My first school was a British Army primary in Cyprus. My father, a soldier, was stationed there during the Eoka uprising in the fifties, when Greek nationalists sought union – enosis – with the mother country. This was the Megali – the Great Idea – the irredentist dream of a Greater Greece, the ‘union of Karaman and Ionia, the Black Sea and the Aegean’, as one Turkish character expresses it in this novel. From an early age, then, I was aware of the complex political history of Greece, and its troubled relationship with Turkey – which resulted in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and subsequent partition of the island – and the deep sense of nostalgia (a Greek word that dominates the novel) for its lost ancient imperial power and warrior heroes and guileful heroines.
It’s helpful to have a sense of the historical background to this novel – which I lacked, so had to do a bit of digging; not essential, though, so ignore the next two paragraphs if you feel like skipping this contextual information.
It’s set against the double diaspora of the Greek community of Ionia on the western coast of Turkey; this largely mercantile group (they were particularly famous as manufacturers and dealers in textiles) had settled there originally a century after the Trojan War. The Smyrna merchant cited by TS Eliot was an iconic representative of the culturally diverse but barely tolerated immigrant civilisation of Anatolia; for centuries the Greek Orthodox Christians had lived in uneasy harmony with the Turkish Muslim majority.
Familiar Wars begins as a bildungsroman, following the development of Gregoris Gregoriou from his childhood just before the First World War as a merchant’s son in Mouryes, Ionia. But he is also representative of the fate of the doomed Greek Ionian community, from its apparent rise when Greece entered the war on the Allied side as a ploy to regain Constantinople and what it saw as its lost lands in Anatolia, its apparent victory with the Treaty of Sèvres which assigned Smyrna to Greece in 1919, through to the ‘Katastrophe’ or ‘world-large loss’ during and after the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, which ended with the reconquest of the city by Kemal Atatürk and the slaughter of thousands of its Greek and Armenian inhabitants.
Against this violent backdrop we follow Gregoris as he first loses his entire family then manages to escape into remorseful exile, on ‘the day of exodus’ for his Greek compatriots, on a ship to mainland Greece, where he sets about fulfilling his dream: to become an even more successful merchant than his beloved father had been. There are frequent references to the alluring appeal of America as a refuge for the ‘scattered, persecuted children’ of Ionia.
Part 1 of the novel relates how Gregoris has to flee Smyrna as a refugee, alone, and finds himself in Macedonia, adrift, penniless. Part 2 shifts focus to his youngest daughter, Eleni, from the age of about five, to the novel’s end when she’s about to embark on a new life of university study. This part is essentially a second bildungsroman as she matures into womanhood and ‘war moved into the home’ – literally and metaphorically. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away; in brief, Gregoris builds a thriving business, becoming so obsessive about his shop and his quest to acquire ever more wealth that his family suffers, and hardship returns. The descriptions of his unctuous, flirtatious manner with his female clientele (he ‘pleased and obliged them all’) is offset by his selfishly emotional detachment from his family. He’s a beguiling, conflicted figure.
In some respects then it’s a classic family saga, with a huge cast of subtly drawn minor characters. The central drama is the Gregoriou family’s experiences of love, loss, exile and yearning for a home -its own, personal enosis. Hence the narrative increasingly equates the family’s turbulent trajectory through history with key figures in Greek legend: Jason and his capture of the Golden Fleece aided by Medea is at times likened to the rapaciously ambitious Gregoris’ cunning greed.
Helen of Troy is another recurring figure: ‘I named you after our ancestor and compatriot!’, her father tells Eleni triumphantly, ancient history and present drama intertwining:
‘Troy was down the valley from us, the Trojan War was fought just outside our village, only for her beautiful face. Just like yours. My land was full of Elenis.’ …Eleni drank his words telling her who she was, where her true home was, to what terrible stories she owed her name and life. She thought of those lost homelands, but as she thought and yearned for them, the pain of their loss brought, almost, the sweet finding of them…she was filled with the bitter-sweet music of nostalgia.
Then there is Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, who is sacrificed by her father to propitiate the gods into supplying a favourable wind to enable his fleet to sail off to the Trojan war.
Eleni, from whose viewpoint most of Part 2 is narrated, comes to identify herself with these two daughters: Medea, ‘the traitor, the witch’, who betrayed her father and country by aiding Jason to escape with the Fleece by ‘cut[ting] her little brother into small pieces and scatter[ing] them in the Aegean Sea. Just like Turks do to the Greeks’, as the Ionian Greeks sometimes interpret the legend.
The parallels illustrate the complexity of parent-child relationships – children’s fierce love for their fathers, first Gregoris for his, then Eleni for Gregoris. When Eleni is a young woman she develops a passion for the theatre, stealing out secretly to watch plays performed:
Iphigenia in Aulis was hers. The father’s sea-voyage, and the sacking of Troy, and thousands of years later the burning of another Troy and another father’s sea-voyage from the fatal shores back to Greece, made up for her one story, beginning and ending with the prayer for good wind and the killing of a young girl. She shivered again at the sharp edge of the knife and of the parental mystery, and felt its flames consume her.
