May 26, 2017KR Reviews

Tragedy in Piraeus: Christos Ikonomou’s Something Will Happen, You’ll See

Translated by Karen Emmerich. Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2016. 272 pages. $18.00.

On January 1, 1981, Greece formally became a member of the European Community, the precursor to the EU. At the time, the alliance was a cause for celebration and hope. The twentieth century had been tumultuous for the Greeks. They’d weathered world and civil wars, Nazi occupation, political coups and a brutal military dictatorship. By the mid-seventies, Greece had finally returned to its republican roots; the military junta had fallen, a public referendum abolished the monarchy and a new constitution had been approved. Once again Greece took its place among the democracies in a Europe that was still split into East and West by the Iron Curtain. The union promised to deliver to the birthplace of democracy and western tradition the long sought-after financial security and political stability modern Greece had, heretofore, been unable to secure.

Thirty-five years down the line, there is little cause for celebration. The Greeks’ high hopes have been dashed; their country’s romance with Europe has hit the skids. Since the global financial meltdown in 2008, the nation has been forced to agree to rounds of bailouts and austerity to keep from defaulting on the debt it owes some of the very same lenders who had a hand in causing the country’s economy to crash. Life in the Eurozone for average Greeks has become increasingly difficult; however, for the poor and elderly who have had to bear the brunt of the austerity measures, the dream for a united Europe has become a living nightmare.

This was certainly the case last summer when Brussels forced Greek financial institutions to take what the BBC called the “bank holiday from hell” to stave off yet another default. During the weeks the banks were shut, Greeks lined up for hours in the sweltering heat hoping to get the sixty euros they were allowed to withdraw each day from the country’s ATMs. At the same time Greece was trying to cope with the financial crisis, it also found itself on the frontlines of the greatest refugee emergency to hit Europe since the end of World War II; to everyone’s horror, drowned bodies were washing up on their shores with ever-increasing frequency as refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan desperately tried to reach Germany any way they could. The failure of the EU to come up with a coherent policy certainly contributed to the human tragedy unfolding on Greece’s beaches. Both crises had a destabilizing effect on the left-wing government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, that had come into power in January 2015 on a platform of finding relief for Greece’s mounting EU woes.

And while all of Europe was stunned by the results of last year’s Brexit vote, it was hardly a surprise that the Greeks resoundingly voted to reject the terms of the EU’s bailout package last summer, a move that seemed almost destined to lead to the Grexit, the Greek exit from the Eurozone (Brexit came from the portmanteau term originally coined in 2012, to describe Greece’s withdrawing from the EU). But somehow the divorce never materialized; Tsipras finally caved in to the EU’s demands, agreeing to a third bailout deal whose “fiscal measures” he admitted were “harsh.” While Tsipras wound up surviving the elections he called after the bailout fiasco, the move split his party and Greece still remains in its uneasy union with its EU partners. After all the chaos and instability, it’s no wonder that David Graham observed last year in his Atlantic article “How Greece Became European” that Greece’s relationship with Europe remains “troubled.” No matter how long Greece, like Plato’s roaming lover, has sought its ideal in Europe, perfect union between the two has proven elusive. As they say, East is East and West is West, but when it comes to Europe, Greece is often elsewhere. And much of the nation’s exchange with the rest of Europe, especially since 2008’s financial crash, has been lost in translation.

Christos Ikonomou’s 2010 Something Will Happen, You’ll See, recently published by Archipelago in Karen Emmerich’s deft translation, does much to decode the Greek side of the story for American readers. Ikonomou’s stories bridge the gap between the debtor-nation discourse we hear all too much on our corporate media and the Greeks’ harsh reality post-austerity—as the story usually goes, we hardworking, virtuous ants versus the Greeks, profligate, irresponsible grasshoppers.

Each story in Something Will Happen presents a tragic variation on the “something” that awaits the inhabitants of the working-class neighborhoods around Piraeus, Athens’s main port, in the brave new Greece that has been globalized and dismantled “piece by piece” by distant bureaucrats, politicians, and entrepreneurs. Once-bustling factories have been shipped abroad, where labor costs are cheaper and terms of employment more favorable to international industrialists. Worse, the workers have been betrayed not only by the EU’s bureaucrats, they’ve been “sold . . . down the river” by their “comrades in arms”: the local union leaders and politicians on the left who divvy up the spoils with their ideological rivals, leaving the “shipwrecked” blue-collar workers to fend for themselves. Instead of the wealth and good fortune the Greeks were promised, thanks to the EU’s leadership, all they’ve inherited are bubbles, crippling debt, despair, and an uncertain future.

Those awaiting their turn at the chopping block aimlessly hang out in the streets of their crumbling neighborhoods, struggling to make meaning of the new order, like the group of broken men in the beautiful and multifaceted “Mao.” Here the traditional social fabric that once held the group together has been irreparably rent. The men are filled with rage, fear, and a sense of betrayal. With nowhere to direct their anger, they end up targeting those nearest and dearest—family, friends, and, of course, neighbors. At one point, the man whom the locals call the admiral, a shriveled old wreck of a retired naval officer, wonders “how [they] end[ed] up like this”:

And the more time passes, the worse things get. Some days I see things that make me want to kill someone. My lord. I went through ships all those years, but I never felt a thing like that. Never. But now it’s too much. I’m drowning, you know, drowning.

