Bread, Education, Freedom by Petros Markaris

Bread, Education, Freedom by Petros Markaris (2012). French title: Pain, éducation, liberté. Translated from the Greek by Michel Volkovitch.

J’ai envie de monter les escaliers quatre à quatre. Mais l’immeuble a un ascenseur. Et le Grec moyen prend toujours l’ascenseur. A la réflexion, ce qui nous a démolis, c’est un ascenseur trop rapide.

I want to leap up the stairs. But the building has a lift. And the average Greek always uses the lift. On second thought, an exceedingly swift lift is what destroyed us.

Someone lent me this crime fiction novel by Petros Markaris just as the last big crisis between Greece and the EU took place.

Markaris_painBread, Education, Freedom was written in 2012 and it opens on 2013 New Year’s Eve. On January 1st, 2014, Greece will come back to the Drachma, leaving the Euro behind. Markaris describes the changes it does to people. Of course, that’s dystopian fiction and this has not happened.

Superintendant Kostas Charitos has just learnt that he won’t get any wages during the next three months. The Greek State cannot pay them anymore. Everybody is still present at the station, doing their job, though.

As the head of the crime squad in Athens, he’s called to the scene when Yerassismos Demertzis is murdered. When the police arrive on the premises, a construction site near the Olympic Games stadium, they start investigating. A phone set on the victim’s body rings and a recorded message says the slogan “Bread, education, freedom”.

This is the slogan used by the students who fought in the Athens Polytechnic Uprising in November 1973. This uprising was repressed by the Regime of the Colonels but the people supported the students and it eventually led to the end of the regime.

The victim was a key figure of this movement. When a second victim appears, following the same modus operandi and also an important participant of the uprising, Charitos wonders who is trying to kill heroes from the Greek revolution.

Petros Markaris was born in 1937; he was an adult during the dictatoship of the Colonels and witnessed the birth of Greece’s new democracy in 1974. The plot of this novel is straightforward. Don’t expect sophisticated twists and turns. It’s still a fascinating read because it gives you a picture and an analysis of today’s Greece on several aspects.

First there’s a glimpse in Charitos’s private life and Markaris describes how the Greek society lives with the massive economic crisis.

And then, there’s the in-depth analysis of the reasons of the crisis. Bread, Education, Freedom is the last volume of a trilogy about the economic crisis in Greece. This one focuses on the generation who instigated the fall of the Colonels. According to Markaris, their aura is so great that they are untouchable. They trusted powerful positions in the country, becoming entrepreneurs, deans and heads of unions. They took the power and created networks of clients by granting positions and favors. Their revolutionary past is such that they cannot be criticized. Their ideology is the leading voice of the country and there’s no credible opposition, as the right wing is suspect of complicity the the old regime.

Markaris describes something close to what Khadra says about Algeria in Dead Man’s Share. The leaders of the fight against the colonizer or the dictator that ruled their country earned so much prestige in that battle that they can do whatever they want. They took advantage of their past to cash in public works contracts or influential positions in the administration or the unions. The power was confiscated by people whose competences were assessed through their record during the fight for democracy. They made a dictatorship fall to replace it by an oligarchy based on credentials during the uprising and not based on actual competences.

They got drunk on power and the country’s got a bloody hangover.

If someone who’s totally clueless about the importance of literature asks you “What’s the use of literature?”, lend them this novel. Sure, it’s not the greatest piece of literature from a stylistic point of view. It’s not innovative in that sense but it fulfills another purpose. Markaris helps you understand his country and gives you another vision of the crisis that shatters Greece than the one you hear about in the media. For some reason, I can’t read non-fiction. I’ll never read a lengthy essay about Greece’s economical collapse and the reasons why it happened. So I’m glad that writers like Markaris are up to the challenge and decide to use crime fiction to make us see the situation through different lenses.