A little later in the performance ‘the massacred shores of Ionia appeared to her again’,
as she watched with fear Medea, the witch, the foreigner and exile, the beautiful refugee from the Asiatic coast, the woman of nightmares, the daughter who betrayed her father, the sister who cut her brother into pieces, the mother who now holds the knife over her own children, consumed by the flames of jealousy.
This scene transports Eleni to the painful moment when she woke as a child in her parents’ bed and became aware ‘that a terrible event had exiled her.’ But
Medea the beautiful witch took Eleni into the exhilarating rages of womanhood, without shame. Without shame, with secret love, she thought of Olga, the other woman now in exile, accused of betraying sisters and brothers. Sons and daughters and brothers and parents. Medea’s words washed off the shame of love.
Here we see Dr Harvey’s skill in portraying the interpenetrating themes and narratives of past and present, the shockingly familiar animosities and passions and the sometimes unfamiliar obsessions and profound dark mysteries of this east-Mediterranean people.
Her mother Anastasia watches with growing consternation as Eleni becomes ever more like her restless, obsessive father, ‘her eternal admirer’; he ‘ brings out the worst in her’, she frets; ‘[i]t’s the Orient in her! The Asiatic blood! Her father’s daughter!’ He calls Eleni his ‘bride of Smyrna’, his ‘daughter and bride’, when she dresses up in his stock of fabrics and lace for him. She in turn, as the previous quotation showed, is jealous of her father’s love for her difficult mother, as Gregoris himself was when as a child he saw his father and mother together.
When Eleni’s harpy sisters catch her, as a little girl, watching a group of occupying German soldiers in the building opposite her own, they betray her: middle sister Kaliopi shrieks:
‘Mother, she’s looking at the Germans! I caught her looking at the enemy – smiling and waving at them.’
Eleni’s soul is stirred by the soldiers’ music; she cannot hate them with the blind xenophobia of her family or compatriots – she is a loving spirit, unconstrained by convention or prejudice. She looks at the officer with the recognition of one deracinated, isolated human being of another. The contrast with her selfish, preening, scheming sisters is beautifully drawn.
As these children grow up this filial passion develops, in some of them, into a destructive force. The adjective in the novel’s title has a double meaning: wars with which we are familiar from history’s cyclical repetitions (there were four Greco-Turkish wars after Greece won independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821), and the internecine wars within the Gregoriou family.
As we see Eleni growing into a spirited, intelligent young woman her siblings become openly, viciously greedy; by the end, as their father’s empire crumbles, the two elder ‘cruel, ungrateful daughters’ as he describes them, likening them to ‘snakes…Vipers’, resemble that other mythical, dysfunctional family: King Lear’s. Their venomous spite is doled out equally on each other and on Eleni: ‘They would get her: they would crush her’, she thinks at one point in her later childhood; they become ‘her enemies’.
I’ve lingered too long on the family dynamics and socio-political historical-mythical aspects of this novel; I’d like to finish by commenting on Julietta Harvey’s prose style. She has a way of combining clear, unadorned description with lyrical, transcendent moments conveyed in poetic language that never clogs the narrative. There are numerous memorable set pieces like a community picnic, a marriage broker’s dealings with a suspicious family, or the formal opening of Gregoris’ new shop, that are Dickensian in their vivacity, wit and power.
Here’s just one example of any number I could quote to show what seems to me to be this luminous narrative voice and thematic range. When he’s released from captivity by Communist guerrillas, Gregoris appears reassuringly familiar yet ominously transformed for Eleni, in a passage of extraordinary free indirect thought from her perspective as a child, filtered through the poetic, adult sensibility of its author-narrator:
[Gregoris was] a migrant bird looking for refuge, a bird of bad omen perched, hungry, over her fate. His long blade-like beak and eyes red and tearful concentrated their aim. She lay quiet with fear of this man looking like her father: the woman’s motherly round silent shape gave her no refuge. Unwillingly she recognised her father – witness and reminder of atrocities, and refugee messenger from lands of pain and sorrow. He carried them in his visage, the black stubble on his hollowed cheeks remnant of fires, his worn clothes hanging on him hiding damage!
The novel traces with rare honesty and insight the ambivalent, passionate intensity that’s to be found in many father-daughter relationships. There’s much more I’d like to say about this richly satisfying novel, but I’ve already gone on too long. It has many illuminating passages, for example, about the casual misogyny and swaggeringly patronising attitude towards their womenfolk that Greek boys and men were brought up to assume, and the submissive role allotted to girls and women; both Anastasia and her daughter Eleni are denied access to the education they yearn for by their dowry-obsessed parents, while Gregoris contemptuously, treacherously ignores his intelligent wife’s attempts to curb his more excessive business speculations or to check his impulsive, tasteless greed.
I recommend this novel to you.
Julietta Harvey’s first novel Familiar Wars, originally published in 1987, is re-released on June 25 in paperback by the independent Cheltenham publisher Polar Books, along with its sequel, One Third of Paradise, which I intend writing about as soon as I’ve finished it. My thanks to the publisher for providing copies of both novels.