by Costas Serezis
As published in In Focus Vol. 12, No. 1, March 2015
Last November Marios Michaelides’ book “East of Antalya, North of Nicosia” was presented to the Athenian public. The speakers were the philologist and writer Nikitas Parisis, the writer and literary critic Maria Stasinopoulou, and the journalist and writer Costas Serezis, whose text was chosen for posting on the internet and for publication in “O Anagnostis” (“The Reader”). “the magazine for the book and the arts”.
When I first met Marios Michaelides, we had not yet exchanged a word – I think it was at the “House of Cyprus,” the old one, in Kolonaki, many years ago, of course – I paused at the cast of his features. He must be of Asia Minor descent, I said to myself.
My mother was also from there. Sometimes, before we left Limassol for Nicosia, when she used to take me as a child with her on visits, she would explain to me which of the people she met were from her part of the world, relatives of hers or not.
The idea came into my head that Marios Michaelides was connected with certain people from those meetings. And I wasn’t wrong. But even if that was not the case, his features, as of most of the people of Asia Minor descent on the island, differ from the more olive tones that Cypriots have. Moreover Marios retains in his characteristics the dreamy soul of the oriental, even if he wasn’t born there, and even if he didn’t know the “our East” (Asia Minor) of Fotis Kontoglou.
The fact that he is a poet, a man of visions, of education and literature, enhances it. He does not simply have these qualities, he has made an experience of them, a lasting and endless endeavour and occupation. In his inspiration and writing are the poetry and the narrative which have been commented on positively by dependable critics. Yet he is not impassively nostalgic as most of those of Asia Minor descent usually are. He does not have the passive view of things which people complaining about their fate usually have, particularly those who, through the memories of their families, preserve an incurable bitterness, even though so many years have gone by since the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922.
I speak thus of Marios Michaelides chiefly to stress – I will use the fashionable word – his DNA. Because, after all, in every fibre of himself he is a Greek of Cyprus, born and bred. Here, then, comes his DNA, which preserved in him the historical and family accounts and representations from the depths of time, to meet his own experiences, which are recent, equally bitter and painful, as a Cypriot, particularly of the generation which went through them and which paid for them, in every sense.
Even from the title of his book this dual quality leaps out, so clear, like the sun rise, that it brooks no dispute: “East of Antalya, North of Nicosia”. It is not only the relative geographical closeness, it is also the historical conjuncture, repeated in many respects not in the specific but in the essence of things. It is within this framework that the heroes of the book move and develop. What dominates the most? The History, with a capital H, or the history of the characters of the book? I will give my answer a little later on.
The evolution of the myth-making of Marios Michaelides goes through years and events that are chain reactions, fateful and subversive. I note them:
1922: A year which needs no elucidation for any Greek either of Greece or of Cyprus.
1931: In the month of October, Cypriots spontaneously rose up, demanding their national restoration with the union of the island with Greece. It was an explosive rising which had victims, culminating in the burning down of Government House. In retaliation, the colonial government of the island sent into exile, away from Cyprus, almost all the Greek Orthodox Bishops, who also formed the leadership of the Cypriots, as traditionally happened with those parts of the race which were under foreign occupation, as well as non-clerics, about 200 people in total.
1940: Civil war: neither the epic of the resistance of the ’40s nor the unnecessary and cursed Civil War need elucidation.
1955: The armed liberation struggle of the Cypriots against the British began.
Independence, intercommunal troubles, Greek and Turkish Cypriot talks, 1974: another 4 milestones of modern Cypriot history.
The dates and events which I have noted above concern only (I should rather say mainly) the Greeks of Cyprus.
I state this at the beginning, and epigrammatically, because these events constitute, in an unbroken order, the pivot round which Marios Michaelides has woven his narrative.
The central figure is Maria from Alayia. In dramatic circumstances in the Catastrophe of ’22, she abandons the town of her birth. She spreads her wings with maternal devotion to protect her children, with whom she arrives in British-ruled Cyprus. Her husband Iordanis, invisible as a living presence, but also a protagonist in the unfolding of the story, will remain behind, in the ancestral land, his bones whitening in some wilderness, unknown where, unburied after his tragic death, simply and only because of his presence in a place which was also his native land.
In Cyprus, Maria will live through all the historical vicissitudes of the island, which will become her family and personal ones as well, and will close her eyes on the precise day when the Turks invade the island in 1974. She will not relive the re-cycling of the tragedy which has been pursuing her for a lifetime. There, where the others, frantic and distraught, were experiencing the new disaster, she, in some quarter of Nicosia, on the Green Line, remained unmoved, calm, frozen. This is how Marios Michaelides saw her:
Grandmother Maria seemed to be sleeping the sleep of the blest, indifferent to what was happening around her. Her face was calm. Only her right eye showed a chink. Even when she slept normally this eye somehow remained open. Was it perhaps her concern for her children? Had those old fears remained with her, which never let her rest?