Later the old man warns one of the more aggressively vocal members of the group, Michalis, that he learned in the navy that “it’s bad luck to light [a] cigarette from a candle.” Michalis cruelly quips, “What do you care. . . . You’re on dry land now,” which plunges the once-proud modern-day Odysseus into a fog of senile confusion. But Michalis will not escape his fate, either, in this Greek three on a match. No one in Something Will Happen will.

The only thing the workers have to save them is their traditional Orthodox faith (the collection loosely spans the liturgical calendar from Easter to Christmas). They hope for salvation: for the fifty euros that one unemployed father believes will give him and his son “a fine Easter,” including the mandatory treat, a Kinder egg (ubiquitous and cheap in Germany, but an extravagance for the Greek poor—the English “kinder” is also ironic, since there is no kindness anywhere to be had). On Easter Thursday, the man wanders the districts of Nikaia, Neapoli, and Korydallos in circles like “a caged animal,” but seeming more like Christ in the wilderness than a lone wolf. After having been turned away by his daughter and by his bank’s ATM, the man sees his chance for a windfall when he wanders into a church filled with female worshippers preparing for the Easter holiday. At first he thinks he will be forced to beg for a handout, but his pride is spared when a young girl graciously asks him to “put the crown [of thorns] on [their] Jesus’s head” because it’s too high for them to reach even with a chair. He quickly agrees to help, calculating the euros these good Christian women will offer him, a poor man, for his service. Yet in a grotesque twist, when he tries to place the crown on the head of the wooden Jesus, the exhausted man slips off the chair and his hands fall on the thorns, so that they look like “two broken thermometers.” Now he has become the suffering Christ in the flesh, his palms dotted with beads of blood, stigmata or the crimson beads of a rosary. Yet when he demands just payment for his injuries, there is no fair reckoning. The women fly from him as if he were a madman, and he is left abandoned in his pieta on the morning of Good Friday, with nothing to give his sleeping son as the rain is about to fall.

It’s revealing that in its publicity material Archipelago has called Ikonomou the “Greek Faulkner” to attract the attention of American readers. Whether the comparison is apt is another matter. To my mind, his work, at least in English translation, more closely resembles the working-class down and outs struggling to connect in Raymond Carver’s tales from the Pacific Northwest (especially in this collection’s eponymous story about a couple, Aris and Niki, which could be taken as a version of “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”), except that in Ikonomou’s stories, romantic dysfunction stems from external political and social forces beyond his protagonists’ control. The American connection is most in obvious in the story “The Things They Carried,” which pays homage to Tim O’Brien’s novel: instead of soldiers bearing the burden of the tangibles (their gear) and the intangibles (their fear), Ikonomou presents us with the residents of the waterfront hauling their visible and invisible burdens through the rain-drenched streets. These and other literary references give the impression that Ikonomou wrote this book to be translated and read by Americans, to give voice to those whose lives our worship of global capitalism has destroyed. Whether or not this was his intention, Ikonomou succeeds at bringing the tragedy of distant Piraeus home to us because the characters speak an idiom we in the US can easily understand.

The eminent literary translator Karen Emmerich faced a daunting task in capturing the highly inflected colloquial diction of Ikonomou’s working-class Athenians. A less capable translation may well have sounded artificial and cliché—a parody of the Hoboken twang of the longshoremen in On the Waterfront. Yet Emmerich strikes the right balance when it comes to register; she breathes life into the colorful vernacular of these characters, without ever making them sound too self-conscious, artificial, hokey, or ignorant.

At times, the book’s droning misery and persistent gloom can feel too one-note—a protagonist’s painful victimization by the powers that be indistinguishable from the next—and insufficiently nuanced. Yet given the dire political and economic circumstances Greeks have found themselves in since 2008, due in no small part to their unequal relationship with Europe, it would be very hard to locate the silver lining in all those dark clouds. In the end, more often than not, Ikonomou’s vision of Piraeus shines; the author’s wry wit, grotesque humor, and keen insights illuminate his characters’ frailty and our own. Whether the future “something” turns out to be the further fleecing of the residents of Piraeus, who have, these many years, been digging their own graves using the EU’s shovel, or the long-anticipated Grexit that may or may not bring them relief, only time will tell. But after the Brexit vote last summer, it looks like that the “something” Ikonomou imagined in 2010 had shades of the great vision for a united Europe gone awry. This welcome collection reveals the dream of European unity to be the stuff of Greek tragedy, belonging to the realm of legend, not man.

Deborah Garfinkle is a poet, writer and translator based in San Francisco. Her literary work has appeared in the US and abroad. Her last book, Worm-Eaten Time, translations from the work of Czech poet Pavel Šrut, was published in 2016 by Phoneme Media.