the truth about the writing life
It is the misfortune (but also perhaps the voluptuous pleasure) of language not to be able to authenticate itself. The noeme of language is perhaps this impotence, or, to put it positively: language is, by nature, fictional.
– Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
Table of Contents
The Subject of the Game
What We Do for Money
Two Dialogues: On Bravery
Coming of Age
Like a Cat
The Subject of the Game
The object, my father said, was to keep the ring rolling: to go as fast as you could, tight around each obstacle, tapping the ring with a stick. If the ring toppled or touched a marker, you were automatically eliminated. This was the game, as described to me one afternoon, the tape recorder placed between us.
The memory came when we were discussing shrapnel.
That was a game, too, he said: trading shrapnel after an Allied air raid.
“And at the end of an air raid, you’d run around and find your friends: ‘My piece is sharper than yours! Look at this one: This one’s worth two of your pieces!’ You know, Marianne, you learned how to live with it. In between, you were a kid again.”
In between the bombings, the lack of food, the abduction of his father; in between the Italian invasion and Nazi occupation, the Greek Civil War that pitted Communists against Conservatives; somewhere in those fourteen months when my father waited, hoping his father would soon return home: in the in-between, my father was a kid again.
I wanted to find him.
Tap the ring, control its motion, fast but tight around each curve.
I wanted to lead him there.
“And there was another game, too,” he says.
“This kid walked in the house. About midnight, late night, it was curfew time; it was the middle of winter, cold as hell, and this little kid – couldn’t have been more than three or four years old – knocked at the door. He was in rags. Mom opened the door, let him in. But they didn’t want him in the house, because they were afraid of disease. Meningitis, influenza, tuberculosis: these were real concerns. But they brought him in and gave him a chair. And we stayed away from him – they wouldn’t let us go anywhere near him. And they gave him a big plate of soup, whatever else they could give him, and he ate. And then they opened the door and let him go. In the middle of the night…. Who knows.”
“And what do you feel as you say that?”
“Not happy thoughts. You know, ‘That could be me. Will it be me? Will this ever end?’”
“Were you scared? Did you want that kid gone? How do you react to a child who –”
“Because you were told, ‘Don’t go near him. Don’t go near.’ It’s like you’re looking at a wild animal in a zoo; you couldn’t touch him, you couldn’t talk to him, you couldn’t breathe his air. And that’s how you looked at him: you were afraid of this person.”
“He was a vector.”
He was a boy.
My father never examined his past until I started asking him questions. “I want to know the stories,” I said. He complied, tenderly acquiescing because I am his daughter, and he loves me. He didn’t know what this process would do to him; he didn’t know what I was asking.
I didn’t know.
I wanted to story of my father.
He gave it to me and I held it like unformed flesh in my hands.
“But in retrospect,” he says, “you think of that; I mean, you think of the suffering. There he is, all by himself: barefoot, skinny, with rags, shaved head because of lice, pitch dark and cold outside…. Did he make it? Who knows.”
My father grips the stick, curving around a corner. He isn’t the type to go faster than he can control. He’s determined, though: determined and disciplined. He will be among the fastest, but only through control – through control and discipline, not through risk.
He speeds along the straightaway. He sees two homes – the homes that abut his backyard, sharing a fence. These are the homes that were overtaken by German soldiers. They’d once been owned by Jewish families; one girl had been in his class.
Tap the ring, turn the corner. Go past the houses where Germans sleep.
These houses were converted into barracks. They were also used as anti-aircraft stations, with a wooden walkway connecting the two rooftops. Here the Nazis placed anti-aircraft guns: four-chambered ack-acks aimed at British airplanes. Their fire echoed between the buildings.
“When you’re talking about the anti-aircraft fire, with the echo that you mentioned, do you –”
“I can hear it right now,” my father says. “It was deafening; it’s a deafening sound.… Deafening, deafening, and you don’t know where to go. You want to run but you don’t know which way to run.”
“Because it’s everywhere?”
“Echoing everywhere, everywhere. And frightening. And airplane engines and ack-acks and you’re running to safety – where?… Just running is more like it.”
“Do you remember having nightmares?” I ask.
“No. You just reacted. You didn’t get up in the middle of the night screaming.”
“Did you ever scream? When you’re hearing this anti-aircraft fire, are you screaming?”
“No, no: you’re just running. Your first instinct is to run: you cannot stay where you are. Everybody’s running. Everyone around you is running. In the streets, people are running. People are pushing to get into a store or a shelter – to get into some kind of safety. And at the end of the raid, you look out at a totally deserted street. Totally deserted: you don’t even see a mosquito flying around. And quiet,” he whispers. “And eerie.”
His voice has been flayed. This movement was too fast – this rush from 1942 to now. Time was ripped through his throat; I can feel my hand inside, grabbing the memories.
He sips some water. “No,” he repeats, “you didn’t scream.”
Touch the ring. Tap the ring. Keep control of this motion.
For fifty years, no one knew his story.
For seven years, I asked him questions, eliciting his memories.
For ten years, I tried to gather those memories into a narrative: a single, cohesive, written account that captured the story of his childhood.
For ten years, I failed.
