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Bookslut: "Karystiani immerses the reader in the consciousness of her characters."

Date: Mar 31 2013

The affairs of families are often mysterious to outsiders, and sometimes they appear opaque to family members themselves. Often there's miscommunication, long-held secrets, omission of events, and, as time goes on, further distortion of what happened due to the falseness memory introduces. A scandal or tragedy may break out into the open, but the exposure doesn't mean things suddenly become clear-cut. What is first shown usually is the same tangled mess that had been residing in the dark corners of a home. Patience and openness are required if one wants to try to find the motivations and reasons behind why this wife cheated on her adoring husband, why that child grew up to be a thief, how a humorous aunt or uncle became a shameful presence at the dinner table, or why one grandfather could never be trusted, but it's no guarantee the causes will be found and that everything will be wrapped up neatly. It's more likely that further complications will arise and the seemingly innocent will be compromised, while the root of the matter remains buried in the dirt.

The bleak family drama Ioanna Karystiani presents in BACK TO DELPHI is like that. Her latest novel features a mother, Viv Koleva, a widower whose marriage had gone badly, and her son, Linos, who has no one to talk with after the age of eight, once his father dies, and who sinks into a world of his own devising. Viv's sphere is the Greece of 1955, when she was born, to 2007, the current time of the action: she goes to university, meets her late husband, Fotis, drops her studies, runs a shop that caters to ballet students and their parents, makes ends meet, and eventually worries about bringing up a child on her own. She had once loved her husband, but the marriage collapsed before he succumbed to ill health caused by alcoholism and, we're almost led to believe, emasculation due to his failures and at Viv's success as a businesswoman. By the time he dies he's not the same person she once felt affection for. However, Linos is deeply and permanently affected by this loss, and the sound of shovels throwing dirt on Fotis's coffin haunts him for the rest of his life. The two survivors, one who goes through a small succession of unsuitable male partners, the other who grows up friendless, are ill-suited to each other's temperament, misread what they themselves need, and are unable to break behavior patterns that will bring Linos, at age twenty, to a pitch of hatred toward women.

BACK TO DELPHI is a novel filled with agony. It is only in the fraught final section where mother and son explore matters with some tenderness. The bulk of the novel shows two people wrecked by their choices and, in the case of Linos, ending the normal lives of three women. Viv makes one step after another that leads her further away from any chance of closeness with him, in part because she values silence, unless she's talking. As she slowly gets closer to an awareness of Linos's nature, her own habits combine with fears to prevent her from saying to him what she suspects.

At first Viv ascribes his peculiarities to the traits that generally pass through families, which he "deployed... in the familiar, epic manner." This changes once he goes on trial, and at the next Christmas she regards herself as "doing time as a murderer's mother." She sells her business and lives under her maiden name to avoid further publicity and neighborhood censure. Karystiani doesn't depict Linos's daily life in prison, but well before his life sentence begins we are told that during high school he "steeled himself for savage loneliness." He is often subjected to visions that leave him helpless. Here's Linos outdoors at night, clutching a toy from his youth:

He needed to make the night stop, to stop it from advancing and overtaking him, needed to put up some resistance.

With the frog in his palm for company, he leaned against the bench, a beat-up dog, shoulders scrunched up, ears drooping, eyes bleary from the thick tears, head swollen by the assault, like hail, of successive outlandish scenes, ballerinas exploding, staircases breathing, alcoholic drinks sleepwalking, apples biting, loaves of bread keeping their silence, hair fainting, pianos sinking, forests swimming, the dead giving birth, streets frothing, barley and pomegranates creaking, shovels having hysterics, the dirt tasting bitter.

Viv shares her son's propensity for extravagant sensations and carries on interior conversations with inanimate, and usually hostile, objects.

Due to the notoriety of Linos's crimes, she must also keep various "scenarios all ready" in her head should someone recognize her. To get to Delphi, where Viv knows she must give self-incriminating information to Linos, out of jail on a five-day pass, she borrows her sister Xenia's identity and gives her son a new one as well. Much in their lives has been secretive; at some point it became deceptive; and now they both must live an illusion, that they are a normal family vacationing in a historically rich place where perplexing and vital questions about war and peace were posed, often resulting in ambiguous replies. For Viv, nothing can be guaranteed from their visit, and she is aware of the risks this trip contains. In their first day there she tells Linos that archeologists "must be happy people, somehow... they get passionate about a world that can no longer hurt them..."

