life,” the narrator of The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis laments. As the obsessive biographer of deceased writer Glafkos Thrassakis (aka Thrassos Kastanakis, born Lazaros Lazaridis), the narrator has his work cut out for him: Thrassakis published few works in his lifetime, and his unpublished works — donated to an American university and under lock and key until 2003 — are, at least in the beginning, inaccessible. An entry in an encyclopedia states that Thrassakis, at age 45, was eaten by cannibals in New Guinea the same year young Rockefeller met his similar death; but there is the matter of involvement with his literary agent, a Croat American named Joe with ties to NATO and the Ustashe, and evidence that Thrassakis actually met his demise on the European continent in a botched undercover operation that Joe orchestrated. There is the fact that Thrassakis spent much of his life outside of Greece, in exile (as was Vassilikos, whose Z was banned by the junta, called the “cholera” in the novel); then, after Thrassakis’s return in1976, he is eventually framed for stealing antiquities and has to leave Greece behind forever. The biographer’s task is obviously daunting: he has little idea of who Thrassakis is, and he must track down sources, manuscripts, letters, and acquaintances in Greece and on the Continent, as well as in the States, and then make sense of what he discovers.

It’s a Conradian mission — and irksome. “Glafkos this, Glafkos that,” Thrassakis’s biographer complains, for it’s as impossible to get at the truth beneath the this and the that as it is to raise the dead. Worse, it quickly becomes impossible for the narrator/biographer to know where he begins and Thrassakis ends: he so looks like Thrassakis that he’s mistaken for the deceased author. His wife is working on a biography of Thrassakis’s wife. And as he follows about in Thrassakis’s footsteps, his life is taken over by his obsession with his subject’s life. Years pass. The American university finally allows him access to Thrassakis’s inaccessible manuscripts. He traces Thrassakis’s wanderings, which led the mysterious author to city after city during his exile (Thrassakis “kept moving to whatever city Alexander Onassis had just left”); he speaks with everyone who knew the man. Like Conrad’s Marlowe, the narrator/biographer has to put together a story based, in part, on layers of hearsay and circumstance; unlike Marlowe, whose narration can be trusted, at least when his sources are reliable or when he himself has borne witness, the biographer — because of his identification with his subject — becomes suspect. And yet there are the inserted lyrical, polished writings of Thrassakis (or so we are led to believe) that speak for the man, as well as the narrator’s analysis of them, and that give us a glimpse of the person Thrassakis perhaps was.

That glimpse reveals someone caught up in history’s web, obsessed with time, made rootless by exile despite being rooted by birth to his culture. His writings — notebooks, vignettes, collected works, letters, stories, and diaries reproduced and commented upon in the biography — attest to his existence, one made meditative perhaps as much by personality as by circumstance. It is exile that brings together time and history — Thrassakis’s obsessions — and exile is cruel, because the world (Greece) continues to change during that period and because, when exile ends, what is returned to is not the same as that which was left behind. And there is also the cruelty of knowing that exile itself has changed, that the exiled can no longer savor his isolation, his punishment. As Thrassakis writes in a letter to his literary agent:

It was one thing to be a Spanish political exile in ’39, and quite another today, in ’73. The former lived through his memories, his reflections, his relationships with other exiles. The exile of today picks up the phone, dials a few numbers and has a direct connection with the “land of nostalgia.”

Letters, photographs, the news someone brings [you] in person from the homeland, all resemble those platonic intimacies you share with a lover. Whereas talking on the phone is like going to a prostitute: You pay through the nose, you “do it,” you finish and leave, having obtained only a deeper void.

And, elsewhere, from Thrassakis’s “unedited” pages from his “Lazarus’s Return,” on the dislocation of the repatriated exile:

And I returned, you might say, like a stranger to a world stranger than I. Everything was inconceivably familiar and yet at the same time inconceivably distant — a hard thing to explain….The same thing that happened to me with books I also noticed with respect to certain nooks and corners, which seemed infinitely sad to me, because while they hadn’t changed in the slightest detail, they had known eight years that I had not known.…But what did I expect? Plaques on the walls? Here lived so-and-so? Such-and-such happened here? No. No, of course not. I wanted nothing to do with that kind of petrified memory, the stone that conceals the worms of damp, ashes of forgetting….No. For the first time I understood what old age must be like; it’s not that you’ve grown older, but that everything else is suddenly younger.

Returned from exile, Thrassakis realizes — according to his biographer — that his greatest fear has been that he would find himself in a prison (read: exile) where no one would speak his language. He has suffered, by this time, at the hands of his literary agent (who has refused to represent Thrassakis’s most recent works abroad, in a language not his, because of the politics implicit in his writings). But there are things the agent needs Thrassakis to do, and Thrassakis is desperate for an audience abroad. The ensuing entanglements, as most entanglements happen to be, are so messy that Thrassakis’s biographer pities his subject (and, perhaps, himself) because it’s apparent the writer hasn’t a clue as to what is really going on, which is that his literary agent is simply using him. And so Thrassakis, returned from exile, leaves his homeland again and becomes ensnared by his literary agent’s agents, in the underworld of the Cold War, in the divided city of Berlin. There, his wife, Glafka, is imprisoned for two days for being in illegal possession of undeclared currency (the coin she’d won in a New Year’s cake), and — if his biographer is to be believed — Thrassakis is lured to a frozen lake between East and West and murdered.

