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Termination by Petros Markaris – the trilogy about the Greek crisis

March 4, 2020 16 comments

Termination by Petros Markaris. (2011) French title: Le Justicier d’Athènes. Translated by Michel Volkovitch.

As far as I know, Le Justicier d’Athènes by Petros Markaris is not available in English. According to Wikipedia, the original Greek title of this book is Peraíosi, a word that Googles translate into Termination. I don’t know what the English title of this book would be, so we’ll use Termination. The French publisher chose to entitle it Athens’s Righter of Wrongs.

Termination belongs to the Kostas Haritos crime fiction series, and within this series, it is included in a trilogy about the 2010 Greek financial crisis. Each book exposes one angle of the Greek collapse. The first one, Liquidations à la Grecque (Overdue Loans), is about the banking system. The second one, Le Justicier d’Athènes (Termination) is about tax collection. The third one Pain, Education, Liberté (Bread, Education and Freedom) is about politics. There’s a conclusion in Epilogue meurtrier, a book I haven’t read yet.

So Termination is about taxes: Haritos has to investigate a murder and attempted murders of rich people who maneuvered to escape taxes or simply don’t pay them. And the Greek administration doesn’t put a lot of energy into recovering the money. We’ve all heard about that in the newspapers. Markaris imagines a murderer who threatens tax evaders and does not hesitate to kill if they don’t pay their bill to the Greek State. He substitutes himself to the tax administration agents and has his own way to collect the cash.

The plot is interesting and the reader does want to know who set up this unorthodox recovery agency but the most important part of the book isn’t there. Once again, crime fiction is a window to a country’s backyard.

Termination, like the Ikonòmou I read recently, pictures the despair and the struggles of the Greek people. The book opens on a triple suicide: three old ladies took their own lives because they didn’t have enough money to survive and didn’t want to burden their families. There will be two other deaths like this, people committing suicide because they had lost faith in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if Markaris had picked these stories in the newspapers.

In Haritos’s family, the daughter Katerina is seriously contemplating to leave her husband behind and go abroad to find a job. She’s a lawyer and her husband Pharis is a doctor in one of Athens’ public hospitals. They don’t have any children yet but he doesn’t earn enough money to support them both and she can’t find a paid job in her field in Greece. Their parents help them with the groceries, and, like in the Ikonòmou, we see that the family unit is tightknit and people help each other.

Yound people start emigrating again and it depresses Haritos as it reminds him of old days:

« Nous voilà revenus au temps de l’émigration. » me dis-je. L’homme partait d’abord en Allemagne, trouvait du boulot, s’installait puis faisait venir sa femme. Les enfants restaient avec les grands-parents. Et avant cette époque des Gastarbeiter, même chose. L’homme s’exilait en Amérique et en Australie, puis sa famille le rejoignait. Dans le cas de Katerina, c’est la femme qui s’exile mais peu importe. Ce qui compte, c’est que nous sommes revenus au point de départ. Nous faisons un bout de chemin, et après quelques années, tout repart de zéro. Nous n’arrivons jamais à garder le terrain gagné. Nous faisons toujours marche arrière et ça recommence. Heureusement, Phanis et Katerina n’ont pas d’enfants, que nous aurions eu à élever. On se console comme on peut. “We are back to the emigration days”

The man left for Germany first, found a job, settled there and made his wife come to. The children stayed behind with the grandparents. And before this time of Gastarbeiter, same thing. The man would exile himself in America and Australia and his family would join him there. In Katerina’s case, it is the wife who exiles herself but whatever. What matters is that we are back to square one. We move forward and after a few years, things start over again. We never manage to hold on what whatever progress we’ve made. We always go back and start all over again. Fortunately, Katerina and Phanis don’t have any children, that we would have had to raise. You got to find solace where you can.

Sobering.

Markaris portrays a country where politicians are corrupt and let influential people “forget” about their tax obligations, where tax evasion is a national sport for the rich and where the tax administration turns a blind eye to overdue taxes or false declarations. I don’t know the details about the Greek-EU crisis –I heard there’s a good film about it, Adults in the Room by Costa Gavras—but Markaris gives a good idea of its effects on common people.

