Friday, May 18, 2007
The Theatricality of Crime: Petros Martinides
Part 2: Olmezoglou Redux, or The Author’s Anxiety Before the Penalty Kick
second book (see the first part of this essay, “Reflected Fates,” February
20) of his recent trilogy, H elpida pethainei teleutaia (Hope Dies Last, 2005), takes place during
the summer of 2004, an unforgettable time, one can argue, in modern Greek
history. For this was the summer that Greece, for the first time since 1896,
had hosted the Olympic Games. But this event took place in the shadow of yet
another event that has since been engraved into the collective Greek psyche.
I am talking, of course, about the participation of the Greek national team
in the European soccer championship (Euro 2004) in Portugal. Against even
the most optimistic predictions, the team not only qualified for the second
round of the tournament, but managed to go all the way to the final round
and win the trophy in a memorable final game against the Portuguese host team
(and one of the favorites).
Martinides’s story unfolds in the shadow of this event
in Thessalonikê. The pace of the narrative follows
that of the soccer games themselves, with a climactic ending that parallels
the night of the championship match. While the entire country is captivated
by the miraculous, thrilling performance of the Greek soccer team, another
drama takes place in the city. It is in this parallel drama that Alexis Olmezoglou
appears again in a lead role. The author effectively captures the spirit and
the atmosphere of that memorable summer in his novel’s prologue:
It was the spring of hope and the summer
of ecstasy, it was the accumulation of malaise and the fulfillment of the dream;
it was the March of promises and the solstice of miracles;
the glutted greens who got hungry again and became blue in
order to eat again; it was the blue who denounced favoritism
while they didn’t stop asking the grace of God; …it was there,
the first few days of July when the Greek team reached the
top of “Euro 2004,” painting everything blue, in villages
and cities….At the same time, inside the city limits, a young woman
was about to be murdered….In His meteorological gallantry,
God was neglecting such personal misfortunes. As a Greek,
as it was proven July 4 with the triumph of the national
soccer team, He was preparing such a joy for His country, that it was probably impossible to take care of anything else….Her
name was Elpida and she
died first in this story. (pp. 9-11)
can see here how the author, with narrative precision and a heavy dose of
irony, is capable of reflecting a zeitgeist, of capturing and situating
a particular moment or event within a broader historical and political frame.
But it also quite clear in the following pages that this context soon pretty
much disappears altogether from the plot.
follows instead is a narrative that fills in the gaps of the young intellectual’s
story since the last time we read about him. He has defended his dissertation,
experienced a disappointing affair with a young actress that has financially
ruined him, and is in a state of indecision about his future. As a character,
he remains essentially a solitary figure, without family, friends, or any
real interest in what is taking place in the outside world. (Perhaps this
is why the author abandons any references to the political climate in the
country at that time). His references to soccer and its role in the formation
of national identity, for example, remain at the level of cliché, very similar
to his attitude (full of irony) toward public life in general. His life begins
to resemble some of the fictional lives in the books and comics that he has
spent his time reading and writing about. Martinides’s
depiction of the detective figure as detached and uninterested in the outside
world is very much within the confines of the genre. Although he acts, moves,
and forms relations within his social space, he prefers to maintain a distance
from it at the same time, especially emotionally.
narrator also informs us that Alexis Olmezoglou
has spent the last few months writing a crime novel, based on his own recent
painful experiences, with which we the readers are already familiar since
they constitute the plot of Martinides’s previous
novel, Moiraioi Antikatoptrismoi
(Fateful Reflections). As we read in the story:
[Alexis] spent the whole winter and spring
without moving again. Locked in the house with his impressive
car in the small garage, he tried to capitalize on a final legacy from
his father: his experiences from the double murder in Delphi and anything
that was related to it. Including the defense
of his doctoral thesis that gave him the idea. He turned everything
into a detective narrative….Alexis had no idea of how to live his
life. To isolate himself in his house, inherited from no one, and
turn into narrative the adventure of the last meeting with his
father, was something like a farewell to his youth, and his dead parents.
