MARCH 13, 2019
CHRISTOS IKONOMOU’S newly translated collection of short stories promises, with its title, that Good Will Come From the Sea for the austerity-fatigued Greek people. The prospect is easy enough to accept. History is on Ikonomou’s side, after all; a great deal of good has come from the sea for the Greek people over the millennia.
In antiquity, the naval victory against the Persians at Salamis arguably ensured the survival of Greek culture. Today, the wealth of the Hellenic Republic (that is, what’s left of it) flows from Greek dominance of the global shipping industry. Tomorrow, whenever it arrives, natural gas beneath the Eastern Mediterranean may offer a much-needed economic miracle. But for all the good things that have come from the sea, whether past, present, or future, the sea has taken other good things away — and sometimes brought evil things in their place.
“The sea is contrary to human nature,” Ikonomou writes. “Only monsters can survive on islands. Monsters or gods. Look at Christ. Only he could walk on the waves. Only he who conquers death can conquer the sea.”
Death becomes the sea, and nowhere more than in Greece. The Aegean eternally commemorates King Aegeus, who jumped to his death in its waters rather than bury his son, Theseus — who was in fact very much alive. The irony of Aegeus’ suicide seems to have infected the Aegean ever since. The military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974 transformed its islands into sites of torture and exile — incubators of totalitarianism in the birthplace of democracy. Today, other islands are human holding pens of a different kind: refugees are fenced into camps in the eastern Aegean, imprisoned in a living hell, right behind and beside the paradises where foreign tourists live out their fantasies. In short, the Aegean is a sea of the absurd.
Which is to say, it is a microcosm of post-crisis Greece as Ikonomou sees the country. In Good Will Come From the Sea, the Aegean is the purgatorial background to four intertwined stories about survival, starting over, and the zero-sum conflict between solidarity and self-interest. Although they are cynical dispatches from a universe rolling toward terminal chaos, it’s the kernel of hope that these stories share that, perversely, proves to be the undoing of their characters. As Ikonomou grimly observes here, hope is a certain kind of trap — not just for Greece, but for an entire world worn down by capitalism.
That economic system and its discontents are familiar territory for Ikonomou, who grew up in the working class in the Athens suburb of Piraeus. Like his other fiction, Good Will Come From the Sea concerns itself with the Greek working classes, or those who’ve precipitously dropped into them from former middle-class comfort. But here, he exchanges the gritty quotidian of Piraeus for a nonspecific, dystopic Aegean island in a not-too-distant future: one in which the crisis is over but fresh in the memory of the ramshackle communities we encounter. All of them are “internal refugees” from austerity-bombed Athens, having migrated to the islands in packs — a nod to the Greeks who’ve returned in recent years to the countryside villages to live more simply, or just to live at all.
Unlike its major cities, Greece’s villages have been insulated, to some extent, from the crisis’s shockwaves and have avoided the blight that’s ubiquitous in Athens or Thessaloniki. What’s more, as Greece has tried to pivot its economy from services to exports, the villages have become more attractive to at least some disaffected young Greeks, who have taken on agricultural work in the highest rates in 35 years. It’s a stunning reversal of the migration patterns of their parents and grandparents, and it has reportedly not come without friction between locals and newcomers. Though Ikonomou substitutes the rugged villages of the mainland for sleepy seaside island towns here, the clannish resentment he chronicles is the same.
“Foreigners. That’s what they call us. Foreigners. Foreigners, outsiders, refubees. Not refugees, refubees — their little joke down here on the island,” which is a composite, as best I can tell, of Crete, Amorgos, and the eastern Aegean island of Leros and its neighbors, many of which absorbed the ethnic Greek refugees “who came in swarms from Asia Minor back in ’22.” The legacy of that trauma endures in the volatile détente between Ikonomou’s refugee protagonists and the locals they call “rats” — a mutual disdain that reflects the weak social cohesiveness that foreign media loves to blame for the Greek crisis. Wrong or right, for Ikonomou, there is some truth to that theory.
This dynamic propels the plot of the exquisite first story, “I’ll Swallow Your Dreams,” in which a nameless narrator recounts the thwarted dreams of his long-dead friend, Anastasios (familiarized as Tasos), and his ill-fated defiance of a local cabal. Tasos, whose name means “resurrection,” is a leader among the Athenian transplants on the island, an idealist who hopes to build an agricultural commune where profits will be shared and produce will be fresh. His efforts to implement the ambitious plan come to naught after the local mafia disfigures him, but he remains firm in his moral commitment to a better future. Reassuring his demoralized neighbors, Tasos proclaims, like an article of faith: “Good will come from the sea.”
