Book Review: Cartes Postales from Greece

I dug out Victoria Hislop’s 2016 collection of short stories from my unread bookshelf to take on our recent trip to Crete. Popularly described as one of the UK’s most ardent philhellenes, and these days at least a part-time resident of Crete, Hislop is a well-qualified companion with whom to discuss – over the written page – modern Greece and its tragedies, as well as its heroism, its lyricism and its love of songs and stories.

The stories in Cartes Postales – quite simply, postcards – were mostly written while Hislop was travelling in Greece, alongside Alexandros, a photographer whose images lavish the pages. They were not taken to illustrate, but to act as a prompt with Hislop tending to spin her stories out of the things that they both saw on the journey. Some of the latter are new, some are modern twists on old stories (the Venus di Milo makes an appearance as does, from a Cretan perspective, Icarus and Daedalus), others are founded in the continuousness of the search for meaning in natural signs with which to prompt human decisions at various crossroads (such as at the Oracle at Delphi). As such, most of the stories have a timeless appeal, even if imbued through a modern lens, not to say a glass of wine.

As in any short story collection, some of them work (Je Reviens being a particularly good example, twisting the fortunes of the people who inhabit modern Greece with the threads of its recent past; while Et In Arcadio Ego is menacing and disturbing), while others do not (Air on a G String is filled with the dreadful romanticism that Hislop seems to have rescued from the floor of Richard Curtis‘s writing room). We encompass otherwise the macabre (Honeymoon), the elegiac (Man On A Mountaintop) and the dramatic (The Boy In The Silvery Suit).

The difference to most normal collections are that the short stories are all linked, all being tales told to a traveller in tavernas, guest houses and in town squares. The traveller in question is not Hislop, except perhaps by some kind of displacement, but Anthony, a man on the run from a failed relationship but whose process of letting go entails the sending of a series of postcards, and finally a notebook, from each stopping point to the address of his lost lover, who has since moved away. There, they are received instead by Ellie, a young woman at something of a crossroads herself; and, intrigued, she decides to head for Greece. After that, well, Richard Curtis may yet be on the phone.

So here we have the first problem: the conceit of the structural idea is bold, but its execution in practice is breathlessly, remorselessly romantic in tone. The contrast between this and many of the stories is sharp, but the effect is not interesting since the romanticism of what is essentially the plot – and a rather thin one, at that – both undermines and subtracts from the stories themselves.

The second problem is a minor, practical one: Anthony is on the run but spends the year finishing writing a book on the sculptures of the Cyclades which, as it transpires, actually plays little role in his re-building of his sense of self. The difficulty is, he spends no time in the Cyclades on his journey, which is based virtually entirely on the mainland, and precious little of that in Athens – and, even there, he doesn’t appear to go to the museum where Cycladic art has been stolen re-located. Perhaps his research notes were all complete but, if it was me, I’d be wanting to visit one, probably both, and regularly, as I was finalising my work. Consequently, the threading of the stories relies on a hook which is both extremely insecure and which, ultimately, actually has little meaning.

Thirdly, the ageless appearance of the stories is fine at a superficial level, but it leaves the characters on the page inhabiting a yesterday world. This affects particularly the women characters who are disappointingly realised, being usually young girls, femme fatales or old crones (while the men are, although not as ubiquitously, portrayed either as weak-minded old fools or young, strong and silent types). There is nothing new about such an objectification of women (and, indeed, men) in literature, although I choose to read modern women writers to escape that sort of thing. It’s not as though Greece – and specifically Crete – has no examples of strong women, both in revolution and in modern times, on which Hislop could draw but the collection here ignores those in favour of sexist stereotypes. Easier, for sure, but ultimately a lot less challenging. I would have liked to see Hislop go a lot further in the direction where Et In Arcadio Ego seemed to be taking her.

In this yesterday world, modern Greece does appear, but only in the linking sections between the stories whereas a collection which really wanted to tell a story of the modern realities of the country would have made the old stories resonate in a more contemporary fashion with some of the photographs. All we are left with, therefore, is a flavour, a taste of the Greece of kafenion and zacharoplasteion – but one drawn more from the Greece of the travel pages than the reality of the modern stories told, to take just one example, by the graffiti-laden walls which we could see even in downtown, and somewhat sleepy, Rethymnon on our visit. The impression is thus of a throwback; of a recall of, and desire for, happier times; and, ultimately, of somewhat middle-class concerns and mores and standards.

Even for holiday reading, I’m looking for a bit more than that.

So, as this is also a bit of a postcard, as well as a review, here’s some graffiti on a bit of shabby house. I’m a little nervous about capturing graffiti in a foreign language because impressions can mislead and my Greek is, well, holiday Greek. Here, however, I think the loose translation would be ‘Under Heavy Manners’. And absolutely right, too.