Now, despite its dark topics, Termination isn’t grim, thanks to Markaris’s sense of humor. Athens is still a giant traffic jam, most of the time and Haritos spends hours maneuvering his SEAT on its busy streets. Athens is also the theatre of constant demonstrations, people protesting against the hardship. Here’s a funny scene from the book:

Quand nous approchons de l’avenue Patission, la circulation reprend, accompagnée d’une clameur venant de Polytechnique. En débouchant sur la place Omonia, on croit quitter le désert du Sahara pour la forêt amazonienne. Les voitures tournent en rond, klaxonnent frénétiquement, les conducteurs cherchent désespérément une sortir. Au centre de la place, des touristes en rade avec leurs bagages contemplent le chaos, terrifiés. Ils ne comprennent visiblement pas comment, partis pour les Cyclades, ils ont atterri dans cette jungle.

– Des Allemands, sans doute.

– Comment le sais-tu ?

– Les Français et les Italiens sont plus habitués. Les Allemands sont tout de suite perdus. Ils croient qu’on va les bouffer. Ils n’ont pas compris que nous autres, nous ne bouffons pas les étrangers. Nous nous bouffons entre nous.

When we reach Patission avenue, the traffic resumes, along with a clamor coming from Polytechnic. When you arrived on plaza Omonia, you’d think you’d just left the Sahara Desert to enter the Amazonian forest. The cars were going in circles, honking their horn at anyone, the drivers desperately looking for a way out. In the middle of the plaza, tourists left there with their luggage are contemplating the chaos, terrified. They really don’t understand how they ended up in this jungle on their way to the Cyclades.

– Germans, without any doubt.

– How do you know?

– The French and the Italians are used to it. The Germans always feel lost. They believe we’re going to eat them. They haven’t understood that us Greek don’t eat foreigners. We eat each other.

Don’t we French know everything about strikes, demonstrations and street chaos!

It is a pity that Termination isn’t available in English. It’s not an outstanding book as far as crime fiction technique is concerned but it’s a good alliance between a crime plot and social criticism, which is also why I enjoy reading crime fiction.

Recommended.

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonòmou – a trip to a Greek working class neighborhood

January 12, 2020 43 comments

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonòmou (2010) French title: Ça va aller, tu vas voir. Translated from the Greek by Michel Volkovitch.

Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonòmou is our Book Club read for January. It’s a collection of short stories published in 2010 by a young Greek writer. According to the afterword from the French translator, Michel Volkovitch, most of the stories were actually written before 2008 and the subsequent Euro crisis in Greece.

All the stories are set in a blue-collar neighborhood of Athens. The characters are employees, factory workers, dockers or unemployed. They all struggle to survive in a world with a slow economy. Jobs are scarce, several characters have just been laid-off and they don’t have much hope to find something else soon. Even when they work, money is tight because they are in low-paid jobs (one works in an ice factory) and sometimes, their employer doesn’t have enough cash to pay everyone. They come home without pay.

Ikonòmou describes a country whose working class walks on the edge of a financial abyss. Several characters haven’t paid their rent for a few months, others couldn’t afford their mortgage. The ghost of eviction is at their door and steals their sleep. In several stories, the protagonists can’t sleep and invent various stratagems to keep insomnia at bay or survive the night. We all know how a small worry can become a huge issue after nightfall. They smoke, they stay on the stairs outside their building to monitor the street, they tell each other stories. A man talks to his spouse all night to lull her into sleep.

We see people who can’t afford food. We see a country where its senior citizens spend the night on the pavement in front of the community clinic because they want to be the first in the waiting line when the clinic opens the next day. A woman dies in the hospital because the person who brought her to the ER didn’t know her name and they couldn’t check whether she had insurance.

All the stories are bleak, the country seems to be about to crumble and indeed, it did a few years after Ikonòmou wrote these stories. Basic public services like drinkable tap water are not a sure thing.

We see a country with deep differences between the rich and the poor and no security net, which is common for a US reader but shocking for a European reader.

All the stories are bleak because of the characters’ circumstances but they are lit from inside by people’s love for each other. Spouses stay close, comfort and love each other. Friends take care of friends. Families try to help with small jobs or loans. The times are hard but the family unit stays strong and close-knit.

The people we meet here are breathless, holding their breath for what is yet to come or trying to catch their breath after another fortnight without wages. Their fear of tomorrow suffocates them. Some are hungry. A lot are nostalgic of the past. Most of them underwent forced changes in their lives: they had to move out of their house, to change of neighborhood, to accept a job only to make ends meet and pay the bills.

Men are raised to provide for their families and can’t anymore. They feel useless and it chips at their identity and maybe even at their sense of virility.

People have to survive and make the most of what they have. They live in the Piraeus neighborhood and Ikonòmou takes us there, in its street and by the sea.

