For the last 60 or so years, historical fiction has often served to exalt Britain and the Allied forces’ enlightened participation in the Second World War. Less celebrated is the cold October day in 1944 when Churchill and Stalin met in Moscow to carve up Eastern Europe between them. Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary became one-party Communist states but Greece remained, calamitously, in the hands of the British. “It was like children swapping sweets,” suggests a character in Sofka Zinovieff’s ambitious mixture of family drama, social anthropology and historical enquiry.
Zinovieff’s first work of fiction is a sombre reminder of Britain’s ill treatment of the Greek democrats during the end of the war, and its ruinous effect on the remainder of Greece’s 20th century. The story follows Antigone, a disgraced Communist freedom fighter who has spent 60 years exiled in Moscow following the Greek civil war. She returns home to attend the funeral of her abandoned son, Nikitas, and attempt a reconciliation with the extended family she left behind.
Antigone is one of the two narrators; Maud, Nikitas’s expatriate English widow, is the other. Both are outsiders to modern Greece: Maud through nationality and Antigone through politics and exile. Through Antigone’s retrospection, Zinovieff tells a broad and enriching story of the early 20th century in Greece.
Less well managed is Zinovieff’s manoeuvring of classical myth into the present. Antigone’s purpose in returning to Greece is partly predicated on the wish to execute the proper funerary rites for her brother Markos – a democrat rebel murdered and left badly buried by the Allies in 1944. The allusion to Sophocles’ mythic story of Antigone and Polyneices is overcooked.
Where the novel really succeeds is in its observational asides on modern Greece: the significance of worry beads; the protracted rites of grieving forced upon Greek widows; the carob trees that line the streets of Athens. An expansive historical framework governs the action of this impressive debut, but it is Zinovieff’s scrupulous eye for cultural curiosity which gives the story its sinew and underlying humility.