NATALIE BAKOPOULOS author of THE GREEN SHORE
Set in Athens and Paris, Natalie Bakopoulos’s masterful debut paints a finely-etched portrait of one family, whose heartbreaking stories of love and resistance play out against the backdrop of the late 1960s Greek military dictatorship.
In 1967, as most of the city slept, colonels in the Greek military swiftly engineered a coup d'état. We bear witness to this devastating event and its brutal aftermath through the stories of four memorable characters: Sophie, a student of French literature, who gets swept up in the resistance alongside her privileged, left-leaning boyfriend; her mother Eleni, a widowed doctor, who struggles with her lost sense of passion in the face of this latest challenge to democracy; Sophie’s uncle Mihalis, an outspoken poet of some renown, who finds himself keeping a low profile as he tries to reconcile with his estranged wife; and Anna, Sophie’s younger sister, who undergoes the remarkable transformation from fearful insomniac to betrayed lover to empowered student activist. [READ MORE]
Just after midnight, Vangelis—trusted neighborhood cab driver, friend of her uncle, and painter on the side—delivered Sophie and a few other girls to a party in Psychiko, a winding, lush neighborhood filled with stately homes and embassies. Sophie’s recent love interest, Nick, was throwing the party because he had the house to himself. His parents, both left-leaning lawyers, had gone to Thessaloniki to promote the rights of a local political campaign, and in those few days they had transformed that elegantly run-down house with its curvy French furniture and old, expensive rugs into a student headquarters: making posters and distributing leaflets, writing letters to newspaper editors, and mostly discussing their visions for their country and what it could become.
After Sophie’s friends crawled out of the backseat, bare legged with scarves in their hair, and disappeared behind the wrought iron gate, Sophie leaned forward between the seats to pay Vangelis. As always he refused her.
“I work until sunrise,” he said. “Shall I collect you then?” His deadpan delivery was intentional. Some nights, when she was out pasting up flyers, she knew he idled nearby. Other nights she had been creeping up to her gate just as he was driving in from his shift. He’d nod to her, tip his hat, and bring in the milk bottle from his front porch.
Sophie slumped back in the seat and returned her drachmas to her purse. “I’ll pay you next time,” she said.
“Is that a yes?” Vangelis asked. His gaze shifted to the side mirror, as if someone was behind him. Then he turned to her, waiting for her reply.
“If it’s on your way,” Sophie said. They both knew, though, she didn’t need to answer his question. As dependable as the rising sun, Vangelis would be at the curb, holding his cigarette between his pinkie and ring finger, like a bouzouki player. She thanked him and kissed him on his rough, unshaven cheek.
Behind them the music from the back garden drifted to the street, along with a medley of enthusiastic voices. The air was heavy with honeysuckle, so sweet Sophie could taste it in the back of her throat, like wine. Others arrived on foot and motorbikes, and a handsome guy in a leather jacket opened the wrought iron gate and she and others passed through the blossoming grounds. Three young men with thick sideburns and turtleneck sweaters stood on the Doric-style entrance porch, smoking. Only after she moved past them, down the lantern-lit walkway to the back of the house, did she hear Vangelis drive away.
The party was at maximum blare, with students everywhere, women in miniskirts flirting with men in tight jeans and slim shirts. She could hear the excitement in the loud music and the clink of ice in glasses, the profusion of words and ideas and the overlaying thing nobody spoke of but everyone felt. Sex. The yard vibrated with the combined heat of politics and passion. The elections were slated for the next month, at the end of May. Would the king allow the elections? A woman with a large purple flower in the middle of her dress insisted that he would not. She sipped her drink through a straw; two young men nodded eagerly in front of her. On the house’s large back porch, bodies she didn’t recognize moved closely together, and Sophie brushed through a crowd of chirping girls, barely managing to survive yet another quad of men, and was nearly dragged to dance by a short insistent law student with wild, curly hair.
Nick. Where was Nick? Their situation was not exactly clandestine, but it wasn’t particularly open either. He was two years her senior, having finished his undergraduate work in chemistry, and was now planning to study medicine abroad. But even had he still been a student, their paths wouldn’t have crossed much because she was studying French. Sophie didn’t know exactly how he spent his days because mostly she met him in the middle of the night. She had noticed him at several student-based political meetings, and they had officially met marching in the center of Athens, day after day, sup-porting former prime minister George Papandreou. Their physical connection had been so strong that it had embarrassed her, the way they kept brushing up against one another, like aloof but aware cats. The first time he drove her home and kissed her outside the arched gate to the yard, she wanted to drag him up to the roof or into her bed. Instead she went inside alone and didn’t fall asleep for a long time. Two nights later, she snuck out of her house and met him in a park, and there began a pattern of moonlit coupling.
