Sofka Zinovieff channels her fascination with Greece and its recent past through fiction in her continuing quest to understand its present.
Recent history haunts Greece with a corrosive legacy of war, occupation, civil war, and dictatorship that is etched into the collective psyche. The past and its abiding hold on the present drives Sofka Zinovieff’s debut novel, The House on Paradise Street, published in March 2012 by Short Books.
Zinovieff fell in love with Greece as a postgraduate researcher in the 1980s. Her passion is evident in Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens. An account of settling in the capital twenty years later with her Greek husband and their two daughters, it meshes personal experience with local history, politics, customs, and tradition.
Next came Red Princess: A Revolutionary Life, which records the intriguing trajectory of her namesake and paternal grandmother, a Russian aristocrat who fled the October revolution with her family but became a staunch communist. Both books are published by Granta. The Greek setting returns in The House on Paradise Street, a richly-imagined world that rests solidly on fact. It was inspired in part by the civil war experiences of an aunt by marriage and informed by extensive research and interviews.
Secrets buried for decades come to light after journalist Nikitas Perifanis dies in a road accident. Inquiring into the odd circumstances surrounding his death, his widow learns of a tragic rift that has set three generations of his family at odds.
Antigone, a partisan and communist, gave birth to Nikitas when she was in prison during the civil war. To prevent her son’s removal by the authorities three years later, she left him with mother, while she herself went into voluntary exile in the Soviet Union. Nikitas grew up with Antigone’s anti-communist sister Alexandra and her husband, Spiros, an informer and collaborator who hunted down leftists. Alexandra blames Antigone for the death of their young brother Markos, also a partisan.
Fifty-nine years on, the sisters remain estranged, their enmity fueled by secrets more powerful than ideology. With Antigone on her way to Athens from Moscow for the funeral, a confrontation between the two women seems inevitable.
An Englishwoman and the third wife of a highly politicized Greek some twenty years her senior, Maud has made her home in Greece with Nikitas and their daughter Tig. She shares the narration in alternating chapters with Antigone, who reports from the front and its aftermath. Maud, numb with loss, examines competing versions of private and public events, handily bringing readers up to speed on the complexities of contemporary Greek history. When Tig and her half-brother Orestes, who have both inherited the rebellious gene, become embroiled in street fighting after police shoot a young student in December 2008, Maud recognizes parallels with the events of December 1944 that triggered the civil war.
Though The House on Paradise Street covers grim territory, it is leavened by optimism that the grip of the past can be loosened. Maud recalls her husband on the subject: “Nikitas used to say that, like Orpheus, you look back at your peril.”
There are times of joy and pleasures shared. Maud delights in the physical beauty of Greece, the language and the traditions incorporated into everyday life. Humor bubbles up in sardonic mother-daughter repartee, and a cat that hitches a ride from Moscow stages a comic disappearance.
I asked Zinovieff about moving from non-fiction to a novel, whether fiction brought greater freedom or came with its own constraints. “It definitely brings greater freedom,” she says, though she found it disorienting when she started writing after doing the research. “You can go in any direction; there are a whole lot of new choices. The very freedom itself can make you feel less free, but once I got going that was very exciting.” She describes her method as “a magpie approach of having done the research then throwing it to one side and taking off myself.”
Writing about events whose interpretation is still fiercely contested is a potential minefield, but with all her books available in Greek translation, Zinovieff says she has had no negative feedback here.
“Writing about people is a very delicate process,” she says. “It’s a really tricky business for writers or journalists to stay close to what you think is the truth, while remaining respectful to the people whose lives you write about. It’s a big ethical issue. I am aware that it won’t always please everybody. You have to be as true as you can and not be hurtful.”
British-Greek relations, in particular–especially the part played by the British in suppressing leftists after the war–ere the subject of a television series made by Nikitas and a source of contention between him and Maud, whom he sometimes blamed for events that preceded her birth.
The subject has long fascinated Zinovieff: “It’s a strange, shadowy relationship, much more complex than holidays and Philhellenism,” she says. “It’s an implicit part of my life and existence in Greece.” She believes the love of Greece, the seduction of Greece “can never be completely detached from the history which is, whether we like it or not, in our DNA.”
Happily for a writer attracted to memoir, Zinovieff has been endowed by birth and marriage with fascinating connections. For her next book she is already mining a rich seam of family history, this time the unconventional lives of her maternal grandparents, who lived in a ménage a trois with the eccentric writer and painter Lord Berners, known as Mad Boy.