Long before the end (that is, Thrassakis’s death, which also begins the novel), however, the narrator has become suspect: for the more we learn about Thrassakis, the more substantial he becomes, the more apparent is his biographer’s unraveling. “If I had an imagination I’d have become a novelist, not a biographer,” the narrator admits early on, and, as the story progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to determine where the imaginary (and imagination) ends and reality begins. The narrator’s presence disintegrates (or perhaps reintegrates with that of his subject) as he takes on more and more of Thrassakis’s ideas, ruminations, and experiences, which leads toward the novel’s end to an impatience that affects even his syntax — heretofore always reflective, always elegant — and mirrors a wearied anguish. Of Berlin and Thrassakis, for instance, he bitterly and simply states:

The place where Glafkos lived the last year of his life is of particular importance. Though ensconced in the neutrality of this city, the writing he did wasn’t neutral in the least. Burning inside, he marked the streets through which he walked like another Unamuno. Most things I don’t know, and they don’t interest me. He didn’t live this life because he liked it, but because he couldn’t do otherwise.

As the biographer/narrator approaches the end of Thrassakis’s last notebook, he begins to believe that no publisher will want the biography (because there are still two unopened sacks of Thrassakis’s writings, which may not be opened for another 14 years); worse, he fears he won’t know when the end is the end. (The irony can’t be lost on anyone familiar with Vassilikos’s penchant for writing, publishing, and then rewriting and republishing most of his work: A Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis appeared in a 1989 Gnosis edition, which was a reworking of the volumes published in 1974 and 1975 and of the 1979 Undiscovered Stories of Glafkos Thrassakis.) The biographer is also haunted by the fact he’s losing himself now that he’s about to lose Thrassakis: death, after all, is curtains. In a particularly heartrending and almost final scene, he sits with a Berlin café owner named Apostolis, who knew Thrassakis well, poring over the writer’s old address books. There is nothing else to do but gaze at the entries that reveal last names without first names, city codes, full names and addresses, numbers identified only by first names, and scattered phrases (“‘The salaries and wages have been fixed,’ ‘When will the people be freed,’ ‘Very grand, Papandreou’s funeral,’ ‘The teacher’s visiting card,’ ‘Ancient Olympia,’ ‘The Greek people are like fire — someone needs to light the wick’”). Thrassakis’s biographer despairs: “As I turned the yellow pages…I was discovering, once again, the futility of my effort to decode a life on the basis of these few remaining crumbs.”

It is left to the reader, in a manner, to decode the narrator’s life, which is to say — or at least to include — the author’s life: for, as Vassilikos writes of The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis, this is “the only novel I wholeheartedly adopt as an expression of the self as a third party….I’d call it a biogranovel, an autonovegraphy, a novistory….But those terms would all be mistaken: because there is, too, a reworking of the essentially autobiographical material, a distance between experience and its creation.” Is Thrassakis/Lazaridis Vassilikos? Is the biographer/narrator Thrassakis? Are both characters — writer and narrator — Vassilikos? Does it matter? Yes, I think, would be Vassilikos’s answer. For this compelling novel is, in part, an inquiry into the nature of relationships between writer and written, authorial voicing and character, identity and history, neurosis and reason.

It is also, in part, a tale told by a madman — one whose identity cannot be distinguished from that of his subject — in which the sound and fury are muted, signifying something. That something — whose edges are traced with intense perception, poignant if tried honesty, and grave irony — happens to be the past we live through, from which no one can escape. Thrassakis’s past (like that of Vassilikos, who gives the writer his birth year, 1933) is shaped by occupation, civil war, all that constituted the Cold War’s backdrop, the 1967 dictatorship that lasted until 1974; even after things pass, their effect remains, informs, uplifts, damns. Consequently, his biographer, our narrator, can write nothing of his subject without also becoming a historiographer of Thrassakis’s (read: Vassilikos’s) generation — “a generation condemned,” he concludes. For, in Thrassakis’s words:

My generation was not butchered in World War II or the Civil War. It survived. But it paid a high price for that survival. Without heroism or exaltation, without burning fevers or hypothermia, it endured a slight but constant fever that wore it down slowly, bit by bit. The fact that we ended up mildly cynical rather than tragically disillusioned just shows that we never really believed in anything. Though we did believe in some kind of change or progress, which of course never took place….We grew up during the Reconstruction, like orphans always seeking to find out who their real parents are. In the end they believe all versions, from the crudest to the most romantic. Their mother, a princess or a whore. Or neither. Or both.

I can hear Vassilis’s voice loud and clear in that “mildly cynical rather than tragically disillusioned.” Actually, I heard his voice throughout this work, which he claims as his favorite and which I’d claim as profound. The narrative layers, the political (read: humane) perspective, the intelligence, the concern always to surround a character’s complexes, desires, failings, ignorance, complicity, or innocence with history’s embrace or stranglehold, the insistent and extraordinary will to endow dignity — born of resilience and resistance — upon both Thrassakis and his biographer make The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis one of the finest novels of a mature and seminal novelist.

No Greek writer I know has written more eloquently of his generation than Vassilis Vassilikos; and no translator has done Vassilikos more justice than Karen Emmerich, whose seamless rendition into English echoes Vassilis’s linguistic beauty and power. And there is one more thing I know: That there are many more of Vassilis Vassilikos’s novels — an entire body of work swirling about The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis the way history encircles the novel’s antiheroic protagonists — awaiting translation of comparable quality.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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