Review of André Alexis's novel Pastoral (Coach House Press)
Outside the town of Kalamata (yes, more olives), I enjoyed lunch with companions in a seaside restaurant opposite a run-down tourist home, mostly vacant, a fact that might have explained the owner’s exuberant welcome. Half of the building’s façade supported a burstingly brilliant bougainvillea, riveting to the eye: to the left the Aegean Sea, not wine dark, but turquoise, aquamarine and opalesque under the fierce sun. Dining on beaches is what people often do in Greece. Surprised that noisome insects didn’t trouble me, I thought of Io, turned into a heifer and stung to frenzy by a bee or gadfly. Hell hath no fury like the divine Hera who unfairly punished the ladies seduced by her philandering husband Zeus, allowing the immortal harasser to get away with murder, so to speak. I carried mosquito repellent in my sack.
One is always tempted to go naked in Greece: heat and history seem to demand it, and Irving Layton probably did, even though in the first Olympic games athletes wore protective jock straps, nudes on vases notwithstanding. Aside from school children running races on the ancient track, not many foreigners competed for laurels. It’s a pleasant place to stroll under moonlight along pathways between fallen pillars of temples dedicated to one god or another. The temple of Zeus used to stand here as one of the wonders of the world, now a tumble of stones, fallen in such a convenient way that they could be reconstructed like giant Lego blocks, but more is left to the imagination and academic interpretation if they are not.
A student presented her uninspired compilation of dry facts under a hoary olive tree, but said little that engaged interest, for the ruins themselves spoke volumes, as if the massive stones whispered in the refreshing breeze. Inside the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, I entered a softly-lit gallery alone and stood transfixed: in the centre on a pedestal stood the statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysos, attributed to Praxiteles, although that seems to be a matter of dispute among the experts. Historical controversy aside, art often has the ability to take me by surprise, and I use the word in its etymological meaning of overtaken, seized, unexpectedly captured. I spent more time in that room, circling the statue, pausing at different angles, than I did in the rest of the museum, with the possible exception of the gallery displaying the partially reconfigured and magnificent frieze of the temple of Zeus.
The world of the ancient Greeks, aside from brutal warfare and slavery in the Athenian silver mines, was an enchanted place, the separation between deities and mortals non-existent, a sometime inconvenient thing as gods had a tendency to mess around with people and turn them into stars or stags or heifers. My mind wandered far afield in more ways than one. The nymph Echo plaintively echoed her misplaced affection for Narcissus. A fanciful notion, to be sure, but more resonant and satisfying than academic discourse.
Wherever we went proprietors greeted us with sincere friendliness: everyone needed custom. On the way to Olympia from the ruins of Elis where little more than foundation stones remain and where we sat on the grassy hill of its amphitheatre, we stopped in a seemingly unpopulated town. My habit of searching for places to eat, avoided by gourmets and tourists alike, led my companions and me to one establishment empty of customers. Here neither English nor French served. The proprietor with a star-spangled hairnet eagerly desired our business and euros, and we equally desired comestibles. Combining mutual good will and humour and pointing to the four aluminum-covered pans in a counter, we managed very well. We sat in her little courtyard under a tattered umbrella. Watching a pack of stray dogs – the bane of the Balkans – I was threatened by four-legged curs outside the Cotroceni palace in Bucharest. Almost singing Greek, the lady appeared, accompanied by an elderly gentleman wearing a beaded vest, and they served us heaping plates of pastitio and an endless bowl of the inevitable Greek salad made with garden fresh tomatoes and cucumbers at a considerably lower rate than prices charged in Athens. After a lengthy lunch, she offered us complimentary dishes of glazed fruit, a charming custom in many parts of the country. It’s not likely that I shall ever return to this obscure town, but the generous lady gave me her business card.
Greeks are unaffectedly friendly, a disposition as common as sunlight, despite the disturbing presence of a fascist, xenophobic political movement raising its collective fist in Athens, a social nightmare not restricted to contemporary Greece. Speaking of which, I am reminded of Sparta, the modern city I actually liked. Not much is left of the ancient polis. During my perambulations, I came upon an apartment for sale down an out of the way street that I could imagine living in six months of the year, presumably to write, following the tradition of writers seeking divine afflatus in the cradle of western civilization.
Ancient Sparta and its ideology, however, were loathsome, and there must be convincing theories explaining why it has been so glorified and distorted in films today like 300. Unable to listen to a student describe socially sanctioned child abuse and misogyny in the name of military valour and masculinity, I noted several young boys and girls outside the fenced grounds of the Temple of Athena, obviously eyeing the western crowd encumbered with knapsacks and cameras. We had been warned to be wary of marauding children who apparently have been taught to swarm and steal, should the opportunity arise. This particular group did not approach but followed as if waiting for a straggler to fall behind.
In the town of Nafplion, we dined in a park across the street from the restaurant when two little children, no more than seven or eight, performed their importunities for us. One even sidled up against me, no doubt attempting to practise his prestidigitation on my person. A waiter cursed them away, but the children didn’t run off, they simply stepped back a few paces, and stared, hands out, until our hard hearts or good sense convinced them we were a hopeless cause.
The much-photographed Statue of Leonidas is conspicuously situated in the city, although his very mannered, military pose is not to my taste. Yes, at Thermopylae we did gather around the very spot supposedly where the fabulous 300, if that is indeed the true figure, fought off thousands of Persians. The popular story and cartoonish movie fail to mention the Athenian navy a stone’s throw away (the sea coast having been much closer then than it is today) also fighting off the invading army, but legend often supplants historical accuracy, and ancient Greeks were ever imaginative with numbers.
© 2014, Kenneth Radu
The author in Argos
Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being the novel Butterfly in Amber (DC Books). He is currently working on new stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.
Review of André Alexis's novel Pastoral (Coach House Press)
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