Mostly they met up in groups and then they’d sneak away together later, after she was allegedly safe at home. But a relationship? She wasn’t sure if it was, or if she even wanted it. The sex was entangled with the urge of their commitment, which seemed to spill into bed, and sometimes when they made love she saw him speaking and sometimes when she saw him speaking she couldn’t help but think of his arched body.
In the parlor, a group gathered around a young man dancing zembekiko; one student strummed a guitar and another played a bouzouki, and people drank wine and raki out of goblets and tumblers that seemed reserved for special occasions. A few gathered around a baby grand, but no one played it. “Nick’s looking for you,” a blond boy called to her, and she felt a pleasurable shiver to be identified so closely with the host and relaxed into the party, trusting he would find her.
Sophie wandered through the large manicured garden. Rows of lanterns threw eerie, lovely glows across people’s faces. She approached the small bar set up in the corner, where Nick’s cousin Loukas, home for Easter, was pouring himself a cheap-looking yellow whiskey over shards of ice.
“What can I get you?” he asked.
She eyed the variety of bottles on the table. “Whatever you’re having,” she said.
He went for the whiskey but instead reconsidered and poured her a glass of red wine. “I brought it from France,” he said, and smiled at her. They’d been briefly introduced three nights before, when he’d arrived. She finally saw a chance to ask him about France but before she could a spritely woman took his arm, stood on her tiptoes, and whispered something in his ear, her light-brown hair shiny and straight and so long that it almost reached the hem of her impossibly short paisley dress. Loukas laughed, squeezed Sophie’s shoulder, and told her to enjoy the party. Then, he set off rather deliberately across the crowded garden, arm in arm with the girl.
Sophie wanted to call after him: Wait! Don’t walk away! She felt good in his presence, Nick’s older cousin, she reminded herself. She had heard much about Loukas, but had he heard about her? Did men share their most intimate details that way? When Nick talked about Loukas it was more an outpour of random facts, often divulged as trivial bits but always with a fraternal sort of pride. Sophie knew Loukas had completed his undergraduate studies in the States, at Cornell, and graduate school in Paris, and now he worked for an architectural firm in Lyons. He and Nick smoked the same brand of loose tobacco; Loukas had been the one to teach him how to roll a cigarette.
But Sophie held back and instead went inside. In the center of the dining room was a large teak table. The chairs had been pushed against the wall and a group of students assembled a newsletter, spreading the leaflets across the tabletop and poring over them as if they were generals planning a war. Glasses, coffee cups, and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts and pistachio shells dotted the sides. Any degree of formality the room usually held had been temporarily suspended.
She joined a group and immediately began to talk. While she was giving her opinion on the placement of an editorial she had written on the upcoming elections, Nick appeared and slid his arm around her waist, looking over their work.
“Hi,” he said. He kissed her on the lips, full, suggestive. Sophie realized this was the first time they had admitted any affiliation in public. “Looks good,” he said.
For the next few hours they drank and danced and she enjoyed the glow of the evening. No matter where Nick was, Sophie was aware of him: beneath a huge, ancient fig tree; underneath the trellis covered with grapevines; or dancing with others in the crowd. While Nick mingled, flirting with girls who beamed at him, he always found her again. Sophie felt an odd charge from this jealousy and liked this approach and retreat, a dance in itself. Before her friends could tell her they were going to a club in Kypseli, she caught Nick’s eye and he motioned for her to follow him. They slipped through the tidy maze of vines and apricot trees, back around the house to the side spiral staircase.
Nick’s bedroom was remarkably spartan compared to her cluttered one: a bureau, desk, and mahogany bed covered in faded linens. A dark red robe hung from the bedpost, and the large desk in the corner was neatly stacked with books. Though it was late, the party had hardly quieted, and a group of slightly older guests, perhaps Loukas’s friends, gathered around a small bonfire in the far back garden. When Nick opened the shutters, the flicker of the flames delineated his face. Just the two of them now, and Sophie stepped out of her shoes and pulled her dress over her head. Nick watched her from near the window, and then he moved toward her. In the dark the two of them fell together, as if in secret, once again. Hushed, attentive, close and ready.
Suddenly came the sounds of men shouting, nothing more than the noises of persistent revelers, they assumed, the whoop and fuzz of a late-night second wind. Until they heard a sharp scream, not celebratory but distressed, at which Nick lifted his head. The fire of a gunshot brought him out like an animal into traffic, and within seconds he was on the dark terrace, pulling on his shirt and pants almost simultaneously while looking over the edge. Sophie dressed and hurried after him.