The author brings people to life in a climate of decisive national and social developments. He does this in a way which is not one-sided but rather in the sense which poses this question:
Through the life of the “heroes” which the author brings to life, is his aim the projection of national events or, on the contrary, does the chronological course of the historical developments become the framework, of time and of place, in which the action of his “heroes” evolves?
I would say, not at all unfoundedly, without a second thought, that there is an excellent balance between the two. The one does not outweigh the other. It is a novel with historical elements, but it is not an historical novel. This can also be seen from its limited extent, otherwise it would be infinitely long. And it is not necessary to explain why.
I would say that the human, and also the humanitarian element, comes first. It dominates emotionally without being melodramatic. Human behaviour, on both of the opposing sides, when it remains sensitive to the value of human life irrespective of race and religion, emerges as the last hope, which preserves the trust of man in his fellow man, in the midst of the brutality of the expulsions and clashes.
The deeper essence which guides the narrative line of Marios Michaelides, as well as the steps of the people over whose lives he stoops, is mainly the fate of a people who are driven out of their ancestral homes, the psychology of the refugee, the sense of being uprooted, which the Greeks of the periphery of Hellenism have suffered not just once but many times.
It is the fate which has affected in an absolute and definitive way the Greeks of Asia Minor and Constantinople, the Greeks of Cyprus, the Greeks of Egypt, those of Northern Epiros, the Greeks of the towns with Greek names in the Black Sea region who finished up on the coasts of Russia, after the genocide they suffered at the hands of the Turks, and were, later, the victims of the great Soviet purges, which were brought to light by the Russian authorities themselves after the collapse of the so-called “real socialism” ( i.e. as applied in the Soviet Union).
For this reason, perhaps, and not by chance, despite the danger of dabbling in philology within the development of the myth-making, he includes skilfully and precisely the always wise and bitter words of George Seferis:
Yet the thought of the refugee, the thought of the prisoner
the thought of the man when he has become merchandise
try to change it, you can’t.
The word “merchandise,” where the poet places it, is shocking and, admittedly, many of the persecuted people in the pages of Marios Michaelides’ book are shunted around by third parties, in a climate of anguish and persecution, like “merchandise”.
I would, however, say that the narrative of Marios Michaelides can be read in another way as well. It unfolds indirectly the fate of the Greeks – and not only the fate of the refugees – as a people, whom geography and history have made a neighbour to the Turk. Perhaps often, with the ordinary Turk, the relationship had a mutually human quality, but it had tragic consequences with all those guided by the fanaticism of the power they served, the fear of losing what they took by force and hold, but also to extend their expansionist greed.
The person, as an individual, is projected more in the book, regardless of race, origin and beliefs. When the ordinary person, with his humanity or his demerits, pursues his own interests at the expense of others, he unavoidably comes into conflict with them. It is then that the conflicts bring a tragic substructure to the whole of history, as the author has conceived and developed it.
The narrative has the virtues which Marios Michaelides revealed in his other books too, in prose or poetic discourse. It flows naturally, calmly. A final phrase, correctly worded, in the paragraph which is catalytic for a specific episode, brings the interest of the reader to a peak and elevates his feelings too. Above all, however, it is a narrative with internal rhythm, like a healthy person who walks well, steadily, without stumbling, a model of aesthetic balance. The poet who creates the magic of the impressions can be discerned everywhere. Even when the tragic painfully scrapes the bone of our endurance, the poetic ring in the words does not retreat. It is there, in order to emphasise, in this noble-minded way, the purposes of the writer and the transmission of the polymorphous messages which he endeavours to project.
“Iordanis was everywhere. He had got under her skin,” the author writes about the murdered husband of Maria. She is constantly present in the book, like the Coryphaea of ancient tragedy, while the other, her husband, is absent for the greater part of it. This structural element of the narrative works like a dire destiny which she cannot escape. It marks her for the rest of her life. It is one view of destiny, because it is polymorphous, I think, in human life.
Beyond the deaths, the loss of dear ones, the anguish and misery, the culmination of the ill fate of these people, is their dispersal: their dispersal to the five winds. Like a pomegranate which, despite the various positive symbolisms people have attributed to it, when it falls from the tree and bursts open on the ground, its seeds scatter throbbing on the earth and take on, equally symbolically, a diluted bright red, bloody colour.
A compact national entity, which was preserved with a hard shell, as a branch of the ethnic trunk, as if by a miracle through the ages, was tossed about mercilessly on the ground, as an ethnic and, for every refugee, an individual tragedy.
“Anatolika tis Attaleias, voria tis Lefkosias”, published by Momentum.
The book was presented at the “House of Cyprus” in Athens, on Tuesday, 25th November 2014.
Translated by Christine Georghiades.