Eleni by Nicholas Gage - review by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

Revenge is Sour



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ON FRIDAY March 25 this year, the day on which Greeks celebrate their deliverance from the Turks in 1829, General Markos Vafiadis put down at Athens airport. It was the first time that he had left the Soviet Union since the end of the Greek civil war more than a quarter century previously. In that war, he had commanded the ‘Democratic Army’, which bore its Communist arms with extreme tenacity until, abandoned by Joseph Stalin and by ‘the people’, it melted over the borders of Bulgaria and Albania. Ever since, it had been unlawful for its members to return. Many of the prisoners it left behind (and the government forces were not famous for taking prisoners) had been detained until the 1960s – some to be reincarcerated when the military junta took power in 1967. In 1974, when that junta destroyed itself in an effort to annex the island of Cyprus, two Communist guerrillas emerged from the mountains of Crete to give themselves up. They had outlasted even the dazed soldiers of Hirohito who had turned themselves in, in the Pacific, a few years before. The memory of the Greek civil war, like those who waged it, dies very hard.

For Nicholas Gage, the Greek civil war is not a memory but a vivid presence. On August 28, 1948, the local Communist equivalent of the Committee of Public Safety murdered Gage’s mother and his aunt. This act of ‘revolutionary justice’ took place in Epirus and the mother, Eleni Gatzoyiannis, is the eponymous figure of this combined memoir and investigation. She, and the village of Lia near the Albanian border, have been lovingly – almost yearningly – reconstructed. The result is an extraordinary document: part thriller, part forensics, part political tract. There’s also a little of what might be termed Greek-American anthropology – a Hellenic version of Roots. Eclipsing all else, however, is Gage’s extended personal catharsis.

The initial passages of his book are somehow reminiscent of early Maigret. The trained investigator (Gage covered the Mafia and much else for The New York Times) arrives in the sleepy, shifty village. He discovers that nobody has any interest in raking up the dead past, or the dead. But he knows the village folk and their variable rhythms. He knows that, sooner or later, spite, jealousy, or simple tavern garrulity will triumph over bucolic reserve. And our author, unlike Maigret, carries a knife in his heart. In his thirst for vindication he is determined to outlast even the most stubborn and crafty villager. Let me try to give a précis of his story.

In this appalling century, one of the least fortunate places to be born was Northern Greece in the 1930s. Life was grindingly poor, as they say, with a fair amount of priestly sanction over everyday existence. A series of governments, venal or brutal or simply negligent, occupied the unimaginably distant capital of Athens. Then came Mussolini’s invasion. Though at first, by a tremendous exertion of Greek resistance, the Italians and their local Turkish Muslim collaborators were thrown back, the Germans soon dealt themselves a hand. Greece became an uneasy prize for the Reich. Life in the backwater of Lia was not, at first, appreciably worse. Hunger pains gradually became less seasonal and more pervasive. Some local toughs even saw the chance to ingratiate themselves with the New Order and adopted an unsuitable swagger. In a sense, the troubles of the village began (according to Gage, though he might deny that he means it to sound this way) when a motley group called all the population to a meeting in the square. With a Greek flag in hand, and with a strange vocabulary, they announced that the war of liberation had begun. Here was ELAS, the Greek Popular Liberation Army, whose very acronym seemed the essence of the patriotic.

Mikis Theodorakis, in this memoir of the anti-Nazi resistance, recounts how even in Athens there were eager volunteers for the job of block commissar. Overnight, certain rather mediocre comrades discovered an aptitude and an appetite for measuring and invigilating the enthusiasm and commitment of others. So it seems to have been in Lia, with the important sociological difference that the most forward and militant elements were the most educated. The villagers, who revered schoolteachers and learning, were even more impressed by intellectuals with sidearms, and even more frightened of them than they had been of the stolid and cynical (and now recruited) local policemen. From then on, life for the Liotes was a war within a war. The great tides of violence that swept up and down Greece with the zenith and the nadir of Nazism very often passed them by – sometimes narrowly. More than once gusts from the battlefield came right down the road. But always there was the intense, local reality of class and clan warfare, strained, so to speak, through the muslin of peasant resentment. Eleni Gatzoyiannis, for instance, had secured a Greek-American husband; though able to dazzle the neighbuors with his largesse, he was cut off from the village by the war. Eleni, his relict but without the special indulgences of widowhood, was known to the rest as ‘The Amerikana’; a badge of good fortune that metamorphosed swiftly into a mark of dual loyalty and (later) made her a target for envy and xenophobia.