First came a surprising silence, like the beats between a concerto’s slow movement and its louder, faster finale. The bark of voices and slap of footfalls and panicked start of motorbike engines. Chaos.
Nick urged her to duck and motioned for her to follow him into his parents’ bedroom, which faced the street. They kept the lights off and peered out the windows.
Soldiers with rifles surged through the front garden, around the side of the house. Sophie and Nick watched, speechless, as more soldiers entered. Nick headed toward the stairs, ready to run down. But Sophie grabbed his hand and stopped him.
“The newspapers, the flyers,” he said. “All those things on the table.”
“Too late,” Sophie said. They could hear noises coming not only from below but from down the street as well. “The roof. We’ll be able to see what’s going on from there.” She pulled him to the back terrace. Unlike her home in Halandri, no staircase provided easy roof access, so Nick grabbed a chair and stood on it to help her up. Then he climbed up himself. Together, they crawled across the flat roof to the front of the house, where they lay, side by side, looking down into the yard. They watched astounded as friends were handcuffed and thrown into trucks, the menacing growl of their engines filling the night, while others tried to scale the wall. Sophie moved to get up and Nick stopped her. “Just stay low,” he said, his arm arched over her like a fence. “Oh, God,” he whispered. “My parents’—”
“Your parents’ what?” Sophie asked. The sound of her own voice frightened her.
“My parents’ everything.”
Maybe they had come for Nick’s parents but the whole mess of bearded and denim-clad and miniskirt-wearing student radicals they found instead was a veritable windfall. And his was not the only family targeted: in a house down the street, many lights were on, as if thrown open in a careless rage. More men in black berets stood in the burn of the headlights. A large truck and a few jeeps crammed with more sol¬diers filled the street. A man and woman, in pajamas and handcuffs, were being forced into a large black car. The motorcade moved down the road, stopping farther down. Vigilantly, methodically, yet as ca¬sual as the postman going door to door. Shouting, shouting, there was so much shouting. In the distance, a dog barked, croupy and erratic, and after another short and swift gunshot, it stopped.
Sophie spotted Vangelis’s cab one street over and had the sudden urge to flee. “I have to get home. I have to go.”
“You’re crazy,” Nick said. “You can’t go anywhere.”
“Come with me,” Sophie said. “We should get out of here.” She knew Nick wouldn’t let her go alone.
“I can’t leave. Please just wait. Let me think for a minute.”
But Sophie didn’t know how long Vangelis could wait, and who knew if there were soldiers still in the house? Think, think, damn it, who had time to think? She threw herself onto Nick as if he were ablaze, a flat, forceful hug. Before he could grab her she scrambled to the back of the roof, lowered herself to the terrace, and slipped down the metal spiral staircase that led to the ravaged, empty garden. The bonfire smoldered.
This was not the first time she had had to sneak out of Nick’s house, though the other times had been because of a sudden, unexpected arrival of parents, not soldiers. Her best bet seemed to be to climb over the cement wall and into the neighbor’s yard; she didn’t know who might still be lurking in the front or inside. From there she could get to the street where Vangelis waited. More voices shouted in the distance.
She gathered her courage and ran for the back wall. Scaling the blocks, she scraped her knee. She dropped over the other side, landed awkwardly, and scampered through the neighbor’s yard and out their front gate. It squeaked and clattered shut, and Sophie cringed, but she was away.
Sophie headed toward the corner where she had seen Vangelis but stopped abruptly when down the street from the cab she saw a military jeep and a barricade. The cab’s lights were off, but the jeep’s were on, and in the glare Sophie could not make out what was happening. She couldn’t tell if Vangelis was there but where else would he have gone? She crouched behind a hedge of jasmine just as a military truck rumbled onto the street.
Then, one soldier opened the jeep’s door and motioned to the people inside. They emerged, and Sophie thought she spotted Vangelis in the crowd, but she wasn’t sure. One by one the prisoners, partygoers only moments before, were transferred to the truck and driven away. Two remaining soldiers got back into the front seat and dimmed the lights. But the beam of the moon still shed light on their faces, and Sophie thought they looked younger and more confused than any of those who had been taken away. One leaned his head down on the steering wheel, and in the passenger seat the other rubbed his eyes.
