Ascent from the inferno

Kathryn Koromilas for the Australian Book Review.

The Demons of Athens: Reports from the Great Devastation

by Vrasidas Karalis

Brandl & Schlesinger

$26.95 pb, 229 pp, 9781921556418

Sing, O muse, of the rage of the daemons, soulless sons of Hellenes, that have brought countless ills upon the Greeks. Sing, O Vrasidas Karalis of your descent into the Greek inferno and of the quarrels that have plagued our citizens. Sing, O brave soul, sing your reports from the Great Devastation.

Forgive my classicist sentimentality. How else to begin a review of Karalis’s The Demons of Athens, this auto-ficto-graphical account of his epic return, in medias crisis, to the cherished city of his youth, Athens?

Somewhere between 2011 and 2013, Karalis (Professor of Modern Greek at the University of Sydney) is ‘anxious and curious, for mother and motherland’. On his arrival in Athens he buses through the ‘sad spectacle’ of a city ‘in meltdown’ and reunites with his mother (‘Mother, capitalised, as she transcends all descriptions’) who is in ‘Orphic’ engagement with the television – ‘you scumbags, filthy criminals, obscene crooks’.

Call him what you will, Karalis dares us, ‘a deserter, a traitor, a drifter’, but he ‘must’ record what he sees. If there were ever one to report on the crisis, Karalis is it. This is Sydney University’s Professor of Modern Greek known not just for his groundbreaking scholarship on everything from Byzantine historiography to Greek cinema but also for his verbal and written ‘stylistic excesses’ which have transformed Greek studies into one of the sexiest disciplines on the Sydney campus and beyond. Yes, he ‘must’ report back. And on Day One, three thoughts. One: to accept this duty, Kantian no less, to explore and map the moral landscape of the city and citizens. Two: to weave a Dickensian story out of the city’s ‘plotless unpredictability’. Three: to have a cigarette. (He does not.) Thus, he descends – the descent is easy enough, but the rise, up again unharmed – there is the rub.

Over the next thirty days, Karalis reports on intellectual encounters with old friends (‘the worst consequence of the crisis is the loss of dignity and self-respect’); reflective encounters with graffiti (cynically misquoting Kazantzakis: ‘I hope nothing, I fear nothing, I am unemployed’); sentimental encounters with old films (when Greeks were ‘civilised and interesting’, ‘romantic and idealistic’); an unhygienic encounter with a faeces-smeared School of Economics entrance (‘the filthy face of capitalist education … there is no health in capitalism!’), and then, on Day Thirteen, the distressing encounter with the burning of the neo-classical Attikon Cinema, a building so iconic that Karalis, in an interview with Neos Kosmos, likened it to the burning of the Opera House (‘it looks like the Parthenon!’). Australia, by the way, is the ‘dollhouse’ of a country that everyone from taxi drivers to customs officials dreams of moving to, but also resents.

Karalis will not indulge in ‘sublime emotions’. On Day Twenty-Eight, a punch-up (he had not used his fists since he was fifteen!) with a neo-Nazi (‘Blood – Honour – Golden Dawn!’) leaves him bruised and swollen, having lost a tooth and his phone. While recuperating from this ‘Nazi imbroglio’ in a hospital operated by smoking nurses, and feeling happy to have survived his ‘masochistic’ fight for democracy, he decides he must leave. If he does not, he will end up ‘in a concentration camp’.

It is a joke that points to the seriousness of the fascist problem in Greece today. But it is this ubiquitous irreverence and humour interspersed between ‘devastating’ scenes that pulls me, with Karalis, from the inferno of nihilism and back to the light. Possibly every other Athenian wants to ascend to the light, which is why the bookshops have sold out of the Divine Comedy. A store owner: ‘Why is everyone reading Dante these days?’ Karalis: ‘He captures the spirit of the moment.’ In Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek, the protagonist reads Dante before he is interrupted by Zorba, that happiest of heroic nihilists, the quintessential Greek of the 1950s and 1960s. I see the brawling Karalis as Zorba, raising his arms as he pushes and shoves and punches the Nazi, in much the same way that Zorba raised his arms and danced and danced to overcome the sorrow of his son’s death and to face this absurdity with dignity and self-respect.

There seem to be few Zorbas left in Athens. Only demons. On Day Twenty-Two, Karalis meets one in the form of a conservative politician, a fellow student from the past, a man of his own generation, the hopeful generation of 1974, full of promise. He and all the other demons, like their Russian counterparts in the Dostoevsky story, have become demonised by the collapse into chaos and nihilism. Powerless to transcend the ‘drabness of everyday existence’, they find consolation in small victories – crime, corruption, lies – the ideology they hope will possess the city and its citizens. The essence of the Greek crisis is an existential one.

I close the book. On the cover there is a hooded, blood-splattered youth, slouching, hands hidden under sleeves. I hear him address Karalis: ‘Give me two Euros. I can recite the first rhapsody of the Iliad for you.’ ‘I would prefer the last,’ Karalis’s light reply. The youth: ‘I haven’t reached that part yet.’

Kathryn Koromilas is the Sydney-born author of Palimpsest: A Novel (2010).

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