Tap the ring: this is the game.
‘We know who you are, Taki Apostolides.’
“Early on, it was the sense of: What is Communism? What does it mean to different people? There were a lot of words thrown around – proletariat, bourgeoisie, that sort of thing. I remember people standing on the corner and expounding their views until they started getting arrested, or went up to the mountains. They’d go up to the mountains to join the guerrillas.”
“Were you scared of them?”
“Oh yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Because you felt the threat to the whole family. When dad was killed, it was like, ‘I may very well be next.’ Because young people were killed, too. So there was always the concern that you would be a target. So you learned how to hide, how to stay in the shadows, how not to draw attention to yourself. You didn’t say your name; if they asked about your family, your father, you avoided it.”
“Anyone, anyone… and I can see him right now, like he’s coming in this door…. The corner store… there was a kiosk and behind the kiosk was another store that sold candy and stuff. That corner belonged to a short guy – he wore a hat just like the hat I’m wearing right now, always wearing an apron – and he sold candy and cigarettes and newspapers, that sort of thing. Well, his son was an avowed Communist. And every opportunity he had, he would talk about it. An anemic-looking young man, you know, with pale skin and a big Adam’s apple. A sickly looking kid. But he would shout it out!”
‘Greece for the people! Freedom for Greece!’
“He would shout!”
And then he would whisper: ‘We know who you are, Taki Apostolides. We got your father and we can get you, too.’
I can see his larynx, that protrusion of cord sliding along his pale throat.
“We know who you are.”
Tap the ring.
This game requires precision: velocity interacting with impact, direction; the force of the tap and the shape of the ground – slopes, bumps – irregularities in the ring itself. To win the game, you need to anticipate potential problems; everywhere, calculating, you need to control what hasn’t yet happened.
Tap the ring, faster.
The newsagent’s son was killed during Round Three of the Greek Civil War. Agamemnon Apostolides was killed during Round One. During Round Two, the adversaries – Communists versus Conservatives – fought in the streets of Athens. Although the Communists were badly defeated, they nonetheless killed 5000 Conservative civilians, dumping their bodies in mass graves; they then captured 10,000 soldiers, forcing them to march barefoot through ice-packed trails to Communist camps. Those who couldn’t keep up were shot.
These are the atrocities of one side.
They are the only atrocities my father allows.
But if we start the story sooner – in the 1930s rather than December 1944 – we see a different progression. In the 1930s, Greece was ruled by a dictator who suspended Parliament, outlawed the Communist Party, censored the press, and sponsored the torture of Communist citizens.
This could be the beginning.
Or, alternatively, the beginning could be found in the 1920s, when Greece underwent thirteen changes of government – coups, countercoups, elections nullified – in fifteen years. Stuck inside this stuttering backwardness, Greece needed a strong leader to unite the country as the worldwide war approached.
He was an officer in the dictator’s army.
He, Agamemnon Apostolides, my grandfather: he was a high-ranking officer in the Cavalry Division, an army veterinarian who coordinated the deployment of 40,000 pack animals – animals that were vital to the army’s transportation system. Greece had no airplanes, and very few tanks and trucks. It had, instead, horses and mules. If the army wanted to transport food to the soldiers; if it needed to get bandages, scalpels, antiseptics to doctors at the front; if the government decided to remove the injured from the battlefield, or the dead: all this was done by pack animal. Horses, mules, donkeys and, on occasion, village women.
A veterinarian was essential.
Agamemnon was loyal to the dictator; he believed in the rule of law.
Agamemnon did not believe in torture, nor did he seek its evidence.
Agamemnon rose through the ranks. He was hanged in a barn.
This was Round One (1942–1944), when Communist guerrillas attacked the Axis occupiers. The Communists wanted to free Greece from Nazi rule; they wanted to rule Greece once it was free. With these goals in mind, the Communists attacked the Axis indiscriminately; their Conservative countrymen, they targeted.
The Conservatives beheaded Communist leaders and stuck their heads on wooden poles. They danced through the streets, jubilating around the freshly impaled head. This was Round Three of the Greek Civil War (1945–1949).
Round Two (December 1944) was the fighting in Athens, when government forces secured themselves atop the Acropolis, hiding behind the ancient stones, training their rifles on the Communists below.
One, two, three: Where do we begin.
Where do I begin with this story?
“So what do you do when this man shouts Communist slogans?”
“You blended. You blended in the background: you learned how to do that. The less you were noticed, the better it was.”
“So you –”
“So you were a non entity.”
Tap the ring.
Now round the obstacle, avoiding contact. Sense it beside you and skim around, but do not touch or you will lose. Now move, fast.
Now tell me a story.
“We were going to the village. Laspiti was driving the cart and I was in the middle. It was a pleasant drive – a couple of hours on dirt roads and what have you. And we were passing a meadow. At the end of the meadow was a hedge that separated one farm from the other. And against that hedge was a lady with a red dress. She was sitting down, wearing a broad-rimmed hat with a flower. She was an older woman. She was sitting on the ground, feet out, wearing short black heels. And Laspiti said, ‘Well, she’s gone. I wonder when anybody will pick her up.’”
She wore a flower in her hat.
