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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