A wash of guilt rose inside her so suddenly her body ached. She imagined Vangelis’s wife asleep, waiting for him to return with the dawn. She wanted now to return to Nick’s but just the thought of walking back into that yard scared her. Forward, forward. Traipsing through the street like a mangy dog was obviously not a good idea either. Those soldiers had a reason for raiding Nick’s house in the first place. Or had the party been an unplanned detour, an opportunity?
She hoped Nick had stayed on the roof and she was cursing herself for not doing the same. The two soldiers still idled not far away from her, though they seemed half as alert as she. Still. What if they saw her? She shifted her weight and then crouched lower behind the bushes. To walk to her house in Halandri from here was not impossible, though it would take her a very long time. Or she could try to hail a taxi. She had nothing with her: her purse sat on Nick’s desk. She wondered if anyone had found it, rifled through it, added her name to some sort of list.
The driver started the jeep and the men pulled away as quickly as they’d come. The only evidence of their presence was the paltry barricade. She could walk right around it and back to Nick’s. Yet Sophie knew she needed, for once, to think before she acted.
What if they were waiting for her at Nick’s? What if they’d come back and found him on the roof? She crawled out from the bushes to Vangelis’s cab. Maybe he was hiding somewhere too. Maybe she hadn’t seen him in the crowd. The window was halfway down, and she tried the door. It was open, so she crawled into the backseat and lay down, covering her cold, bare legs with Vangelis’s cardigan sweater. When he returned, she would be waiting for him. She couldn’t allow herself to imagine another outcome.
Across the city, in a chic neighborhood in the foothills of Lykavittos, Sophie’s uncle Mihalis was drunk. Crumpled in his pocket was a letter from his estranged wife, Irini.
In the corner of a terrace, Mihalis poured himself a drink. A group of remaining guests sat around the patio table; a couple who had just met talked quietly in another corner. Evan, the host, sat among them while his wife, Simone, cleared abandoned glasses. Inside, a group of women washed dishes and put food away. Mihalis watched through the kitchen window as a gregarious, balding professor in Evan’s department—irritatingly, Mihalis thought—tried to coax the women to dance.
Evan wandered over to Mihalis. “You’re brooding,” Evan said. “I can see that.” He began to pour himself another drink but the bottle he chose was empty. “One moment,” he said. He disappeared inside and came back with a few beers and some tsipouro, which he arranged on the bar, and a bag of hazelnuts, half of which he poured into a bowl and set on the table.
“Don’t encourage the locusts to stay,” Mihalis remarked. “Let them go home to drink their own liquor and fuck their wives.”
“You’ve been like this all night,” Evan said.
“Irini has written me. She wants to come back to Athens.”
Evan poured his drink.
For the past three years, Irini had held a position at the university in Thessaloniki. The job offer had come at a good time: she and Mihalis had been fighting incessantly. To friends they maintained the move was strictly professional—but to themselves they could not ignore the truth. They had been living disconnected lives for months. Holidays came and went, and though they’d plan to reunite for those, Irini would at the last minute decide to visit friends in Paris or join her sister in Santorini, and would Mihalis like to come? But Mihalis hated leaving Athens, and she knew this. Sometimes, she’d plan a visit back and then say she had fallen ill, a claim whose veracity Mihalis never doubted. After all, he had thought for a long time that he made her sick. Other times, she’d simply have too much work, and Mihalis never offered to visit her instead, though he had no work at all. Soon they ignored the topic of holiday visits entirely. They were better together when the pressure of being together lifted. Or maybe they were just better apart.
Before Irini had left, she and Evan, a literature professor and critic, had taught in the same department in Athens. They knew each other very well. Mihalis had expected Evan to be surprised by the news of her return, or delighted, or to let on that he had already known. Something. But Evan seemed blasé, noncommittal even.
“I tell you my wife is coming back and you have nothing to say?”
Evan sighed. “It’s a little strange you even call her your wife, don’t you think?”
“She still is my wife,” Mihalis said.
Evan parted his lips to speak but was interrupted by a couple who were leaving. He stood to wish them good night and to accept their compliments for the evening. Evan seemed to know everybody in Athens, and while he accompanied these guests to the door more guests arrived.
It occurred to Mihalis then that Irini might already be back in Athens. Evan had gone out a few nights before, and when Mihalis had asked him whom he had seen, he had been evasive and quickly changed the subject. Maybe in a crowded, dark bar she had touched Evan lightly on the arm and said, “Don’t tell him I’m here yet.” He and Evan had a lifetime of complexity and conflict and familiarity between them—Evan’s own wife, Simone, was a fiery Brit who Mihalis knew firsthand could be itinerant—and he wouldn’t put it past his friend to withhold this information just to have one up on him.