idea that the main character has just written and is about to publish a book,
which we have already read, raises questions about his identity and its relationship
to the fiction. Olmezoglou’s identity is already
shaped and determined by the book that he hasn’t yet published but that we
have already read. The character’s own presence and reality are not only haunted
by his previous experiences but already destabilized by the fact that he was
fictionally created in the previous work, a work he now duplicates. Consequently,
although Olmezoglou as investigator attempts to
expose the fictions that other characters create about themselves, it is the
“reality” of his own life that is ultimately put into question through the
self-reflexive nature of the stories within stories. In the end, Olmezoglou overcomes his obstacles because the other characters
underestimate him as a result of their failure to read his manuscript properly.
seems to be the main event in the lives of his fellow townsmen, indeed the
entire country, leaves him indifferent. For him, Euro 2004 is only a distant
event. It just provides him with the opportunity to take advantage of an empty
city whose inhabitants are riveted in front of the television set. Just as
the tournament is about to begin, another event captures his attention: a
destructive fire in the warehouse of his publisher and the discovery of two
bodies in the ruins. As it turns out, it is a case of arson, and one of the
victims dies of asphyxiation before he is burned in the fire. The other, however—Elpida, whose death was introduced in the prologue—has been
strangled. Initially, this event attracts his curiosity only because it concerns
his future publisher; yet it soon becomes a central event in his life. Taking
advantage of everyone’s absorption in the televised soccer games, Alexis engages
in an erotic game with the publisher’s wife, Magda.
While her husband watches the matches with friends, Alexis volunteers to teach
her to drive in the hope that the lessons will turn into something more interesting.
What he fails to see at this point is his engagement and participation in
another very dangerous and well-orchestrated game.
begins as a story of infatuation and seduction with the young, beautiful,
and elusive Magda turns into a dangerous contest
of deception, violence, and murder. For it is during
the driving lessons that something goes terribly wrong and turns Olmezoglou from an innocent outsider to someone in deep trouble
who must prove his innocence in order to save his
life. Like any good soccer game, Martinides’s well-constructed
narrative is suspenseful, with characters whose intentions and plans are hard
to read. No one is to be trusted or beyond suspicion. Our young protagonist
finds himself in yet another scrape, and, as time and the story progress,
the possibility of hope and survival narrows. Olmezoglou
himself needs to take the appropriate action, anything necessary to save himself.
To quote from Tzvetan Todorov’s
commentary on the genre and on “the story of the suspect as detective” in
his now classic essay, The Typology of Detective Fiction: “In order
to prove his innocence, this person must himself find the real culprit, even
if he risks his life in doing so. We might say that, in this case, this character
is at the same time the detective, the culprit (in the eyes of the police)
and the victim (potential victim of the real murderers)” (p. 51).
becomes clear that the boundary between lawful and criminal behavior is tested.
The young intellectual, Alexis Olmezoglou, engages
in a dangerous game that forces him to cross and confuse these boundaries
in order to exonerate himself and, ultimately, save his life. In the end,
in an unexpected (and, one might add, ironic) conclusion, it is the very unexpected
and unimaginable themselves that allow him to get out of a very difficult
situation. The victory of the Greek soccer team demonstrates to him, and to
all of us who spent a memorable month glued in front of our TV sets (or radios,
in my case), that, indeed, “hope dies last.”
end, I found Martinides’s second novel of more interest
than his first because of the narrative’s fast pace, relative simplicity and
tightness of plot, and the avoidance of some of the
problems I touched upon in my previous review (endless literary references,
pretentiousness, etc.). Through the parallel drama that takes place on the
soccer field, the book creates a thrilling anticipation and climactic conclusion,
while employing some of the classic elements and themes of the genre: a femme
fatale, the testing of boundaries between lawful and criminal behavior,
corrupt cops, and the greed and moral corruption of the bourgeois intelligentsia.
And yet, at bottom, the problem remains the elusive main character, Olmezoglou
himself, who is still too much of an intellectual creation and not enough
of an imaginative one. In other words, he is hollow as anything other than
an intellectual exercise and, in the end, remains bound within the self-recursive
gesture of the two novels, rather than fully capturing the reader’s imagination.
Apostolos Vasilakis teaches literature and philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
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