Greek Tragedy, Cellular and Bodied
By Anne GermanacosJuly 10, 2016
Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou
The stories all take place in the working-class neighborhoods of Piraeus, Greece, the famous port city where, in the present economy, the shipyards are failing and factories closing. The reader is readily brought into the story: we are forced not just to contemplate these characters’ lives but also to spend time in their minds and their skin. These are characters who smoke, shake, and talk to themselves — each a possible version of any one of us in like, depressed circumstances. These are stories about the unemployed and the desperate: a father who dies in a shipyard explosion, a boyfriend who absconds with the fattened pig, and a brother who is “dripping all over as if every pore in his skin is an eye and every eye is crying.” Even the sky rains down tears.
In the first story of the collection, “Come on Ellie, Feed the Pig,” childless, unmarried Ellie has “twenty euros to get her through the week and bills piled on the kitchen counter.” She’s at home on a Friday night, washing lettuce with great care, her hands trembling. The weather is in sync with her mood: it’s raining and it seems like the railings of the building are weeping. She’s beyond poverty and hunger — the trembling, she thinks, must be low blood sugar. The latest in a series of men has left her, stealing the precious pig, which could have brought in at least 800 or 900 euros. In an attempt to save herself, she triples the one-two-three-four recipe for halva (oil, semolina, sugar, and water), pours the mixture onto her best tablecloth, and molds it into the shape of a man. She then carefully takes it from the kitchen to her bedroom, placing the edible effigy on her bed. She begins to eat the figure with a tiny spoon, ingesting some of the sweetness. She slowly consumes “this most recent of men to have passed through her life through her unguarded borders like a conquering soldier or a hunted migrant.” Clearly her trembling comes not just from hunger, but from other things, too — fury, fear, and desperation.
Ellie is the first in a series characters whose bodies seem afflicted, even violated, by the current state of the country. Ikonomou’s great gift to his readers is to throw light on some of the darkest corners of contemporary Greece, which he does without the slightest trace of false hope. Ellie compares her own heart to the delicate white center of a lettuce, trying to hold onto the most tender and alive part of her. The image quickly disappears however: “what she sees sinks inside of her like the smile of a person who’s out of work, a person who’s just been fired.”
The second story, “And a Kinder Egg for the Kid,” begins with a startling sentence: “Hunger woke him.” It’s Good Thursday, the day in the liturgical drama of Holy Week before Christ is nailed to the cross. Awake, the main character watches his son sleep beside him, “so beautiful that it hurt to look at him.” He then goes out to find food, walking through neighborhoods as if he’s an animal on the prowl. He wants to procure for his son not just a decent meal — “pasta a little cheese bread milk” — but a chocolate egg, something special for Easter. The futility of the hunt drives him mad. His guts are gnawed by hunger and shame. Interspersed with his thoughts and the actions of his day is a single enigmatic line: “Sir, the girl said. Would you put the crown on our Jesus’ head?” It’s left in its own space, several times in the course of the story — a hint — until we arrive at the moment when it’s actually spoken within the narrative.
Again, Ikonomou demonstrates just where politics ends and private suffering begins. The character’s walk through town is contextualized within the larger economic struggle in Greece: the closure of the factory, the protests and demonstrations, the hoarse voices and rage. “First they raised your hopes and then they cut the legs out from under you, beat you, destroyed you. That was the worst. The words, the lies.” Our character is not red (Communist), green (Socialist), or blue (Conservative). Politics offer nothing and the Carnival’s pagan rite drives him even crazier than his own hunger. Religion doesn’t offer much more: he thinks he hears bells in a place where no church exists, begins to cross himself, in the manner of Greeks, then stops himself. Eventually, he arrives at the true font, the one and only modern-day source of power and wisdom: the ATM. He “closed his eyes for a few seconds and said something on the inside as if he were a man of faith who prayed every Good Thursday in front of an icon of the crucified Christ” only to be met with the words “we’re sorry we can’t complete that transaction.” These stories are not without their excruciatingly dark humor. Ikonomou takes us through hunger and desperation, guiding us into the psychological space without the safety of an anchor. There is no resolution to this story — the man doesn’t even find icicle to allay his thirst.
“The Things They Carried,” obviously a tribute to Tim O’Brien, finds five older men standing around at 3:00 in the morning in front of the social security office. They’ve arrived early in the hopes that a doctor will see them. Instead of naming them, Ikonomou gives them numbers, hinting at their stories by listing the objects around them. Some of the things they carry are “a bottle of water, pills and capsules for his various ailments […] extra cigarettes to help them stay awake.” They’re also holding on to kidney stones, years of hard work, compromises, betrayals, lottery tickets, keys to a house no longer possessed, songs, nostalgia, the scent of stale smoke, bitter orange. The men pass the cold dark hours together, arguing, threatening, retreating. While O’Brien’s characters were young and at war in Vietnam, these are older men fighting another form of war: poverty, sickness, old age. As the narrator in another story asks: “What kind of life can you live when you’re waiting for something bad to save you from something bad?”
In some sense, all the stories in the collection take place between two sentences, both taken from “The Blood of the Onion”: “How much silence can a person carry inside?” and “If you don’t say what you’re feeling at some point you stop feeling it.” Ikonomou’s writing brilliantly and sensitively conveys hope, fear, and everything in between. He realizes that the mind plays games when faced with something it can’t bear to see. Ikonomou forces it, and us, to look. These stories give back to the world what is lost in the TV rendition of a country’s suffering. These fictions are the news, writ atomically, or cellularly, character by character, progressing one gesture and emotional tick at a time. The loss of the individuals behind any news story is a crime. Ikonomou undoes the crime by bodying forth the tragedy.
Anne Germanacos is the author of the short story collection In the Time of the Girls and the novel Tribute.
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