The Newtown Review of Books
June 19 2012
This timely novel of estranged sisters and a family consumed by history gives a compelling insight into contemporary Greece.
The house on Paradise Street, Athens, is home to three generations of the Perifanis family. Told alternately by Maude (or Mondi, as the Greeks call her), Nikitas Perifanis’s English wife, and Antigone, his mother, whom he has not seen since the age of three when she fled Greece for Moscow, it ranges across 80-odd years of Greek history from the forced repatriation of Greeks from the Turkish city of Smyrna in 1923 (the fate of Antigone’s mother and uncle), to World War II, the Greek Civil War, and to the student demonstrations of 2008 which engulf Nikitas’s children, Tig and Orestes.
Twenty years older than Maude, Nikitas is a passionate, charismatic figure, a prominent journalist who as a student in the 1970s had been active in the demonstrations at the Athens Polytechnic that were a catalyst for the end of the notorious Colonels’ Junta.
The novel opens with Maude, grief-stricken, on the day of his death: Nikitas has been killed driving along a stretch of coastal road. It appears a straightforward, but tragic, single-vehicle accident.
However, her husband’s death leaves Maude with a slew of questions that she cannot leave unanswered. Nikitas had always valued his freedom, coming and going from the family home as he pleased and maintaining an office-cum-bolthole elsewhere. His deeply felt political engagement was a contrast to her own apolitical detachment, and Maude begins to wonder how well she knew her husband at all. For Maude, Nikitas’s obsession with politics is alien:
I knew theoretically that in Greece everyone cares about politics in a way that you don’t have to in England – all Greeks have a political position, probably that of their family, which determines the students’ groups they join, the newspaper they read, the coffee shop or taverna they patronise and whose company they keep. I assumed that, as a foreigner, I was exempt from this framework, though my declaration to new acquaintances that I was ‘apolitical’ drew a blank. There was so much that was good in our marriage that for a long time it had not been obvious to me how hard it was to be a part of Nikitas’ life and not be part of this game.
In many ways her marriage seems woven of contradictions. As Maude reflects on the comfort she derives from the routines of her extended Greek family:
If Nikitas yearned for freedom and found it within the confines of marriage, then I longed for familiarity and found it in a foreign culture. Strange how the same marriage can offer such different satisfactions to each participant.
Meanwhile, Antigone has not spoken to her sister, Alexandra, since she fled Greece in the 1940s, leaving her son to be brought up by her mother at Paradise Street. When her mother died, the boy’s care fell to the childless Alexandra and her husband Spiros. Antigone has spent the intervening years in Russia, initially with a group of Greek exiles in Tashkent, and then in Moscow, where for decades she read the news in Greek for Radio Moscow.
Antigone and Alexandra are opposites in temperament and politics. Alexandra, the conservative and pragmatic older sister, married Spiros, a man able to adapt himself to the shifting power plays around him. Antigone took her patriotism and idealism for a better world into the mountains, joining the Communist ELAS resistance fighters. After the Civil War forced her into exile, Antigone sent her sister a ‘black letter’, a letter burnt around its edges, saying she wanted no contact with the famiy ever again.
When Maude telephones her to let her know that her son has died, Antigone has nothing to keep her in Moscow and makes the decision to return to Greece to mourn him. In doing so she begins to unlock some of the family secrets … secrets that have baffled Maude and with which Nikitas had become obsessed before his death.
Maude’s outsider status allows her to ask questions that others in the family may not, and to make connections they may not dare to – such as with Johnny, the English teacher who had become part of the Perfanis family in the years before the war, and an uncertain ally during and after it. His relationship with Antigone is but one part of the puzzle.
Throughout, the role of the English in Greece is a recurrent theme. For Antigone and the partisans on the left who fought with them during WWII, the British betrayed them when, at the end of the War, they backed the non-communist factions, whose ranks included former Nazi collaborators. This was the trigger for the bloody years of Civil War that followed. Nikitas had been working on a book about the British in Greece, and in the weeks before he died he had become increasingly open in his contempt for the role they had played in the Civil War and his frustration that:
… the British remained so ignorant about the Greek Civil War that they helped provoke. ‘Even English school children know about the bombardment of Guernica and the horrors of the Spanish Civil War,’ he complained. ‘But nobody in England learns about the massacres of civilians in Greece a decade later. Sadly, we didn’t get Picasso painting the English aerial attacks in Athens, or Orwell or Hemingway telling our story.’
For others, however, like Aunt Alexandra, the British did Greece a great service by saving the country from the Communists. And Alexandra has her own stories of Communist atrocities and forced marches.
But what has driven the wedge so deeply between the sisters is the fate of their brother Marko, a passionate member of the resistance, killed at the age of 19. Alexandra blames Antigone for his death and has never forgiven her.
In her author’s note at the end of the book, Sofka Zinovieff writes of the Greek Civil War:
Although many decades have passed since those dreadful years, Greeks are still affected by what happened. Some of the problems at the root of the current economic crisis and the intensity of the street protests as a reaction, can be linked back to the oppressive regimes that dominated Greece for so long. Families still carry painful memories of the Colonels’ Junta (1967-74), and for many, this dictatorship was a repeat of what had happened in the 1940s; the same people went back to prison or into exile.
Sofka Zinovieff is of Russian and English heritage and, like her protagonist Maude, studied anthropology at university. It was research for her PhD that first brought her to Greece in the late 1980s, but it was in Russia that she meet her Greek husband, with whom she has lived in Athens since 2001. She has published two non-fiction accounts of family members: Red Princess (2007), about her paternal grandmother, who evolved from Russian princess to communist revolutionary; and Eurydice Street: a place in Athens (2004), about the family’s adjustment to life in Athens after living in London. It’s clear from the novel’s generous endnotes thatThe House on Paradise Street is the product of considerable research and owes a debt to the experiences of her husband’s family.
Above all, The House on Paradise Street is a moving story of a family, of the brutal toll of history and of the spark of political engagement that offers promise as well as peril. It is a fascinating human story and one that provides a valuable window into contemporary Greece.