Mihalis went quickly from sulking to seething. He stood up, snatched the new bottle of tsipouro, and stormed out past the guests, bumping shoulders and upsetting drinks. He left out the front door and walked up the block.
Away from the party the night felt quiet, but he felt edgy and apprehensive. Mihalis had lived in Athens long enough to intuit its mood, its opinions, its underbelly. The air, it was in the air. Something imminent. He was overcome with the urge to walk.
Rising above Athens was Lykavittos Hill, crowned by a small, whitewashed chapel that Mihalis could see, at turns, glowing during his climb. His sober self might have taken the funicular railway to the top. To not slip while sober was a feat of balance; to not fall while drunk would be a feat of the divine. And because he was not a believer, Mihalis took those broken steps slumped on his hands and knees, like some nocturnal beast.
Almost to the top, next to an overpriced café that was closed for the night, Mihalis sat down on a bench beneath the calm, unfinished moon. He felt a little dizzy. From behind him he heard breathing, murmuring, and turned to see two teenagers in the shadows. The boy had the girl pressed against the wall, her skirt riding up to expose a long, lean thigh.
“Hey,” the boy said. “What are you looking at?”
“Oh, go fuck yourself silly in the bushes,” Mihalis said. He rested his elbows on his knees and hung his head, catching his breath.
The girl came around in front of Mihalis. “Are you okay?” she asked. Her face, reflected in the lights that lined the flights of steps, was delicately beautiful. And as he stared at her, her expression changed. “You’re the poet,” she said, excited to recognize him. “Aren’t you? I’ve seen you around Omonia. Do you need help?”
“No,” he said. What sort of help would she offer him? Had she been just a little older Mihalis would have made an inappropriate comment, but he resisted.
The boy joined her. He shifted on his feet and blew air from his mouth, clearly impatient. “Come on,” he said. “He’s fine. Just drunk.” He took her hand and began to pull her away.
The girl resisted. “Are you sure?” she asked Mihalis.
Mihalis waved them on. “Go,” he said. And the girl allowed herself to be led back toward the shadows of the café. The boy, emboldened, called back, “Write us a poem, why don’t you!”
Now Mihalis wished he’d spoken more to the girl, just to spite the little prick. But they were gone now, so he continued up the last several steps to the top.
To stand at the narrow promontory beside Saint George Chapel was to gain a tremendous view of the city’s vast constellation of lights. From there, Athens looked as though it had been built in a bowl. And in the farthest distance he could see the red bow lights of ships on the blackened sea.
Mihalis was grateful to be alone. Now he felt his exhaustion. He sat down and rested the bottle of tsipouro between his feet, wishing he had instead taken some water. His mouth was dry. The sense of foreboding had returned. Mihalis removed the crumpled letter from his pocket and folded and unfolded it a few times. He used his lighter to read the words. Then he lit a cigarette and gazed out at the city.
Over the past few days he had countless times tried to write a reply, only to stop. How to begin such a thing? With too much to say, Mihalis simply said nothing, and the longer he went on saying nothing, the more saying anything at all seemed an insurmountable task. He had often thought, over the three years of their separation, to send Irini copies of his most recent poems, an indirect way of communicating, but he never did. When he’d imagine them through her eyes, they were suddenly not good enough.
Some nights, when their marriage had become difficult and Mihalis had slept on the couch, he’d awake to find Irini sitting on the floor next to him, her head near his face. She’d press her cheek next to his, or her nose to his forehead, and close her eyes. Other nights, she led him back to bed with her, not necessarily for sex—though there were nights when this ultimately led to sex—but to sleep with their bodies entwined, as they should, as was expected of husband and wife. But inevitably the next morning, the light filtered in and with it the harsh reality of their marriage. It was as if in the day, they were accustomed to their misery, and the sweetness of night couldn’t defeat it. In the day, they behaved as they expected of each other.
Mihalis took up too much emotional space, Irini had said, and left no room for her. He found a small piece of comfort in the fact that she seemed happy these days, at least when this observation didn’t enrage him with jealousy. Her voice, during their phone calls—the frequency of which decreased by the season—seemed content and at ease, and it was almost as if he were talking to a woman he didn’t know or one he had just met. He tried not to think about what she was doing for companionship or any other things that threatened his sanity. He knew he should probably let her go but no man wants to think of his wife with another. Eventually, he knew, she’d want to marry again. Wouldn’t she? Was this what her letter was about?
Mihalis stood, walked to the edge of the wall, and climbed atop it, looking down at the dark café. He wondered if the teens were still somewhere below. Then he unzipped his pants and relieved himself over the edge. “Underneath an incomplete moon,” Mihalis said in his best oratory voice, “the poet pisses on young love.”
