Historical memory and modern Greek literature : the case of Elias Venezis
The Syrian civil war and refugee wave are among the most dramatic events in recent years. Most of us have read or watched the news on the disastrous situation of this Middle-eastern country and have seen photos of Syrian people arriving on Lesvos island in Greece, crying and holding their children in their arms. In a little more than a year, about a million of refugees arrived in Greece, risking their lives in the sea but hoping for a better and safer future in Europe. Our times are unfortunately times of closed frontiers, strict security measures and rise of xenophobia. However, despite the disastrous situation of Greece due to one of the biggest economic crisis in its history, the people of Lesvos welcomed the Syrian refugees and helped them with the little they possessed, while a wave of unexpected solidarity appeared in the whole country and marginalized the few hostile voices.
Being a Greek in France, I was asked how I would explain the rather surprising attitude of my people. Spontaneously, my answer was that Greeks have experienced similar situations and conditions, so they know what being a refugee is. I was surprised when I heard the following remark to my reply : «But it was their ancestors who experienced such events, not contemporary Greeks, how can they possibly think that they know what being a refugee is ?» Nevertheless, it is precisely this conviction that determined the attitude of the majority of Greeks towards those hundreds of thousands of people arriving from the sea. Why then contemporary Greeks, more than others, keep stronger in their minds and hearts what could be called collective or historical memory ? I could answer to this question by giving two reasons that seem important enough : strong family bonds and thus family narrations transmitted without interruption from one generation to the other ; and modern literature largely inspired from tragic historical events of the 20th century. In other words, art is an important reason and means which preserves historical memory, forms people’s consciences and consequently shapes their attitude in the future.
When I speak of Greek literature related to the refugee subject matter, the name of the writer Elias Venezis comes first to my mind. He was born in 1904 in Kydonies/Ayvalik in the west of Turkey, an area with a strong presence of Greek populations since the 8th century b.C. During the political changes and military events of the first half of the 20th century, he and his family had to leave their home city twice : a first time, when they found temporarily shelter on Lesvos island to escape from obligatory military service imposed by the Turkish army ; and a second time, when the Greek army was defeated in Minor Asia and followed what is considered by many historians as the worst disaster in the Greek history : destruction of villages and cities, massacres, and over one million and a half of people forced to abandon their homes in the west of Turkey and arrive as refugees in Greece. Venezis, who had just graduated from high school in Ayvalik, became a hostage of the Turkish army in 1922 and was sent to labour camp until he was released 14 months later and managed to join the rest of his family on Lesvos island. He spent some years there before he moved to Athens where he died in 1973. His masterpieces, Aeolian Land (ΑιολικήΓη, 1943), Number 31328 (ΤοΝούμερο 31328, 1931) and Tranquillity (Γαλήνη, 1939), are representative of modern Greek literature in spired from the Disaster of Minor Asia, since these three novels treat the three main subject matters of this literary genre : the representation of a previous happy life in Minor Asia, the description of the disastrous events in 1922, and the arrival and integration of the refugees in the Greek society (Eri Stavropoulou, I parousia tis Mikrasiatikis Katastrophis stin neoelliniki pezografia, 2014).
Eri Stavropoulou, AthensUniversity professor of modern Greek literature, explains that the reconstruction of space in Greek art became an aim in itself since the old homeland was lost forever (no Greeks were ever allowed to return to their homes in the west of Turkey) and the more the disaster was dramatic, the more life in Minor Asia was idealised (Stavropoulou, ibid.). She finds thus elements of a kind of «magic realism» in Venezis’ AiolikiGhi. From a similar point of view, Lawrence Durrell remarks in his preface to the English translation of Aeolian Land (1949) : «The tragedy of his expulsion from Anatolia still weighs heavily upon the heart of the modern Greek, whether he is a metropolitan or an exile from the bountiful plains and wooded mountains of Asia Minor. He cannot forget it. If he is an exile here turns again and again to Anatolia in his dreams: he broods upon it as Adam and Eve must have brooded upon the Garden of Eden after the Fall. »We can read, at the beginning of the third chapter of Aeolian Land :
« The hot summer days arrived. The sun sends light waves to Kimindenia, to the olive grove. I want to stay outside all the time, close to the soil, unprotected, during the midday hours. The hours during which the sunburns, when the season lives its big moment. Not only in the morning or in the evening, when it is cool. But in the midday. In this way, I understand how it is to live deeply in the summer, to become one withit. A molecule of matter, of the soil, of the leaves, of the stones which send the light back in a spasm that rides on their surface, unable to absorb it all inside them. »
The second subject matter inspired several Greek writers during the inter-war period. Their works reflect their wish to emphasize personal testimony of the historical events so that they can be preserved in collective memory, and the victims’ tortures, physical and mental (Stavropoulou, ibid.). The writers’ narrations are often based on their personal experience. Venezis’ Number 31328 is typical of this text category, since it relates the dramatic experience of his arrest by the Turks in 1922 and his suffering together with 3000 more Greeks in Anatolia’s labour camps. The refugee, during and after the events, is represented, as EriStavropoulou explains, as a suffering body, feeling mostlyfear and shame. Venezis himself had said that Number 31328 is written with blood, however, as Dimitris Daskalopoulos underlines in his preface to the novel’s 43rd edition, «Venezisdoes not try to accuse the opponents and the enemies. He feels pity and compassion for his torturers, tenderness and sympathy for those who suffer in that dramatic maelstrom ».Therefore the writer highlights the tragedy and irrationality of all wars.
« Everyone was shouting. However, we were all running in order not to stay behind. We were trembling, fearing that they would kill the last ones. […] The soldiers on their horses were also running after us, hitting us with their sticks to prevent us from stopping. We were a flock of dishevelled animals – they run in the plain to find a shelter because they smelled the approaching storm. » (Number 31328, chapter 5)
There are fewer novels focusing on the traumatic experience of the uprooting and the refugees’ integration in the Greek society, probably because the priority was given to the lost beauty and the horror of the events, while the integration took place progressively and in different ways depending on each place and group of people (Stavropoulou, ibid.). These novels depict the atmosphere of those times with images of the refugees mourning their dead and searching the missing ones, needing health care, shelter and food, being often exploited instead of helped. Venezis’ Tranquillity is the most famous novel on this subject matter, describing the refugees’ efforts to adapt to their new country, to face the unwelcoming local people and to fight against their own psychological, social and financial problems (Stavropoulou, ibid.).
Therefore, it is not as unexpected and surprising as one could think, to hear people saying in nowadays Greece that they know what being a refugee is and feel spontaneous solidarity towards those thousands of Syrians they had never been in contact with before. An experience coming from the Greek past and the lessons to learn from it were transmitted in big part thanks to literary works. It is a proof of how reading a novel, or listening to a story, opens people’s minds and hearts to unknown experiences, feelings and ideas, puts them in the place of the others, encourages their imagination and develops their empathy ; and when these experiences were those of one’s own great-grandparents, they also belong to the new generations through collective memory. It is one of literature’s roles to explore the impact of historical events on people’s lives, feelings and thoughts, to transmit either through fiction or fact-based stories what historians could omit, and to flesh out and shed light on what studies can not fully explain and demonstrate.
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