The ELAS combatants called openly for a socialist Greece while the EDES formations, loyal after their fashion to the monarchy and the church, occasionally wondered if anything might not be preferable to Communism. The rivals warred, anyway, for the attention of the Allies (especially the British) and ELAS won most of the early rounds because of its commitment to what Churchill ruggedly called ‘killing Germans’. But, for the mountain and rural Greeks, some at least of this world struggle was occluded. They mainly understood that, once again, Greece was victim within the old and lethal triptych. This consisted, as immemorially, of (1) the foreign invader, aided by the Turks- in this case Muslim Chams who had not forgotten 1821 let alone 1921; (2) the perfidious allies, who let Greece bleed, and fed it on promises; and (3) the traitors at home, symbolized in this case by the fascists and their collaborators. These are the three jagged points on which Greeks (not always wrongly, as the events of 1974 have most recently shown) are brought up to see themselves crucified.

Gage narrates these dramas from the microperspective of the village. It doesn’t seem niggling, therefore, to point out a couple of dubious observations. Gage maintains that all children must be christened, if baptized by the Orthodox, with the names of saints. Nobody who has noticed the profusion of Homers, Solons, and Aristotles will take this on trust. Gage also depicts the brutal scalding of his sister’s foot – a deliberate wound inflicted by the family in order to keep her from the shame of recruitment to the guerrilla forces. He describes it as if he, an infant boy, was allowed in the room when it happened. That is possible, but not likely. For the rest, he manages to register the main developments of a wider war that killed at least 650,000 of his countrymen between 1940 and 1949. First came the national rejection of the Italians (Gage says that General Metaxas actually told Il Duce’s ambassador, ‘Alors, c’est la guerre’, and not more famous ‘Oxi’ (‘No’], since Il Duce’s ambassador spoke no Greek). Second came the Communist-led resistance; third, the turf battles with rival nationalist groups; fourth, the vanquishing, and the vandalistic retreat, of the Axis forces; fifth, the deal between the Western and the Eastern allies, begun at Tehran and consummated at Yalta. This conceded Greece, at least tacitly, to the sphere of Churchill and Truman; Sixth, and finally, the refusal of the Communists to cease their war of position in the north.

It was in this final, heartbreaking stage that Gage’s mother decided to smuggle him out of her long-suffering village. It cost her, as he must on available evidence have known it would, her very life. Arraigned before a people’s tribunal, in which many of her friends and neighbours participated with fluctuating degrees of enthusiasm, she was convicted, tortured, and shot. Her body was thrown into a hasty common grave. Gage contrives two major sub-texts within this tragedy. The salient one is that of vengeance. The second and (I think) more interesting one is that of revolution betrayed.

Gage has had no choice but to taste his dish of revenge late in life. He was a child when his mother died, and he was taken straight to America as a result of her sacrifice. By the time he was of age to consider, let alone savour the matter, he was Greek only by birth. Then there was the question – would his mother have wanted vengeance? Would she, like Antigone, have accepted death as the price of her defiance, or would she, like Hecuba, have shrieked for her shade to be avenged? At this point in his account, Gage slips into loose and sentimental verbiage, more Robert Ludlum than Georges Simenon:

The witnesses to my mother’s fate were a generation of leaves scattered by winds of war all over the world – Canada, the United States, England, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and every corner of Greece. I had to track them down and use all my professional skill to get the truth from them.

When he first exposes his interior feelings, Gage reveals an almost Corsican persistence in revenge. He unashamedly confesses his intention of buying a gun and tracking down and killing his mother’s judges. It seems believable when he finds that many of them are prosperous and apolitical lawyers. It seems sadly banal and Pollyanna-ish when he finds that he can’t do them in because it would ‘destroy the part of me that is most like Eleni.’ Yet, as Orwell put it in ‘Revenge Is Sour,’ his famous account of meeting a caged SS bully in 1945:

Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.

Gage is much more absorbing when he tries to handle his second theme – that of revolution, resistance, Communism and counterrevolution. Almost all chroniclers of the Greek Communist guerrilla movement are agreed that it displayed great qualities and that it fought the Nazis with practically unexampled bravery. One witness to this is the British Tory politician C M Woodhouse, famous for the demolition of the Gorgopotamos bridge, who wrote of the early stages of the war:

I learned to live clandestinely, to feed on snails, mountain grass and ground acorns, and to deal with kapetanioi and pallikaria, both nationalist and Communist, though Communists were rare in Crete. I narrowly escaped capture two or three times. I also learned that the only bearable war is a war of national liberation.