Bread, education, freedom enlightened and entertained me. It left me a bit desperate for the Greeks and firmly decided to read the two other novels of the trilogy to learn more about the two other reasons why Greece has reached this terrible cul-de-sac. Markaris sees hope in the younger generation and believes that hard times feed creativity and will force Greek’s youth to start again on the right footing. Let’s hope so.

  1. July 31, 2015 at 8:15 am

    Markaris is great, isn’t he, at painting a fresco of his times and his country? I really enjoyed his work – what I’ve read of it so far. I’ve read ‘Liquidations a la grecque’ in this trilogy, which tackles the role of bankers. And I read one of his earlier ones in English.

    Like

    • July 31, 2015 at 6:48 pm

      He’s great, yes. The arguments are well put. He’s not screaming at people for leading the country in this bad corner. He’s factual and spot on, it seems. (after all, I’m not able to bring counter arguments)

      Still, reading this, I thought that if it were a company I’d fire the management team and streamline processes in the finance department. Or France could lend them tax inspectors. These guys are really efficient and creative and if they could be somewhere else for a while…:-)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. July 31, 2015 at 9:35 am

    The economic/political/social context sounds very interesting, Emma. I’m with you on your preference for fiction over non-fiction for a subject like this as it’s often easier to connect with something when you can engage with the characters.

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    • July 31, 2015 at 6:58 pm

      It’s very interesting. I agree with you, having the characters as middlemen helps discovering the political/economic/social context. The Charitos family is lovely and he showed how citizen take action and organise things to compensate what the State can no longer provide.

      Like

  3. July 31, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    I was going to ask if you were planning to read the other two novels in the series, but you answered the question. I’ve often thought that crime novels can often give us a segue into foreign societies.

    I haven’t heard of this author so thanks for the mention. I like crime novels that are unique to the country they are set in.

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    • July 31, 2015 at 7:06 pm

      It’s as fascinating as Broken Harbor, to give you a comparison. Crime fiction is a great tool for that. It’s “allowed” to voice social/economic/political concerns in a crime fiction novel without it being tagged as a pamphlet. It’s an excellent way to have a view of a foreign country.

      This one isn’t available in English but some of his previous books have been translated.

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      • July 31, 2015 at 8:46 pm

        Well that’s a strong comparison to make as I thought Broken Harbour was excellent.

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        • August 1, 2015 at 9:23 pm

          It’s not as good on plot but it’s spot on the the explanation of a collapse.

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          • August 2, 2015 at 5:51 pm

            It’s interesting how crime can take you into society. I’m thinking of an Argentinian novel in which a policeman has to decide which corpses are murders by individual(s) and which are state-conducted, and therefore crimes which he cannot prosecute.

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            • August 3, 2015 at 9:27 pm

              Yes, it is. Perhaps it comes from the fact that it deals with the ugliest side of society. Then it’s “allowed” to dig further.
              Which Argentinian novel is it?

              Like

  4. August 1, 2015 at 7:44 pm

    I’m curious to read these. I recently heard a talk by a translator of contemporary Greek literature, who mentioned that there’s a kind of mini-revolution going on in Greek writing as writers engage the country’s economic woes. And if ever a title seemed to express a concern with economic woes…

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    • August 1, 2015 at 9:26 pm

      Lucky you, you can read in French and have access to this series.
      It’s interesting to know that Markaris is part of a literary movement or let’s say, a new trend in Greek literature full of social and economic awareness.
      This crisis has effects we don’t suspect when we only listen to the news.

      Like

  5. August 13, 2015 at 8:22 pm

    A complex plot would I think be a bad things as you describe it. It’s crime as vehicle to explore society, which as you allude crime fiction is a great tool for. With this much to explore, a dense plot would have imbalanced it.

    Shame it’s not in English.

    Like

    • August 13, 2015 at 9:50 pm

      You’re probably right. The fact that the plot is easy to follow allows the reader to concentrate on the exploration of societal problems.

      Like

  1. December 29, 2015 at 10:17 pm
  2. December 29, 2015 at 11:29 pm
  3. February 23, 2016 at 11:10 pm

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