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Stratis Tsirkas: Ακυβέρνητες Πολιτείες (Drifting Cities)

This novel has, not surprisingly, been compared to Lawrence Durrell‘s Alexandria Quartet but could also be compared to Olivia Manning‘s Levant Trilogy or even Edward Whittemore‘s Jerusalem Quartet. Like the Levant Trilogy, it consists of three books: Η Λέσχη (The Club) (set in Jerusalem), Αριάγνη (Ariagne) (set in Cairo) and Η Νυχτερίδα (The Bat) (set in Alexandria). Like the Durrell and Manning, it takes place during World War II and, like those books, there are conspiracies within conspiracies, everyone seems to be spying on everyone else, and pretty well everyone is an exile (albeit a temporary one), either because, for various reasons, they have been forced to leave their country (Jews, Greeks, anti-Hitler Austrians, French, Romanians) or are fighting against the Germans (British and Americans), though, in practice, they seem to be fighting just as much against one another.

The first book revolves around the boarding house of an expatriate Cologne Jew, Frau Anna Feldman. She is motherly but, for some of her guests, perhaps too motherly and they consider her intrusive. Manos, the main character, calls her the old bitch but then he is trying to keep his whereabouts secret. Manos, who is not very well-off, lives in the attic room. His name is Manos Simonidis but is known the to residents of the boarding house as Manos Kaloyannosh and also Manos Kaloyannis. He is involved in a left-wing Greek group, probably Communist, though we do not learn the exact nature of his faction. We do know that there is a lot of infighting and, naturally, opposition to the right-wing Greeks factions as well, of course, to the Germans, who are currently occupying Greece. Much of what goes on in the house we see through his eyes. He suspects, rightly, that the British are spying on him and probably the Americans, as well. Both are certainly keeping an eye on Hans Bobretzberg and his flirtatious and attractive wife, Emmy. Bobretzberg is part of the anti-Hitler Austrians and he favours a return of the monarchy. We know he is in touch with Von Papen, the former German chancellor who later became German Ambassador to Austria, when Hitler squeezed him out and, during the events in this book, is German ambassador to Turkey. Bobretzberg is plotting and scheming with the Americans but, of course, it is they who are using him and early in the book, he is shipped off to Ankara (behind the backs of the British). Emmy declines to accompany him. She is love with Manos (though the love is not consummated) and is having an affair with Adam (who was born in Jerusalem but is of Greek origin) and with Captain Benny Kurtmayer of the OWW, a fictitious intelligence organisation, presumably based on the OSS.

Manos is dealing with someone he knows as the Little Man and condemns those he calls a talking head, i.e. the big talkers, the hypocrites, the pseudo-moralists. He is clearly not happy with these people but has no choice if he is to fight for what he sees as the best interests of Greece. Indeed, we follow his adventures, which include hiding documents and explosives in a remote monastery and involve him being accused of murdering Adam. When he is not involved in his political activities, he discourses on the people in the boarding house. He sleeps with Michèle Rapescu, who is French but the widow of a Romanian and is as free with her favours as Emmy and Nina, the Italian doctor, with whom Manos will later lodge. As Tsirkas comments Old love affairs were legalised, friendly groups openly exchanged wives and husbands, and the homosexuals, their expressions serious, absorbed, shyly made use of their new-found liberty. One person who does not seem to be having affairs is Miss Butler, the Christian Scientist, who, we learn, is acting as a spy for her brother, a senior British intelligence officer. However, as Manos says What a Tower of Babel this is, what confusion. Everybody spying, everybody betraying someone else. And this is the world that is struggling to save itself from the flood! Lady Nancy Campbell, a later resident of the boarding house, quotes Eliot’s Waste Land:

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

which Manos finishes off with the one word line unreal.

It is only towards the end of this first book that we learn about the eponymous club. It is based on a quote in Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent (also called The Raw Youth and The Accidental Family which reads These creatures, who do not resist, are always the same: they know the abyss is gaping before them, and yet they race headlong toward it. (Incidentally, I can find no evidence for this quote in on-line texts of the work so it is either not a quote or has been mangled from being translated from Russian to Greek to English.) Sergeant Winter, the British police officer-cum-spy, who elaborated this idea, has a theory about people resisting and not resisting and knowing that they are not resisting. The idea of the club was to bet (usually a bottle of whiskey) whether various individuals would resist (sexually) and, inevitably it all got rather messy. Moreover, it does not really jibe with the rest of the book.