“[I]t’s worth waiting for good to come from the sea,” Tasos tells the narrator. “[B]ecause only when you finally realize that there’s no sense in waiting for good to come does it actually start to make sense to wait.” What exactly this Delphic explanation means, if anything, is ultimately beside the point: in the aftermath of Tasos’s mysterious death, it sustains the spirits of the community he leaves behind. However, as far as we are led to understand, it does not empower them to resist their Mafioso overlords in any material way.
The following stories take these cynical implications further: in each one, some Athenian refugee, exiled on the island, contends with some local antagonist and fails. In “Kill The German,” a paralyzed man plots to rescue the underage girl that his elderly neighbor has sexually assaulted, nightly, for some indefinite stretch of time. His righteous indignation, however great, is not enough to overcome his paralysis, and we leave him desperately crawling up the stairs to the pedophile’s room, a knife between his teeth. The titular third story similarly abandons its protagonist, a bereaved father named Lazaros, on a windswept cliff above the sea, where he descends into insanity after failing to find his missing son — partially on account of the withholding and unhelpful island locals.
And in the slightly more upbeat fourth story, “Kites in July,” entrepreneurial couple Stavros and Artemis reel after their taverna — the flagship project of their post-crisis reinvention — is burned to the ground, most likely an act of arson by jealous local business owners. In the aftermath, drunk on wine salvaged from the ruins, Stavros and Artemis fly kites on its ashes — an unseasonable recreational choice. In Greece, kites are more commonly seen in the sky on the first Monday of Lent, “Clean Monday,” as a form of emotional preparation for the 40-day fast. Lent has already happened in this story, but a fast much longer that 40 days is on the horizon of this young couple.
Across all of these stories, at some point, the dejected hearts turn to the ocean, prayerful that “good will come from the sea.” The phrase is present in every story, yet good never quite seems to reach the shore. For that reason, like the surprisingly profound ramblings of a lonely barfly, these stories are tumultuous journeys from despair to hope and back to despair, masterfully rendered by Ikonomou. He has a particular talent for internal dialogue, capturing the smugness and paranoia of a mind that’s trusted no one for so long that it no longer even trusts itself. Page-length sentences of staccato clauses reminiscent of Faulkner bombard the reader but don’t disorient, balanced as they are between exhaustion and mania. Parts of this book are descents into hell, but Ikonomou’s confident voice guides the way back out.
Absent are any woodenness or awkwardness, testament to the quality of the translation by Karen Emmerich, a veteran translator of contemporary Greek fiction who has rendered the book with such nuance that it has the nimbleness of something originally written in English. But while the prose is beautiful, often perfect, there is too much of it. Powerful, poignant points are swallowed up by curlicued extrapolations. Storytelling is set aside for Socratic interludes that continue for just a little too long. Like someone with a lot to say and no one to talk to, Ikonomou often overstays his welcome, digressing into outright sermonizing and saying too much.
Some of what he says, too, has already been thoroughly said elsewhere by other people. For example, consider the moral observation at the heart of each story: hypnotized by hope in the future and by nostalgia for their lost pasts, Ikonomou’s characters are trapped by their own minds in a present-day Greece they are powerless to change. Although primed for radical reinvention, the Greece of these stories drifts closer and closer toward the past of “clientelism” and petty discord that the crisis was supposed to “cure.”
This should all sound very familiar to anyone who’s even casually followed coverage of the Greek debt crisis: a broken system; scrappy “entrepreneurs” strangled in the cradle by unwieldy “bureaucracy” and vested interests; a backward cultural mendacity that undercuts solidarity and systemic social, political, and economic change, et cetera. For 10 years, critics and armchair anthropologists have been saying the same things about Greece. Indeed, Good Will Come From the Sea seems conspicuously merchandized for these voyeuristic Western readers. And yet, it registers to me as far less exploitative of Greek suffering in 2019 than it would have five years ago, when it was published in Greek.
The events and revelations of the past few years have made one thing clear: the capitalism and debt colonization that have devoured a quarter of Greek GDP, devastated its birth rate, and extorted its wealth are operating everywhere else in the world. The planet is dying, the promise of children living better than their parents is firmly debunked, and the prospect of bringing new lives into this world is both logistically prohibitive and, possibly, morally wrong. Reading this book was thus not just an exercise in solidarity with the country my great-grandfather left a century ago: it was a confrontation with the aching hopelessness that everyone, everywhere, now feels.
Even in a United States at full employment, it’s difficult to deny that, as Ikonomou writes here, “the kingdom of caves is at hand, the time is coming when we’ll actually have to go back to living in caves,” or cars, or tiny houses, or homes that we will never own. In that sense, Good Will Come From the Sea is a premonition of a world to come, far more than it is a paternalistic exposé of present-day Greece. Ikonomou’s characters have no future, but neither do we.