BACK TO DELPHI has five sections: "The Sacks," "Tahini," "The Shovel," "The Shoelace," and "The Wall." Karystiani immerses the reader in the consciousness of her characters by weaving their dialogue in and around narrative passages, a stylistic choice that scarcely allows a pause for breath before the other speaks or, in one way or another, impinges on what the other is thinking. Such a method of presentation makes palpable how closely, and unhealthily, these two people are bound. Their intimacy induces a type of claustrophobia, calling to mind, among other examples, Karystiani's fellow Greek writer Irini Spanidou in GOD'S SNAKE (1986), set after the end of WWII, about the daughter of a brutal Greek general. Karystiani has written a novel in which there is no release or resolution. Her firm grip on the material reflects well on her control, though some may find having one's face uninterruptedly pressed against the windows of the domestic drama rather rough.

As the novel progresses Viv comprehends Linos better, though it distress her to have her suspicions gradually confirmed. The trial upends her life, and she has to learn to navigate a hostile city by reducing her presence in it. She changes addresses and occupations, and thinks of her son in jail, and also of the victims and their families. Earlier she had reflected, sympathetically, on the unfortunate state of women who have been raped:

... for a woman it would be the stations of the cross, starting with the stripping by the attacker and on to the stripping of the police statement, then answering to women cops, medical examiners and assorted assistants, what exactly the monster did to her, confessing to her father or her husband what went down, shutting herself up in the house to avoid the neighbors' looks, turning a deaf ear to the underhand comments about the way she dressed.

Viv's thoughts aren't always kind. At one point she wonders why Linos hasn't tried to commit suicide while in prison. "Something of the sort would offer his mother a bit of relief." Perhaps she thinks that the proverbial cry for help would express his regret, guilt or shame at what he had done to the women, and to his mother, as well as acknowledge that he had sinned against society. She doesn't feel bad in wanting relief, and it's left ambiguous what she would feel relieved by. Here, as elsewhere, we're left to contemplate what we would be like if placed in her circumstances.

"Mother and son filled with energy for misery," Linos thinks before his incarceration, and that speaks to exchanges between family members. The faults present in one generation, such as Viv always thinking the worst, and being quick to judge, can be magnified in the next. While "not enough of a schizophrenic nor enough of a manic-depressive," in the words of a psychiatric examination, Linos is not well-adjusted. That's true on the individual level, but when we're presented with a novel concentrated on family turmoil, we naturally look for deeper resonances. It seems, to me, that Viv and Linos are two versions of Greece pitted against each other, and it is quite possible to read the multi-generational despair and breakdown of relations as Karystiani's analysis of contemporary Greece. Its recent history includes post-WWII fatigue, a civil war, weak governments, a coup that put the country in the hands of the military from 1967 through 1974, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus followed by that island's subsequent partition and, as mentioned late in the novel, the fires that swept across the country in the summer of 2007. BACK TO DELPHI may be commenting, obliquely, on how Viv (a stand-in for the motherland), raised without affection to be a quiet child, must confront how her coldness has contributed, in part, to her son's makeup; while Linos, unable to mature and come to terms with the loss of his father (a weak figure, but the only significant male figure), is aggravated by grief, a lack of nurturing, sexual molestation at the hands of his godmother, and the misadventures of youth. At age twenty he rebels against his mother, and all women, and the supposed mores of a country that has lurched from crisis to crisis.

The Koleva family is composed of people who hide and camouflage their motives, and who treat each other brusquely or with disdain. The family unit can't help deteriorating, and as it goes, so goes the country, or vice versa. (In one of those unpredictable accidents, the book's content and today's headlines commingle.) Reunited for a short spell from their particular forms of confinement, Viv and Linos talk, initially, with difficulty, but a swim in the sea helps them to drop their guards, and their anger is diluted. There is progress on the emotional level, of a slow and hard worked at kind. "I strangled a girl, Mom," Linos says, a plain statement admitting the wrong he has done, yet his inner being remains obscure. Despite passages where his mental state is rendered poetically, we are no nearer the source of his troubled soul.

Viv's bewilderment and ceaseless questioning over, at heart, how her boy could have turned out this way is a search for answers that is touching, and it's not surprising that she brings Linos to Delphi, the ancient source of appeal for knowledge and guidance. BACK TO DELPHI doesn't end with answers or the promise of a brighter and easier future for Viv and Linos. Instead, there is an awareness that mother and son have made each other suffer enough, a temporary cessation from pain, and a few moments of joy in each other's company. Maybe Ioanna Karystiani is saying that which appeals to the mystical won't illuminate matters or provide solutions on any level. What's needed might be a compassionate look at bitter facts, a forgiveness that accommodates others without the hope that life will become easier for that, and then for everyone to take it from there.

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