Extend and Pretend

Since 2010, the people of Greece have been mired in a financial catastrophe as severe and era-defining as the Great Depression in the 1930s. The particulars are horrible to contemplate: salaries unmet, pensions cut, hospital budgets decimated, political turmoil, increased rates of suicide and infant mortality, and at least 23 percent of the working-age population still unemployed. Although the country has received €326 billion from its Eurozone and IMF creditors — spread over three different bailout packages — that money is basically earmarked to pay off Greece’s foreign debts, while tax hikes have had a wrenching effect on the country’s middle and lower classes. To follow the situation in the financial pages of the press is to inevitably knock into the phrase “extend and pretend” — a handy summing-up of the futility of the international community’s approach thus far. The calamity seems particularly intractable because politicians in the more economically robust European Union countries, like Germany, are loath to tell their constituents that their tax dollars have gone into a financial sinkhole.

What’s often lost in the updates on the Greek debt crisis is how it has uprooted individual and communal life. Christos Chrissopoulos and Christos Ikonomou are two Greek writers who use fiction to illuminate this gap. Collectively, their respective books, The Parthenon Bomber and Something Will Happen, You’ll See, express what’s is like to live in an intolerable, degrading situation. If you harbor any concerns for either your own or someone else’s long-term economic stability, then these books may appear especially (if grimly) relevant.

For both writers, nostalgia is a sentiment that sets their characters on edge. A man in one of Ikonomou’s short stories, included here, likens nostalgia to “a mangy dog with gunk in its eyes, licking its wounds. It tricks you into reaching out to pet it then bites you as hard as it can,” whereas for Ch.K, the main character in Chrissopoulos’s novella, The Parthenon Bomber, nostalgia is less an individual burden than a cultural inheritance that plagues Greek society. As with so many idol smashers, he aspires toward a form of liberation. The destruction of the Parthenon for him is both a means of self-assertion — an act he can call his own — and an attempt to free his fellow citizens from sheltering themselves in their country’s ancient glory. “In our city,” Ch.K says, “pride is nonexistent. We’re all living on borrowed greatness. Many would agree, but they’re cowards and won’t admit it.”

Given the rather forthright nature of the title, understandably, The Parthenon Bomber is structured around the questions of who committed the atrocity in question, and why. If the news reports in this self-referential book are to be trusted, Ch.K is a twenty-one-year-old unemployed male. In a parenthesis, Chrissopoulos writes that “only his initials were released to the public.” One of the witness accounts describes him as a kind of off-the-shelf luftmensch. “He comes to blows with inanimate objects, with abstract ideas, words, and phrases.” Though this is certainly an apt description of the main character, it’s impossible not to read his observations in the material light of Greece’s present-day hardship. When Ch.K says, “In this city, nothing belongs to us, ownership doesn’t exist here,” the statement reads like a poetic précis of the sense of dispossession felt by innumerable Athenians for whom austerity has been a catastrophe as much emotional as economic.

As I read The Parthenon Bomber, I couldn’t help but think of the Watts riots and the infamous question posed by distant observers: Why did the rioters destroy property in their own community? Chrissopoulos’s texts offers a rationale for why someone in the grips of unbridled desperation would destroy an emblem of communal pride to draw attention to the grievances that lurk behind the facade that a society presents to the world. Therefore, it’s telling that one of the Parthenon’s former guards, who recalls Ch.K’s numerous visits to the site, should end his testimony by asserting, “I’m sure of one thing about that visitor: He loved it.”

Ikonomou’s Something Will Happen, You’ll See depicts many lives, of all ages, that have been blighted by financial hardship. The book stands with Rafael Chirbes’s On the Edge as one of the remarkable literary interpretations of the recent global downturn. Yet, if I am to speak honestly about my reading experience, I must say that by a certain point I grew used to turning the page to a new story and perversely anticipating another beautifully wrought blow to human dignity.

Many of the characters in these stories smoke too many cigarettes and drink irresponsibly. Often, they are people bound to commitments they can’t keep because they lack the money to do so. Consequently, they stumble and humiliate themselves. Some try to place themselves in recycling bins. One man recommends television as the poor’s best available medicine, while another man eats tacks. The opening sentence from the last story, “Piece by Piece They’re Taking My World Away,” could serve as an epigraph for the book. “The waves fell on the shore like shipwrecked men, broken-spirited, disheartened and weak, one after another, with clipped moans, small sighs, one after another.”

The people in Ikonomou’s stories are hounded by dates — it’s always too long since they’ve been paid or will be paid. Morally and ethically, they are compromised by their poverty. As one character puts it, “Everyone knows — rich and poor — that to get by in times like these your heart has to be even deafer than your ears.” Or as another character says, “Evil’s first victory is when it starts speaking your language, he said — and that scared him because he knew he wasn’t capable of thinking or saying a thought like that.”

Certainly an abiding lesson of these books is that to measure one’s descent into poverty is to think new thoughts. No doubt that most who worship at the shrine of innovation (the technologists, the financiers, et al.) would be loath to pay the price demanded of the men and women in these stories.