Ikonòmou’s prose reflects his characters’ struggles. He alternates long and short paragraphs. Some sentences repeat themselves in a story, like thoughts are played on a loop in someone’s mind when they are sleepless with worry. The rhythm of the sentences mirrors the characters’ breathlessness, the way their financial worries choke them. Their hardship puts their sanity at stake. Ikonòmou shows a people beaten down by capitalism and a poor management of the country. They are bruised and battered by life but there’s still hope in love, friendship and solidarity.

Ikonòmou gives us a vivid picture of today’s Greece and I do recommend this collection of short stories.

Overdue loans by Petros Markaris

February 23, 2016 15 comments

Liquidations à la grecque by Petros Markaris (2010) Not available in English, sadly. Orginal title: ληξιπρόθεσμα δανία which means, according to Google translate: Overdue loans.

Markaris_LiquidationsLiquidations à la grecque is the first opus of a crime fiction trilogy about the Greek financial crisis. This one is about the banking system. The second one, Le justicier d’Athènes, is about tax evasion. The last one, Pain, Education, Liberté is about the Greek elites. I didn’t read them in the right order and started last year with the third volume.

Liquidation à la grecque pictures the police officer Charitos and his family, his wife Adriani and his daughter Katerina. The novel opens to her wedding to Phanis, a physician who works at the local hospital. She’s out of law school and is job hunting. The wedding is a success but Charitos worries about the bill as the economic crisis settles in Greece. As a policeman, he’s on the State’s payroll and their bonuses are being cut. He’s really starting to worry about his finances.

Later, Charitos is called to a crime scene: a man, Zissimopoulos was beheaded with an antique sword. He was gardening in his house set in a quiet neighborhood, the murder seems to have been well prepared. The victim is the former director of the Greek Central Bank. He wasn’t really appreciated by his staff and Charitos soon discovers that he was involved in shady transactions. The murderer signed his crime with the letter D on the victim’s chest.

Charitos is convinced this is a common murder but his colleague Stathakos convinces their boss that it’s probably a terrorist attack. Another victim appears, same MO. Mr Robinson was a British citizen and the director of the Greek subsidiary of the First British Bank, a bank specialized in hedge funds.

For Charitos, it’s clear, the mysterious murderer is after the heads of the Greek banking system. Literally and figuratively.

We see Charitos navigate between his field work on the case and the delicate politics with his hierarchy, his colleagues and the press. Markaris uses crime fiction to tell about the Greek society and to analyze the current economic crisis. Sometimes we feel sorry for the Greek people as the collapse of their economy affects more the poor and not the elites who led them here. Sometimes we are irritated by their reactions to the measures asked by the EU when the said measures are only to stick by basic rules. Like complying to VAT laws in shops or collecting taxes properly.

It’s interesting to read about common people’s way-of-life. The traffic jam in Athens seems horrendous. I laughed at how not buying a German car was a political statement. Charitos settled for a SEAT, as it’s a Spanish brand and Southern Europe countries have to stick together. Only SEAT is owned by Volkswagen… I enjoyed Charitos’s casual descriptions of his wife’s cooking and the family dynamics. They have to adapt to their daughter being married. We also see how the situation deteriorates and how the people’s living conditions are affected. Athens is swamped by demonstrations. At some point, one of Charitos’s neighbors tries to kill himself because he’s ruined.

Liquidations à la grecque is not as good as Pain, Education, Liberté and I suspect that the author has a better understanding of the role played by the Greek elites in the catastrophe than in the workings of the financial system. Charitos is lost in the world of finance and the explanations he gets are rather light. Markaris is not at ease to explain speculative finance or maybe he didn’t want to go into too many details for the reader. In any case, the explanations sound a little vague…and a bit too light for my liking.

Despite this little flaw, I enjoyed Liquidations à la grecque and intend to read the other volume of the trilogy.

 

Bread, Education, Freedom by Petros Markaris

July 30, 2015 19 comments

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.

Forever a servant: a female’s life isn’t worth living, she thinks

August 16, 2011 13 comments

The Murderess (1903) by Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911) 189 pages.

Alexandros Papadiamantis is one of the greatest Greek writers of his time. His work is mostly composed of short-stories and a few novels, among those The Murderess. I came across this author when I researched books for my EU Book Tour. How happy I am to have started that whimsical project! I would have never found this book on my own and it’s a real gem.

The Murderess is set in a rural island in Greece, the ones you imagine when you think about that country: sparkling turquoise sea, white houses, chapels, sheep and steep paths in the mountains. Alexandros Papadiamantis excels at describing the landscape, the scent of wild flowers and herbs under the sun, the pure springs, the shepherds with their sheep.

