b y Angelike Contis (Reprinted with permission from The National Herald (Ethnikos Kirix) June 19 -25, 2010.)

Southampton, N.Y. – Though it ended in 1949, for many Greek families, the country’s brutal Civil War is not over. This Marianne Apostolides discovered over the 12 years she worked on her new book The Lucky Child, a fictional account of her family’s tragic war experiences in Northern Greece that leads up to her grandfather Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of his fellow Greeks in 1943. The author explained that a silence still shrouds the Civil War, as people fear that even by talking about it “the barbaric way Greeks treated each other will be unleashed.” But The Lucky Child sets an example of the benefits of revisiting the past, however painful, as it zooms in on the Apostolides family’s experience in Thessaloniki and the village of Zagora between 1932 and the early days of Civil War in 1943. Made up of simple descriptions and devoid of long historical explanations, the work is built of an economical series of vignettes, each prefaced by a date. The fabric of the past is recreated through observations like the way a child devours a rare butter cookie in wartime or how an Armenian whose shop is sacked tries to salvage sacks of spilled beans and spices, referring to the Nazis who did the damage to his store and face as “teenagers.”

Surrounded by friends and family – including her father, former Hamptons parish president James Apostolides – the author presented the book under a tent at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons on June 12. Apostolides read an excerpt from the book and talked about the process.

She began her research by interviewing – over baklava and coffee in Toronto – her grandmother Mary and aunt Loukia. She extrapolated their younger selves from their adult ones. Her grandmother, Apostolides noted, “became a girl” when describing her husband, the broad-shouldered veterinarian husband. Agamemnon reads as a hero worthy of his name, as in this description from the book where village folk gather round the veterinarian. “He – a city man, an educated man, an officer of the Greek army; he with lovely hands and pale skin, with knowledge and refinement – he was an event in their midst.” The book recreates Mary’s deep romance with that hero, but also her suffering when her husband is threatened due to his royalist ties. Near the end, a too–thin Mary lays on the floor in a gown, after failing to dissuade her husband from leaving. Her father-in-law unkindly tries to make her rise – with his boot. Apostolides writes: “Mary rose to her hands and knees. Using the kitchen chair as a ladder, she slowly stood. Strands of hair were stuck to her cheek.” As for Aunt Loukia, the author told TNH that she took the force of nature that she’s always known and made her into a spitfire of a girl.

Apostolides admitted that she was hesitated to speak to her father – the “lucky child” of the title. Addressing him at the reading, she said: “I still needed for you to be the father who had it all together.” But when the conversation started, it took far longer than her father’s prediction that, “We’ll be done before dinner.” Over six years, Apostolides shared stories that he had never even told his wife or sister. Father and daughter debated politics and whether or not the Royalists committed brutal acts too. When it came to putting him onto the page as young Taki, Apostolides faced a challenge because of the nature of the man who’d learned to be almost invisible to survive as a boy: “He is very quiet. He is not a ‘hero.’ He didn’t take action like his father.” The scenes in the book where she describes her grandfather at work were informed by all the years she spent observing her father as a veterinarian, a career decision he consciously took to honor his dead father.

Her father also traveled with the author to Greece, his first trip there since leaving. He told TNH at the event: “When I left Greece in 1949, I totally shut all the events completely, mentally. I didn’t think about any of this for 30-40 years.” But when he started talking, he said: “The amazing thing was that it was as if I had just left – that the intervening time had not happened.” Revisiting what he politely calls “very unpleasant” memories wasn’t easy he said.

The Lucky Child, says Apostolides, was a tougher sell than her first book, Inner Hunger: A Young Woman’s Struggle through Anorexia and Bulimia, for which she signed with publisher W.W. Norton while only 22 years old. But it was her new book, Apostolides said, that made her “become a writer.” In the process of writing it, she said she learned “How we create history and the identity of ourselves and our country,” and the importance of the “act of creating space for listening.” With each of three drafts, she learned to stop “gripping onto the facts” in lieu of “having an open hand and letting it unfurl on its own.” She entrusted the book, whose unusual style/structure she says reflects its oral storytelling origins, with Canadian publisher Mansfield Press.

Unlike many family accounts, which tend to warp reality for diplomatic reasons, The Lucky Child is notable for its lack of censorship. This is obvious in the author’s treatment of her grandmother Mary’s brother, Philip, who is wounded in battle, then disfigured after a suicide attempt. “Of all the characters who populate this book, Philip is the one with whom I’ve fallen deeply, madly in love,” Apostolides writes in the book’s epilogue.

In the book, Philip urges his terrified nephew Taki to ask him questions: “‘Anything. Ask me when I took a piss, or what I ate for dinner, or how many men I killed in Epirus… Ask me anything.’ Philip shook Taki’s shoulder. ‘Don’t cry,’ he said. ‘Really. It’s okay. Ask me.’”

The book – which Apostolides says is “the next generation of Nicholas Gage’s Eleni,” echoes this urgency to talk about what remains taboo. At the Hamptons, the author gave a sense of one of the benefits of visiting old wounds. “Now that it’s done, I feel at peace.” At the event, the church’s priest, Fr. Alex Karloutsos told former president James Apostolides: “Your daughter gave you a great, great honor, expressing her noble love, in noble words, in a great tribute. And you know what? You did avenge your father. You’re the man your father wanted you to be.” Apostolides takes a different turn with her next book. It will focus on the Socratic virtue of “Sophrosini” (or temperance) and feature a young pregnant belly dancer, and you can bet the author will get lucky too.

Marianne Apostolides presents her novel The Lucky Child, about her father’s and grandfather’s experiences during World War II and the Greek Civil War. The event took place on Long Island, NY, on June 12, 2010.

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