When he was finished he walked over to the row of telescopes set up for tourists. But instead of the usual movement of nighttime traffic processing down the main streets, he saw stern, neat lines of military trucks and tanks. He pulled his head back for a moment, then looked again. He was torn between staring through the telescope, looking out with his naked eyes, and returning to the city itself. It felt very surreal.
Then the alarm and the panic set in. He swore, he spit, he peered once again through the telescope and saw more tanks positioned in the central square of the city. Trucks were lined up nearby, probably full of soldiers or citizens roused from sleep. He looked to the north near Halandri and thought of his sister, his nieces and nephew. What in the world had happened? Up there, alone, he felt removed and powerless. Fuck, he thought. Not again. Would they ever have any peace? He stumbled back to the steps of Saint George’s and grabbed the bottle of tsipouro. He meant to hurl it out into the night, but instead when he chucked it it smashed against the low stone wall. The sheer force of this awkward fling set him off balance, and he fell, sprawling onto the uneven, jagged ground.
There Mihalis lay. His lungs felt as if they were shrinking, his chest tight; the dread pressed down on his shoulders, pinning him to the ground. He tried to get up again but felt light-headed, so he stayed still on the path and stared at the sky, hoping the moon could soothe him while the rest of the country derailed. But the bleating background soundtrack of sirens finally forced him to get off the ground. He moaned, lifted his head, and pushed his body up with his hands. Then he began to make his way down the brittle steps.
Past the café he encountered the two teenagers again, giggling and running through the darkness like scurrying mice, oblivious to the momentous shift taking place in the city below them.
“Listen to me,” Mihalis called after them. “Get yourselves home. Don’t walk the main streets. There’s been some sort of takeover.”
But the two disappeared again, behind a trellis lined with jasmine and lantana. For a moment he wondered if he had imagined them. But no—he was in control of his faculties again, like the drunk who sobers up upon glimpsing the reflection of his own slack-jawed face. He knew what he was witnessing, and it terrified him. There had been talk of a coup for weeks; who exactly had succeeded in pulling it off was unclear.
He wouldn’t go back to his sister’s, where he was currently staying, more or less. Halandri was much too far so he headed back to Evan and Simone’s. It was a long way to the bottom, but he had no choice but to slouch his way back toward Athens.
By the time he reached their house at the base of the hill, he was sore and exhausted. Early light spilled through the citrus trees, and a cool, sharp-toothed wind blew over the garden. Evan was awake and sitting on the back veranda, a transistor radio in front of him and a heavy wool sweater wrapped around his shoulders.
When he saw Mihalis, he jumped up. “What happened to you?” he asked. “You look like a wild man.” Military music blared from the radio. “What are you doing wandering around during this?”
Mihalis collapsed into a chair and took a sip from Evan’s glass of water. Then he helped himself to Evan’s cigarette burning in the ashtray.
“There’s been a coup,” Evan said. His brown eyes, the chiseled Byzantine features that women could not resist, were strained, as if he had been in and out of sleep himself.
“Yes,” Mihalis said. “I see that.” He brushed off his suit, which was covered in dust. His pants had ripped open and his knee was a bloody, dirty mess. Somewhere on the climb down, he had taken off and lost his tie.
“So where the hell have you been?” Evan asked.
Mihalis wiped his raw and grimy hands on his thighs and winced from the sting. “What are you, my wife?” he snapped.
Evan glanced toward the house, and a strange look came over his face. The military music stopped and a forceful voice declared that anyone out on the streets would be shot down without warning. Evan gestured to the radio and lit himself another cigarette. “Arrests all through the night. You should stay here awhile.” His voice was strangely monotone. He seemed to be in shock.
Mihalis closed his eyes. His mind gave him an image from the civil war, years and years before: young Evan sitting across from him in a tiny, dirty, sickly lit cell, sleeping upright against the damp wall while his head lolled down on his chest, like a child who had fallen asleep in a stroller. No, he thought. Not prison again, not the constant fear of being chased again. When he opened his eyes Evan was watch-ing him but didn’t say anything.
Mihalis stood up. “I’m going inside to clean up, make some coffee,” he said. It was one thing he knew: through all sorts of imprisonments and wars, the body continued to need what it needed. And now his body felt as though it were falling apart. He thought of the young couple, making love in the bushes while a coup raged below. “Keep the radio on, in case there’s any news.”
