Monday, April 28, 2008

Eleni, by Nicholas Gage

An extraordinary blend of investigative reporting and imagination, originally printed in 1983. Nicholas Gage, who emigrated at the age of nine to America from Greece in 1949, was haunted by his mother's death. His mother, Eleni, was tried and executed in his little mountain village in 1948, by communist guerrillas, who controlled the village during the civil war there.

Gage wanted to know who was really responsible for his mother's death. True to his heritage, as an adult he set out to revenge her death, but his background in investigative journalism led him to seek out the truth first.

In this massive tale, over 600 pages in the cheap paperback edition I bought, Gage begins at the beginning and relentlessly takes us on every road, into every conversation, through the relatively good times and into the horrific, that holds a part of his mother. He sketches her early years and marriage, giving us a glimpse of her husband Christo, who sought his fortune in the United States, returning periodically to be with his wife but who believed it better to keep her in Greece, living the "old ways" while he lived the new. From 1940, when the communist and fascist guerrilla groups were gaining ground in Greece, until her death in 1948, Eleni lived a life of increasing hardship. She had come from a family of privilege and her husband had sent her money for her support while he was gone, but in 1940 the mail was cut off and she no longer had any support or any word from him.

Life in the mountain village of Lia was hardly a cakewalk in the best of times. The culture demanded that women follow strict standards of dress and behavior, much as fundamentalist Muslim women do now. Women were raised to obey the men in their lives, to make no decisions on their own.

It was just this fact that eventually led to Eleni's death. When she first had a chance to get out of Lia she did not take it because her husband, in his last letter to her, had said the guerrillas were their friends and they would not hurt her. She could not disobey him. Later, though, she saw that her fate and that of her children demanded that she make a different decision.

She engineered an escape, revealing a raw courage that belied her cultural background. Other women who joined the escape band were less secure, unsure of what to do or how to manage without direct orders from men. Eleni was unable to join the group ultimately, but gave her children directions to avoid detection by guerrillas when they slipped away. The escape shocked the village and the guerrilla government decided somebody had to pay.

Gage doesn't spare many details. His story reads like fiction, with characters, words, and thoughts fleshed out. Intermittently he inserts first-person narratives, reminding us that it isn't fiction. The blend reminds me a bit of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Mailer's The Executioner's Song, but Gage has a more personal relationship with his main character and this relationship is what drives the tale. The quality of the re-creation isn't as literary as the other two works but it's far beyond hackwork.

While the story is clearly about Eleni it also gives us a good picture of life in the mountain villages in Greece at the time. It also helped me to see how a civil war like this one can pit neighbor against neighbor, with horrifying consequences. Yet at the heart of it I was surprised to find that most of the villagers did not succumb to greed when it would have been easy, did not choose to speak against others to gain privileges for themselves. Certainly some did these things, but their characters had been evident before the guerrillas moved in. It is easy to become irritated at the superstitions, the cultural norms, the ignorance at the heart of village life. Yet the innate strength of many of the same people is impressive. Perhaps living in a village where everyone knows everyone else's secrets does make for stronger bonds.

Knowing the end ahead of time made the reading hard-going for me at times. I had nightmares two nights in a row, about executions. I couldn't wait to get through the details, details, details, and past the death itself. When it came it didn't hit me like a fist in my stomach as I had anticipated. I was relieved. An extra treat for me, having made it that far, was the wrapping up, the resolution of Gage's hunt for revenge. Riveting reading, all the way through.

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