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Friday, May 18, 2007

Arts & Letters

The Theatricality of Crime: Petros Martinides

Part 2: Olmezoglou Redux, or The Author’s Anxiety Before the Penalty Kick

Petros Martinides’s 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)

One 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.

What 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.

The 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. (pp. 20-22)

The 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.

What 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.

What 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).

It soon 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.”

In the 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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