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Death in the morning

A little after eight this morning. I pad through, dressed, to the kitchen where the sun, already two-thirds of the way across its path between the turbines and the low hills to the south, is already fully up above the horizon. It’s one of the last times I see this before the hills obscure the sunrise until much later in the day, and I rejoice in the scene and its warmth. Slightly further north and east, a small rain shower casts down in long, thin, smears of dark grey as the sun, a full disc but nevertheless hazy, casts its warm glow into the kitchen, illuminating with a timeless orange light the surfaces and the walls. There is little wind and the rain, a brief interlude in what will be a warm, almost cloudless, balmy day, is soon gone.

Overhead, one of the headland’s flock of ravens floats down towards the bay, feet dangling below, but held so, in a straight line from which, given the lack of wind, it barely deviates. I imagine it, a few seconds ahead, landing on one of the rocks exposed by the retreating tide, to bask in the sun and, maybe, plan its day just as I am doing. Though it does, already, appear a little more purposeful.

It lands. Not on a rock, though. It has already planned its day and breakfast is its next item. It lands on top of something on the sand and immediately jabs downwards. Its target moves. It’s not dead. Shocked out of my slumber by the violence of the thrust and by the – clearly erroneous – belief that ravens prefer their food already matured as opposed to fresh, I grab my binoculars from the lounge window shelf. Its prey continues to struggle as its adversary continues its stabbing motions, irregularly and infrequently, long moments between, like each one was already the last.

The prey continues to move. It’s a bird, of some kind – though I can’t make out what, even with the binoculars. It staggers about in its own defence, under the weight of the raven on its back, looking like a young, unfledged chick, though it surely can’t be, not at this time of year. Then the raven flies off, landing ten yards or so to the left, its back turned nonchalantly on its prey, bored with the struggle or else regaining strength before returning to the affray. The target vainly continues to flap its wings, ineffectively, seeking to make progress in any direction and I’m reminded somehow of the lumbering efforts on land of a penguin. It seeks, slowly, to raise itself to a height, to convince its attackers that it is not injured, that it is proud and able to defend itself, and capable of doing so.

It does not convince, or make progress. For whatever reason (an earlier assault, most likely), it cannot fly away. A second raven joins the fight – except that this already uneven contest is not a fair fight. The two are not evenly matched in a struggle for supremacy, with death the honourable outcome for the loser. If it’s a murder of crows, then what is it of ravens, joining up in a tag team against something already weak and virtually defenceless?

The ravens do not compete. They work together. The second one also stabs away at the prey, infrequently and irregularly, surprised at having to make another attempt to subdue, until the first attacker rejoins it. They stand side-by-side, momentarily in converse about what to do next. It cannot get away. It will not. The second raven, too, flies away a short distance before the original bird resumes the attack. Steady, not frenzied. Determined and resolute, not panicky. Remorseless, and not giving up.

The prey continues to struggle, long wings flapping, lurching about, trying to martial something, anything, with which to respond to the onslaught it is under, the raven’s beak continuing, repeatedly but oddly irregularly, its stabbing motions, interspersed with periods of rest, as a fighter in between rounds. Gulls circle overhead – but they do not join in. A flock of fifteen or so dunlin edge closer across the sand in wedge formation, interested onlookers to the scene before them but perhaps, mostly, glad it’s not them. The prey is significantly larger than them and, as it moves, I see a longer bill and am reminded of a cormorant.

The bird spins, facing its attacker and, for a moment, I imagine that this is its best chance, to use its own bill in its own defence. Inwardly, I cheer it. Except that it has not spun round; it has been spun. And its beak is no match for that of a raven which, eventually, delivers some sort of coup de grace before, again, flying away some short distance to recuperate, to distance itself from the murder it has had to commit, to quieten its senses.

Called briefly away from the scene, I return some time later. The prey is now headless, its neck a bloody stump, its body slumped behind like the contents of a small sack. The ravens are long gone. With a white chest and black body, I think, after all, it was probably a guillemot. I’m reminded of how defenceless it appeared and cannot escape the thought that it was a chick. It would not be the first time this year that I have watched a predation, but this one has left me oddly and disturbingly moved. Most likely, the bird was already injured – in some way – and the ravens, opportunistic scavengers, have moved in to finish the job and, perhaps, have been surprised by how long it took them.

A surround of white feathers on the sand, lying so many and motionless in the lack of wind, bears testimony to its plucking and appear, in some way, in small tribute to its last stand. Not the white feathers of cowardice, these. Meanwhile, the gulls continue to fly overhead, not interested in the murder committed on the sands below them, or apparently in its product, before the rising tide eventually sweeps away the body, and the evidence, and the feathery tributes, out to sea and into the wider food chain, and all returns to peaceful normality.