Inside, he was careful to be quiet. Simone, pregnant, was surely sleeping. He stepped into the first-floor bathroom and flipped on the dim light. He looked at himself in the mirror, searching for signs of decay. He could already hear it in a poem: The morning after the coup, the poet undergoes a narcissistic fit. He tightened his right bicep and felt it with his left hand. Still young. He was strong, he was slim, and he supposed he was handsome enough. He felt hungover and wanted to lie down. The morning after the coup, the poet realizes his age. Chronologically forty-four, but much older by any other measure. He took a shower, not bothering to wait for the water heater.
As he passed the den with only a towel around his waist, he noticed a small figure curled up, asleep. It was not Simone’s golden head but a raven-haired one. Sensing movement, the figure rose up to face him.
The corridor was dim, and the shutters of the den were closed, but still he was flooded by so much sensation: her perfume, a strong gardenia; her high cheekbones, almost sharp; her black straight hair and her heart-shaped lips. She was thinner, but her skin was still bright and youthful. She touched his hair, messed and wet from the shower, and took his torn-up hands in hers and examined his face.
On the morning of the coup, the poet reunites with his wife.
© 2012 by Natalie Bakopoulos
What led you to write this book?
In some ways I’ve always wanted to write about Greece. My father is from Athens, our family visited the country when I was a child, and I spent a summer there when I was eighteen living with my cousins and traveling around the islands. On that trip I absolutely fell in love with the country: its landscape, culture and language. The place—not only figuratively, as is probably often the case for first-generation American, but physically—has always exerted a strong pull on me. Each time I arrive in Athens I feel my heart pound.
How has your relationship with Greece influenced your writing?
When you’re in love with a place where you don’t live, I think your imagination resides there during your absences. This distance and its resulting duality is a wonderful motivator for creativity. When I’m in the U.S., I’m always remembering the smell of the sun on the streets and beaches, the way the traffic sounds in Athens, the small details of daily living that are so different from my daily life in Ann Arbor. The contrast makes your awareness of both places all the more vivid.
Though it may sound counterintuitive, the fact that I often feel as though I’m an observer in a place I love is not what alienates me but rather what connects me. Good writing has tension, and to write well requires some sort of tension. So many writers I admire have written about writing as a form of exile, of outsider-ness: George Seferis, Nadine Gordimer, Roberto Bolano. Gordimer once said: “The life, the opinions, are not the work, for it is in the tension between standing apart and being involved that the imagination transforms both.”
The character of Mihalis is largely inspired by a real person. Can you describe the connection? Why did you make this decision?
Mihalis is inspired—and I want to be clear to use the phrase “inspired by” rather than “based on”— my great-uncle, a Greek poet named Mihalis Katsaros. I never got the chance to meet him, but I’ve heard many stories about him from my family and friends who happened to know him.
My father told me of Mihalis living in the basement of his childhood home in Halandri, a suburb of Athens; of Mihalis’s friendship with the famous Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, who sometimes stayed at their home. All this intrigued me. A composer, a poet, a basement—an artistic life underground, so to speak. A subterranean world. Though the novel is not entirely about this subject, maybe it’s why I first started writing this book.
There’s a scene in the book where Mihalis walks into a chic café that had once been a low-key establishment, stands on a chair, and berates the diners—both for their patronage of the place and what he sees as their nonchalant passivity to the dictatorship. Though the details and perspective of the scene are imagined, the actual instance of Katsaros’s outburst was not. Before I had written the scene, before I had any sense of where the book was going or what it was about, a Greek poet told me this story about Katsaros, and it stuck with me.
Since I never knew the real-life Mihalis, he is for me more fully realized in the fictionalized poet who exists in this novel. To paraphrase from Aristotle’s Poetics, the role of the poet is not to tell what actually happened, but to imagine what inevitably could or might have happened. I never knew the man, and maybe this was a way to imagine that I did.
Why did you choose the historical and political setting you did?
I’ve always been interested in the way the political and personal intersect, for one. The roles of tyranny and oppression, of fear and uncertainty, are rife with dramatic possibility. As Charles Baxter has said, “Hell is story-friendly.” But if a piece of art has a clear agenda, it’s not art. It’s thinly veiled propaganda. Saul Bellow has said that positions “emerge” in a work of art, and I love this idea. It’s so much more organic and natural. If we start with a position and then craft a story around it, the characters just become thinly veiled mouthpieces and not characters at all. Nobody is emblematic of just one thing: we are all sums of so many contradictions.
To follow-up, how did that time period influence Greek culture and society today?