The second, book, Ariagne (yes, it is Ariagne and not Ariadne) is mainly set in Cairo and seems to me a less interesting book. The book actually starts in the Libyan desert after the battle of El Alamein. Manos is driving in a decrepit lorry with his friend Michalis through the desert. Hr has been agonising over the dilemma of what is most important – to live life or to record it, the two being incompatible. The lorry breaks down and Michalis has to go off to Benghazi (hitching a ride from some Australians) to get a spare part, while Manos has to guard the lorry. Unfortunately, a German plane bombs the area and Manos is injured. Michalis is able to rescue him and get him to a hospital but he is in a bad way. To recuperate he moves in with Ariagne, who happens to be Michalis’ mother, who lives in Cairo with her husband, Dionysis, and their six children. Despite having her own children to look after, she takes good care of Manos. The children, who are apparently based on the children Tsirkas knew as a child, and their activities are a key point of this book. They are in and out all the time and often up to something, including black market and spying. The main thrust of this book, however, is the highly convoluted intra-Greek disputes, relating to what the nature of the Greek government should be. There seem to be numerous points of view as to what is right and what is not. Manos himself, while left-wing and somewhat sympathetic to the Communists, is definitely not communist and very much opposed to a Stalinist approach. However, from his perspective, there seems little choice but to support the Communists if the Fascists are to be overthrown. Plots and counter-plots abound. Indeed, even Ariagne’s children have differing views on what is the right side. The immediate priority of the Greeks, of course, is to get the Germans out of Greece, which is why many Greeks fought for the Allies at El Alamein. However, they feel quite strongly that, after the Germans and the Greek Fascists, the main enemy is undoubtedly the British, as Churchill supports the Fascists and a monarchy. When one of the British – a homosexual called Robbie Richards – tries to support the left-wing Greeks, he is brutally punished by them.

The final book – The Bat – carries on in the same vein. The British carry the war to the Greeks, disarming the Second Brigade. Indeed, as one of the Greeks says Hitler or Churchill – not much to choose between them. The focus is still on Manos. We had met Lady Nancy Campbell in the previous book. She is separated from her husband, Sir Charles. She had gone to Cairo with her lover, Ron. Sadly, he is killed at El Alamein but she has a backup – Manos. Though we know where he is, neither Lady Nancy nor Major Peter (we never learn his surname) of British Intelligence, who is trying to track him down, know. Peter, who is aware of Lady Nancy’s attraction for Manos, tries to warn her off, telling her that the British attraction for the Greeks, based on British classical education, is flawed. Do not get yourself involved in Greek politics he tells her. Do not allow yourself to be carried away by your love of the classic, by the humanistic passion bred in us by our universities. He cites the example of Robbie Richards (who, by this time, is dead) as an example. She ignores him. Indeed, she gets more and more involved. The other key element of this book is Manos meeting his relatives. His mother was originally from Alexandria and his parents married there before moving to Athens. He tracks down obscure relatives and we learn the story of his family, how they came to Alexandria after the Chios earthquake. They also are involved in the Greek independence movement. Things get out of hand as the British behave even worse than they did before. A brief epilogue set in 1954 brings us sort of up to date.

If you are not intimately familiar with the intricacies of Greek politics of the 1940s, you might find some of what is going in somewhat confusing but you can still enjoy this trilogy even if you are totally ignorant of the political situation, as most English-language readers will be. The key person is Manos, a humanist, a leftist but not a Communist. He faces the issues others have faced in similar situations. Do you support a group with which you have some sympathies but disagree on many points, when it is the only viable opposition to the real enemy? How you reconcile the fact you are essentially an artist and a thinker with the need for action? And where does your personal life come in? Do you abandon it or struggle to reconcile the two? There are no easy answers. Tsirkas tells his story well, even though we may struggle with the political machinations, in portraying the struggle for a nation, with a long history, to reinvent itself, in the face of not one but two external enemies (the Germans and the British) as well as many internal enemies. This book has pretty well disappeared from the list of modern novels to be read as has, sadly, pretty well all modern Greek literature with the exception of Kazantzakis, but I can certianly recommend this one, particularly if you enjoyed the Alexandria Quartet.

Publishing history

First published 1960-65 by Kedros, Athens
First English translation 1974 by Knopf