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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Book Reviews

Which Way Is Left?

The detective’s role is precisely to demonstrate how “the impossible is possible” (Ellery Queen), i.e. to re-symbolize the traumatic shock. To integrate it into symbolic reality. His very presence is a kind of pawn guaranteeing in advance the transformation of the lawless sequence into a lawful sequence: in other words, the re-establishment of “normality.”
—Slavoj Zizek, The Detective and the Analyst

Petros Markaris’s third crime novel, O Tse Autoktonêse (Che Committed Suicide, 2003) opens with detective Haritos on convalescent leave, recovering after having been shot in Markaris’s previous novel, Amyna Zônês (Zone Defense, see my “Illegal Zone,” in the previous edition of, February 1, 2006). From the beginning of the book, the reader witnesses the sense of isolation and a kind of despair to which Haritos is subjected because of his inability to fully control his own life and recover a sense of normality. He is a shadow of his former self, both physically and, most important, psychologically. He feels patronized by his relatives and forgotten by his own colleagues: “like a Palestinian who is confined by the Israelis” (p. 12). As he explains, he and his wife, Ariadne, spend their evenings on the couch, watching Aquarium.

There are not any fish living in this particular “Aquarium,” only the well-known TV personality Aspasia Komi, who once a week invites politicians, businessmen, and the occasional soccer player or weightlifter, accuses people, makes disclosures about scandals, and in the end dismisses her guests with a smile. Before, I used to spit and leave. Now, I still spit but watch them, like one out of ten Neo-Hellenes. (p. 24)

And there seems to be nothing potentially promising or exciting in his life, at least for the next few months of his medical leave. Until….

Until, like a deus ex machina, Iasonas Favieros, a prominent citizen and owner of a large engineering company with activities in Greece and throughout the Balkans, decides to commit suicide in front of millions of viewers, in reaction to Komi’s “investigation” of his business and to his enemies’ protests against his “diaplekômena symferonta” (interlocking interests). In the midst of answering her questions, Favieros pulls out a pistol from his pocket and kills himself. A shocking event, indeed, even by Greek standards, according to which the media are ready to cross any line for more viewers and higher ratings. In the days that follow, everyone speculates about possible explanations for the event, and it doesn’t take long for a right-wing group to claim responsibility for Favieros’s suicide, accusing him of subverting the purity and homogeneity of the nation by bringing foreign workers to Greece to work for him. The only person who does not buy the official explanation of Favieros’s death is Haritos, who sees this case as the perfect opportunity to escape the “oppression” of his family and reestablish himself as the most capable and credible inspector on the police force.

Like any good mystery writer—and especially through his use of language, hyperbole, and irony—Markaris is able to capture the anxieties and fears of a nation and culture undergoing transformation. Through Haritos’s navigation of the urban space, the reader is able to revisit and familiarize herself with the topography of the city; more important, one can reflect on how urban space and its transformation mirror the social strata of the city and its inhabitants, and the city’s relationship to history and the past. In Haritos’s visit to Favieros’s office, for example, Markaris uses both the building’s exterior and interior as a signifier of the kind of life that Favieros had led. As Haritos tells us:

I expected to find myself in front of a modern cluster of offices constructed of dark concrete and one-way windows, but I stumbled upon a recently restored three-story, neoclassical building. The modern cluster of offices was behind it. At first I thought they were two separate buildings, but looking at the structure from the side, I discover an aerial bridge like a glass bowl, connecting the neoclassical with the modern. The social game of hide-and-seek that Iason Favieros played is corroborated by his business. On the face of it, he didn’t want to be a neighbor of the big sharks of Ekali, but his house in Porto Rafti was the house of a big shark. On one hand, he preferred neoclassical over modern buildings; on the other hand, behind the neoclassical facade was the cluster of modern offices. He wore Armani suits, but always rumpled and without a tie. Of course, it could be the “mixoparthenia” [phony innocence] that leftists feel for their own wealth, which they cover with a fig leaf, not so much for others but so that they won’t have to see it themselves. It could also be the syndrome of illegitimacy from which they suffer and which allows them to continue their game of hide-and-seek game just because of the momentum, like a useless exercise. (p. 107)

It becomes obvious to Haritos that both the exterior and interior of the building are indicative of the identity, and life, that Favieros lived, and they make the inspector’s job more complicated. As he concludes after his first visit to Favieros’s business: “…in the end, you lose your head because you don’t know who Favieros really was” (p. 114). Beyond the immediate reference to Favieros’s enigmatic life, however, Markaris uses these types of examples to reflect on the complexity of Greek history, culture, and identity, in which past and present are tightly interwoven. As it turns out, Favieros was not only well-known because of his current business activities, but also because of his former leadership of the student movement against the military dictatorship of 1967-1974, which resulted, on one hand, in jail and torture during those years, but also favored his business enterprise when his acquaintances, who shared a similar experience, became members and ministers of the current government.