The main protagonist is Khadoula, also named Francoyannou or Yannou. She’s around 60. When the novel begins, she’s staying up at nights at her daughter’s house to watch her newborn grand-daughter. The deliverance has been difficult, both mother and baby are weak. During her sleepless nights, she starts thinking about her life:

Et là, à force de réfléchir et de rappeler en son esprit son existence entière, elle découvrait qu’elle n’avait jamais fait que vivre dans la servitude.

Jeune fille, elle avait été la domestique de ses parents. Une fois mariée, elle était devenue l’esclave de son mari – et pourtant, par l’effet de son propre caractère et de la faiblesse de l’autre, elle était en même temps sa tutrice. Quand ses enfants étaient nés, elle s’était faite leur servante; et maintenant qu’ils avaient à leur tour des enfants, voici qu’elle se trouvait asservie à ses petits-enfants.

And then, thinking hard and calling back in her mind her whole existence, she discovered she has only lived in servitude.

As a young girl, she had been her parents’ maid. Once married, she had become her husband’s slave and however, due to her own character and the weakness of his, she had also been his tutor. When her children were born, she had become their maid. And now that they had children too, she was enslaved to her grand-children.

Francoyannou was raised by a mean mother and a weak father who gave her as a dowry the less valuable of all their assets. Their avarice or perhaps simply their lack of love and generosity settled their daughter in poverty and obliged her to work hard to earn a living and build a house. They also married her to a simpleton. Her husband was so stupid he couldn’t calculate the amount of his wages and she had to interfere either to make sure he got paid correspondingly to the work done or that he didn’t drink their money. On this island, all the valuable men emigrate and are like dead to their families. They don’t write, they don’t come back and they never send money. Francoyannou’s two older sons emigrated and thus are of no support. She had to work hard to earn the dowry she gave to her daughter Delcharo, the one who just had a baby. And “what for?”, she thinks when she sees her loud and incapable son-in-law. She knows she can’t afford the same dowry for her two other daughters; they’ll have to be spinsters.

Looking back on her life, she doubts her life was worth the effort. She comes to a simple conclusion: being a woman is a curse, having daughters is a malediction. She looks at her grand-daughter and thinks that if she died now, her parents would be freed from raising her and sacrificing for her dowry. If she died now, she wouldn’t have to go through that life of servitude, she’d be an angel in the Kingdom of God. If Francoyannou helped fate and smothered the baby, it would look like she choked to death. One thought leading to the other, Francoyannou becomes sure it is the best solution. She kills the baby. She feels empowered by her action. For the first time maybe, she leads her life instead of reacting and adjusting to events and other people. It’s exhilarating. Will this baby be her only victim?

Francoyannou is a complex character. She’s a respected member of her community for her capacities, her compassion and the help she provides to others. Indeed, Francoyannou knows all kinds of herbs and works as a midwife. She can provoke abortions and wishes she could find a sterility herb. She’s everywhere, compassionate, healing neighbours, helping with laundry, working all the time to make money and survive. She’s also very religious and superstitious. She’s certain that Jesus sent her signs, approving her lethal deeds. She’s not crazy, she’s practical. Her compassion makes her cross the line.

Alexandros Papadiamantis wrote a fantastic novel on the condition of the women of that time. They aren’t really considered as citizens and yet do all the job, running households, working very hard and helping each other. They are never thanked or respected for it. Papadiamantis denounces the side-effects of emigration. It is a catastrophe for this island as it empties the native land from the most valuable men. Only the lazy, the stupid and the drunkards remain, making bad husbands and fathers. Only the shepherds are pictured as nice men. I also wonder why these emigrants never came back or sent money. Usually emigrants send money back home, helping the local economy. It was the case for Italian emigrants in America or Algerians in France.

Papadiamantis also questions old customs and the yoke they put on families. Dowries are above their means and yet mandatory for your daughter to get married. It costs them everything and prevents them from enriching from one generation to the other. As a consequence, having too many daughters is a curse. I had never heard of such a custom in a European country at the beginning of the 20th C and not among poor people. For me the question of dowries was linked to the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. I’ve heard of such customs in India though.

Papadiamantis also depicts very well the parallel economy driven by poverty. Women have no profession but do many small jobs to earn money or get paid in nature.

Despite her horrible actions, I could understand and pity Francoyannou. It’s so desperate. Of course, murder is condemnable but Papadiamantis shows very well the net of obligations that led her to this horrible conclusion: Girls are a burden for their families and will live as servants all their life. Girls’ lives aren’t worth living. Sad and chilling. I highly recommend it.

Here is another review by Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes.

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