The understatement is eloquent. But almost all chroniclers also agree that, with the collapse of the overt Nazi enemy, the tradition of ELAS was disfigured into a gruesome sectarianism. Gone was Aris Velouchiotis, the Guevara-like partisan, and his spontaneous and demotic style. In his stead appeared the rote-Stalinist Nicos Zachariadis, none the sweeter for a spell in Dachau and scornful of any militant who had sacrificed less than he had himself.

In his book By Fire and Axe – a warrior slogan of Vafiadis’s, by the way – the Greek conservative leader Evangelos Averoff rehearses his own fascination with the psychosis of defeat then prevailing among the Communists. From a sharply different, neo-Marxist perspective the French historian Dominique Eudes traces the same phenomenon in The Kapetanios. There is a striking symmetry between the two accounts, and Gage has obviously read the Eudes book carefully. (He may also have read Averoff, who is still the senior political figure in the Epirus area.) Both historians confront the same apparently suicidal impulse in the ‘Democratic Army’. For one thing, it appeared ready to concede Macedonia to the Balkan Stalinists, at the time of unusually heightened Greek nationalism. This bestowed credence, to put it no higher, on the chauvinist accusation of ‘Slave-Communism’. Gage doesn’t discuss Macedonia for more than a paragraph or so. But, using his Liote microcosm, he makes full use of the other historic crime and blunder of the Communists- the pedomazoma.

Pedomazoma means, literally, ‘the gathering up of children.’ By ‘gathering up’ the youngsters of Epirus and sending them over the border to Albania, the zealots of the Greek Communist Party hoped to show the humanity of the socialist bloc, to demonstrate their own concern for civilians, and to cement the loyalty of the families who stayed behind. It is difficult, at this remove, to imagine how they can have thought they would get away with it. It doesn’t take a long sojourn in Greek society, even today, to learn what is untouchable. The keenest Communist mothers – there were many one-parent families in that time – refused to surrender their children. Not even the American napalm, which was then being liberally scattered on the Grammos range, could induce the rupture. So, yet another hunt for fainthearts and backsliders had to be mounted among an increasingly dispirited people. This part of the book is agony to read and must have been hell to write. It was for smuggling young Nicos away from her Communist village, and away from an Albanian future, that Eleni, and many women more consecrated to the revolution, were punished unto death.

All of this happened in the present generation and reminds one that the Cold War is a recent conflict. Vafiadis seems to have repented at leisure. Zachariadis died a lonely and dingy death in some justly obscure Soviet backwater. Many better men and women went to prison for keeping their resistance ideals alive in Eastern European exile. The extreme right regarded Greece as a satrapy for thirty years, ruling for seven of them by main force. Perhaps these various epilogues and ironies influenced Gage when, at the moment of personal encounter with his mother’s tormentors, he found that he could keep his hands by his sides. Perhaps, also, like the improbable Averoff, he half-admired the doomed and grim Communist guerrillas. After all – they were Greeks.

I do not know what use will be made of this book, what moral will be drawn from it, or whether its timing is fortuitous. I wonder if it will find a Greek publisher in this revisionist and sometimes anti-American period. I’m struck by the news that Elia Kazan is making a motion picture of Eleni, but I’m quite prepared to believe that this arises from Kazan’s interest in Anatolia as much as from his patchy record on Hollywood and the Cold War. Gage had the chance to make his book a Cold War complaint, and, generally speaking, he didn’t take it.

I feel impelled to add a brief personal codicil. I am married to a woman named Eleni. Her Cypriot home was first searched, in 1974, by a Greek fascist group bent on a maniacal putsch. As a result of the holy enthusiasm of these gentlemen, my Eleni was forced to flee a second time before a Turkish invasion. Thus was Greece humiliated and Cyprus nearly destroyed. The murderers and torturers, who conceived this madness from Athens, all believed themselves to be acting for the West against the menace of Communism. They wished to keep repaying the score of the Greek civil war. Gage has vindicated his Eleni. I should hate his triumph to be at the expense of mine.

This article was first published in ‘Grand Street’ magazine.

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