It is the past, then, that holds the key to the present for Haritos. Through his understanding of the past, Haritos is able to uncover the truth about Favieros’s life, the motives for his suicide, and the possibility that someone else may have been behind it. When public suicides of other reputable members of Greek life continue, Haritos is convinced that he is actually dealing with the homicide of people who share the same history and past. What makes reading this book so enjoyable is Haritos’s commitment, both to uncovering the truth and understanding the past, quite often with a heavy dose of cynicism. Like Oedipus without the complex, he moves backward in order to move forward. Just as during his visit to Favieros’s headquarters, he navigates through different spatial and temporal zones, and this is what will allow him eventually to solve the case. It doesn’t take him that long to become conscious of the fact that Favieros’s life, identity, personal story, and, ultimately, death are firmly rooted in the past, and one needs to look backward in order to have a context for the present. In so doing, Haritos realizes that the past is the “purloined letter” that allows him to solve the mystery of the suicides.

Through Haritos’s investigation and tracing of Favieros’s life (as well as of the lives of the other victims), however, Markaris also questions and examines the relationship between history and its representation. In other words, through the detective’s slow discovery that Favieros’s life is more complicated than, and quite different from, the one constructed for and presented to the public—a heroic figure of the resistance against the junta—Markaris ultimately, I believe, questions the very nature of the representation of history itself. Favieros’s public and heroic past becomes a well-constructed narrative that determines his present context. It is, in a sense, a fictionalized historical representation that Markaris, often with a heavy dose of irony, examines and questions. Whose facts make it into history, Markaris seems to ask, and what are the conditions of historical representation itself? If the architectural paradigm that I mentioned earlier reflects the enigma of Favieros’s life, or the relationship between his present and past, Markaris’s novel and the way it is constructed question the conditions of the knowledge of that relationship itself. And if that were not enough, Markaris looks at the public arena of Greece as a space in which everything is pretty much permitted, a local extension of a globalized world in which ideological and political boundaries and balances are almost irrelevant. Is there a possibility, then, of reinventing any political space in a society that resembles or shares the conditions of globalization itself? How can we talk about proper political space when it is devoid of any forms of antagonism?

For Markaris, it is quite obvious that the role of crime fiction—and of a detective—is situated within the frame of these questions. As he recently stated in one of his interviews:

…[M]y generation, as far as it remembers itself, existed in a world that was maintained by the balance of terror between the two blocs, the Western and the Eastern: a balance that put a check on both sides. The collapse of this balance resulted, on one hand, in the Western bloc’s arbitrary rule. In the East, on the other hand, many leading members of the left have transformed themselves into businessmen—many having appropriated the property and financial means of the former “socialist” state, while at the same time developing Mafia-like activities and connections. In the Third World bloc, armed action has degenerated into blind terrorist attacks. Let’s not kid ourselves, the world we live in is lousy, but it’s a paradise for the writers of detective fiction. (Eleutherotypia, Bibliothêkê magazine, August 5, 2005, p. 16)

It is no surprise, then, for us to read about Favieros’s and his friends’ transition from prisoners during the dictatorship to influential members of the economic and political elites. We witness former internationalists turning into prominent members of the bourgeoisie who exploit the working class (these days, immigrants). We see torturers and fervent anticommunists producing and selling Che and other revolutionarily themed T-shirts. We see Haritos’s friend, Zisis, an old leftist and member of the resistance to the junta, now maintaining complete files on all public persons in Greece, and becoming a kind of informer himself. In Haritos’s own words:

Often he [Zisis] agrees to give me information from his archive, but he never shows it to me. To my question as to why he gathered all of this material, he answered that he did it out of spite. The state kept a file on his entire life, so now he started a file on all well-known public figures, in order to create some balance. (p. 201)

It should come as no surprise that the conclusion of Markaris’s novel is quite explosive and unpredictable. In our post-political or post-ideological age, as the novel suggests, we should expect everything.

Overall, O Tse Autoktonêse is the most interesting of Markaris’s books. Without any sense of sentimentality or nostalgia, he is quite capable, through a specific genre, of portraying a world that, despite its transformations, is still very much haunted by its past. While this past is very much linked to the present, the author rightly avoids using the past’s political space, conditions, and practices as a possible way of undermining today’s global capitalist system. At the same time, I often found myself uneasy about the way Markaris revisits or portrays the past. What appears to get lost along with the disappearance of boundaries and the reversal of roles is the very specificity of that past itself. What the novel does, perhaps unintentionally, is incorporate the past into the current state of history in which everything goes, in which former leftists and communists now have different roles, and the ones who refused to change or were unable to deal with the new order of things have been pretty much marginalized or disappeared from history’s record. While one can agree that the novel accurately reflects the current post-political or post-ideological Geist and conditions of our times, one can also argue (without any sense of nostalgia or sentimentality) that the complexity of recent Greek history, and of the left’s role in and contribution to it, cannot be reduced simply to binary oppositions and empty signifiers. What conclusion should the reader reach about the Greek past when former communists and leftists in the novel have turned into capitalist sharks, while others have been marginalized or turned into informers? How can one avoid thinking that the reversal of reality and roles on both left and right, the collapse of boundaries and meaning, affect the specificity of the past, its role and significance in Greek history, and, perhaps most important, our memory of it?

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