"Greece wounds me"
by Keith Taylor
Ann Arborite Natalie Bakopoulos has done some wonderfully unexpected things in her debut novel, The Green Shore. In addition to the textured family drama we might expect in a first novel, she has taken on much larger themes of history and politics, the kinds American novelists often avoid or treat with a boring lack of subtlety. Bakopoulos has handled these larger issues gracefully, without ever once sacrificing the forward movement of her intriguing story.
That story mostly takes place in Greece during the reign of "The Colonels," the infamous right-wing junta that oppressed its country from 1967 to 1974. Eleni, a doctor and the widowed mother of three, watches as her children come of age during that difficult period, as they figure out how to navigate a personal space that is controlled by the presence of the dictators. Her youngest daughter, Anna, is the one most shaped by her moment in history. After being humiliated by petty police officers, she understands the pervasiveness of the fear--"The simple awareness of the dictators stealthily altered both public and private space, and every so often, it jutted out like this: a frightening lump, a jagged edge, an eerie, alarming wail." The eldest daughter, Sophie, flees to Paris, but even there, she understands what the great Nobel-winning Greek poet, George Seferis, meant when he wrote, "Wherever I travel Greece wounds me."
All that makes the novel sound unrelentingly somber, and it's not. The family that Bakopoulos creates is smart and engaged in their time, but they are also very real people involved in the loves, disappointments, and laughter that surround us all. And then they also have their uncle, Mihalis, one of the most engaging characters I've come across in any recent novel. Mihalis is a poet, part philosopher and part clown. His family, including his wife, have no expectation that he would actually make a living; he is, after all, a poet! He shifts between disappearing into silent despondency, walking through
the streets of Athens to talk with his friends in various cafes, and shouting "Resist" in public parks. The regime can ignore him or imprison him, and they do both.
Bakopoulos uses the historical moment to keep the pace of her novel clipping along through the seven years of the dictatorship, but she is particularly good near the end, when she writes about the military assault on the Polytechnical University. This is a famous moment in recent Greek history, where the students put their bodies in front of the tanks, but it is little remembered elsewhere in the world: "For years they had tolerated this, and then, suddenly, it was no longer tolerable. It was that simple. A switch thrown." It was November 17, 1973, the beginning of the end of the junta, and the return to life for Eleni, her children and her brother, the poet.
Natalie Bakopoulos reads from and discusses The Green Shore at Nicola's on June 5.
[Originally published in June, 2012.]