She was older, wearing black shoes and a red dress.
“It was like, ‘Oh my God, is she dead?’ Because I was kind of hoping she wouldn’t be dead. I thought, you know, that maybe she just sat down to take a rest.”
They were heading toward the village where Agamemnon would treat the farmers’ animals: horses and cows, mules and goats. These animals were vital to the community’s survival. Without healthy animals, the village couldn’t feed itself; without my grandfather, the animals wouldn’t be healthy. Everyone knew the power Agamemnon possessed.
“People came running over, calling to dad: ‘My cow’s having problems – can you have a look after you finish with this horse?’ ‘And my horse has an abscess! Can you treat the abscess?’ And then it became an event; people would come just to say hello and talk politics. He’d be treating one animal, and suddenly there’d be forty people watching.”
The communists were watching, too.
“It’s frightening, if you’re a little kid.”
“What’s frightening? Being in the villages? Because of the Communists?”
“No, no: they didn’t bother us – not usually.”
“What’s frightening then?”
I’m confused: I haven’t followed the movement of his thoughts; I haven’t connected these parts of the story.
They are not a story.
“The woman,” he says.
The woman with the red dress, sitting by the side of the road.
“Because you hear, ‘She’s gone,’ but you don’t believe it. On the way back from the village – seven or eight hours later – you’re in the cart, heading home on the same dirt road.”
This is twenty minutes later on the interview tape.
“And you keep looking,” he says. “You’re looking and looking and waiting to get to that spot, to get to that spot…. And then you think: Maybe she was sleeping, because she’s not there – she’s not against that hedge…. She’s not there, she’s not there…. And then you think: Maybe she got up and went home! But then you look, and there she is – and it’s exactly the same, and it hasn’t changed – so you know that she’s dead….
“And these are the scenes that changed your attitude,” he says. “These are the things you saw that made you turn inward, not express yourself, become more afraid. ‘Can this happen to me? Can I walk down the street and drop dead and be there for days in a row? And nobody would care?’”
These are the scenes in his life.
This is not a ‘scene’ in literature.
There are no scenes; there is no narrative – beginning and end, cause-and-effect, climax and denouement. There are, instead, details.
An Adam’s apple. A broad-rimmed hat. A metal ring.
There are objects, excised from any progression.
A boy in rags; forty people in a circle.
These are memories.
And this is how we play the game. He gives me memories – an image or sensation, a physical moment – and I construct a scene. I make, of him, a work of literature.
“Have you heard about the Americans? Are they going to win the war for us?”
The farmers stood in a circle around Agamemnon and the horse. Their drawstring pants and buttoned shirts stank from their days in the fields; their sweat had soaked the fabric and then evaporated, leaving only an odour that became sharper as the days passed. The villagers had gathered on a patch of grass outside the house. The manure pile was alive with flies.
“I don’t think it will be that simple,” Agamemnon said. He bent to examine the horse’s injury. His fingers probed the swollen leg. When he reached one particular spot, the animal swung its neck and bellowed. “It’s okay,” Agamemnon commanded. He eased a finger back and forth above the ankle joint, feeling the fluid that pooled inside the tissue.
“How long has the animal been limping?” he asked the farmer.
“Two days, doctor. Two or three.”
“And was there a specific injury – a blow or a twist?”
“Not that I know of. There might have been, of course.”
Taki stood beside his father, unseen in the centre of everything.
“Taki,” Agamemnon said. “I need you to build a fire. Get the matches from my bag. The rod, too.”
Agamemnon had explained this procedure to Taki once before: the rod would be held over a fire until it became sufficiently hot, at which point it would be placed directly on the horse’s injured limb. The rod would bring heat, which would bring blood, which would remove the toxins that caused the limp: this was the theory.
“It’ll take a moment before we begin,” Agamemnon told the farmer.
Taki searched the ground for dry sticks.
“What do you think of this EAM/ELAS, doctor?” one farmer asked. “I hear they want to attack the Nazis. They say we can be proud again.”
“I don’t think it’s a question of ‘pride’ when it comes to the Nazis.”
“But they blew up a bridge, not far from here. And the Nazis, they couldn’t move their trucks for hours. The trucks just sat there – these huge machines stopped by one little bomb! Just one little thing! That’s all we have – one little thing. But we’re smart,” the farmer said, tapping his temple. “The Greeks are smart. We stopped them with nothing. That takes guts – real manliness.”
Agamemnon shrugged. “I don’t know. It was certainly very showy.” He was scrubbing his hands in the stone fountain.
“I guess it’s showy,” the farmer said. “But what a show!” He looked around for confirmation, nodding to his fellow villagers. “A good show, wasn’t it?”
Agamemnon coughed two times, precisely.
Taki had been taught how to build a fire in the Boy Scouts. He arranged the sticks in a pyramid, leaving a hatching of holes. A fire needs air – it breathes air like a person, the Boy Scouts’ leader had said. He’d been killed at Koritsa; the Boy Scout troop hadn’t reassembled. Taki lit the fire.
“The trucks were there for hours.”
“Hours. Interesting. Tell me, did you have a plan for responding to the attack, assuming the Nazis had come to the village?