As a fiction writer—not a historian, political scientist, or economist—I’m wary of making general pronouncements or of drawing connections, particularly in a small amount of space. But having had a military dictatorship in one country’s recent history, a history also marked with foreign intervention, will obviously influence a collective outlook. It also inevitably stunts any sort of progress. I think in the U.S. we are very isolated, almost alienated, from even our most recent histories. I don’t think this is the case in many other countries, Greece in particular.
Whereas fear of the powers-that-be was a common sentiment during the junta, I think the prevailing sentiment now is fear of the future. The threat to democracy is not a military dictatorship or a foreign occupation but instead economic uncertainty and not only what will become of Greece but also of Europe as a whole.
What would you like readers to take away from your novel?
My initial, humorous response: “People are going to read this book?” But after I get over that shock, I think what is important is that I’ve created the experience of the story. But the way it will be experienced will surely be different for each reader. That’s the beauty of literature. Most of us can attest to the hugely different experiences of reading the same book at different periods of our lives. Besides, if it were simple enough to articulate as an absolute I’d say it in a few lines and not need 350 pages—and seven years of writing—to express it. This much I can say with certainty: I want my readers to feel, I want them to laugh, I want them to experience rage and heartache and joy, sometimes in the space of one page.
Specifically, what would you like Greek readers to take away?
I want for my Greek readers the same as I want for any other reader: to be moved. I do hope that Greeks will recognize certain moments, events, and places. If I can capture that period for at least some readers, I will feel happy and successful. I’ve done significant research, lived in Greece on several occasions, and speak the language (at least I try to!)—and I love the country in a way that’s hard to articulate. That said, there will inevitably be things that some Greek readers feel I’ve gotten wrong, whether details that feel anachronistic or ones that are related to this country’s particular period of history. Despite my best attempts at verisimilitude, the honest truth is that I didn’t live through this period. However, my imagination has lived with it for the better part of a decade. And these characters have lived inside me for so long that I feel they must know me as well as I know them. That’s what I hope will feel true: the lives these people lived. Their struggles, their loves, their short-comings, their beautiful mistakes. I hope for this recognition from all my readers.
The Green Shore is not just about living in a time of political instability or fear. It’s about love and heartache and negotiating our own personal boundaries: what we are comfortable with, what we are not, and how we can figure out the difference. How we survive. What I want is for my characters to feel abundantly and complexly human. Fiction isn’t about what happened—we have wonderful historians and nonfiction writers and journalists for that—but about what something felt like. Fiction, to re-appropriate Auden on poetry, is a “way of happening” in itself.
Which character in the book do you most identify with?
All of them. Mihalis’s rage, Sophie’s impetuousness, Anna’s feelings of insignificance, and Eleni’s struggle with what is appropriate: these have all come from my own inner space. At different times of the writing I felt closer, so to speak, to different characters. But I have created them. It’s one of the reasons I write: to examine, to explore, and to experience lives different from and similar to my own.
What is the Green Shore?
The title comes from a line in the poem “Sleep,” by Kostas Karyotakis. It begins: “Will the gift and good fortune be granted / to us that one night we can go to die / there on the green shore of our native land?”
The poem implies a sort of exile, and though not all the characters in this book are in exile in the traditional sense, they are in a metaphorical sense. I’m not necessarily talking about a physical separation from one’s home. The green shore represents a Greece that might have been lost—and in the light of what is happening in Greece now, I think this idea is perhaps even more resonant. It’s a place or state that exists but has disappeared. It’s a longing for something that either never was completely or that was and has vanished, or been snatched away. To die on the green shore of your native land is to somehow reclaim that place. Or maybe to imagine it in a new way.
I am extremely delighted to be sharing Natalie Bakopoulos’s The Green Shore with you, a first novel whose grace, assurance and profound wisdom attest to the seven years Natalie has devoted to it. I fell in love with this book for many of the same reasons I fell in love with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis—because I learned so much about a country and a turbulent period of its history about which very little has been written in literature, and all through the lives of a cast of characters I came to care deeply about.
This book is for any of you whose curiosity has been piqued by all the recent reports of Greece’s trials and tribulations, not to mention for those of you who have already found yourselves enthralled by the islands. It is also for any of you who, like me, have never had the pleasure of actually visiting Greece—I promise that this book is full of infinite rewards, one of which is its ability to make you feel (even in the dead of a New York winter) that you have felt the brightness of the Athenian winter sun or the soothing coolness of the sea off Hydra. Finally, I would say this book is for all of us who like our fiction to take us to a far off place and make us feel that not only do we know that place, but that we have loved ones waiting for us there, should we ever land on those distant shores ourselves.
Simon & Schuster