Norstedts, 2009. ISBN: 9789113013145
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2010:1
The Last Greek is a history of the violent upheavals and population dispersals of twentieth-century Greece, indeed Europe; but also the story of one particular Greek immigrant who finds his way to small-town, southern Sweden in 1967. It is also a wry meditation on human identity, loss and longing, and what it is to be Greek. The properties of water, flowing or frozen, and making up a large part of the human body, are subject to scrutiny. The novel dwells, too, on the nature of memory and the line between fact and fiction, a problematic distinction which Fioretos has used as his central conceit, making this look like a factual, biographical book, but at the same time stating at the start that it is a novel, and ‘based on an untrue story’. Poetry has always been like poison to the Greeks, one character says, but elsewhere, the narrator takes the view that we may need fiction to make life fathomable. All those Greeks who find their way abroad have to reinvent themselves to fit new circumstances, so why shouldn’t that inventiveness feature in their biographies? The narrator is to all intents and purposes a playful Aris Fioretos himself, but his youthful self has much in common with the novel’s ‘Anton Florinos’ (born 1960) who is one of the sons in the doctor’s household, which takes in our Greek hero Jannis, known also as the Super-Greek, the Heaven Stormer and the Swedish Hercules. Fioretos has had fun creating a complex back story to his central narrative, a series of frameworks within frameworks. The main protagonist is Jannis Georgiadis, but his story comes to us through a set of index cards compiled by his lifelong friend Kostas Kezdoglou and passed to the narrator on Kostas’ death. Kostas has been attempting to maintain the project begun by his grandmother Eleni and her friends, now scattered worldwide, to keep track of emigrating family members and countrymen by collecting information and publishing since 1928 in irregular volumes a (spoof, we presume) Encyclopedia of Greeks Abroad. The ‘Life of Jannis’ we hold in our hands in this volume is purportedly a Supplement to the last part of the reference work. Despite its bewildering array of characters, the novel is eminently readable and not confusing: it is provided with a helpful family tree on the inside front cover and a welcome timeline of major events in modern Greek history at the back. The narrative is structured in a number of short sections, varying in length from a few sentences to some dozen pages, each one in theory based on one of Kostas’ file-cards, to remind him that every story is a construction; events are not arbitrary, but they can be told in another order. The chronology swings between following Jannis as he tries to establish himself in Sweden, taking us on flashbacks to his former life in his beloved village of Áno Potamiá, and on forays even further back to his parents’ and grandparents’ stories. What drives him from home? He loses his family’s grazing land and goat shed in a reckless game of poker, and decides the least shameful solution is to leave, as so many young Greeks have done through the decades. Because Kostas and Efi, his old school friends from the next village, have already found their way to Skåne, he heads for Sweden, too. While he awaits a work permit, he is taken in by a Greek doctor and his Austrian wife. For Jannis, Sweden is Eden – a phrase that works even better in English than in the Swedish original. His years of getting to grips with a new culture are portrayed in a non-judgmental, matter-of-fact but tenderly humorous way. Yet all is not perfect in Paradise, and conflicting loyalties continue to plague Jannis to the end of the book and its breathtaking final-page denouement when he is at last en route back home. The storytelling is first class and has great momentum. Depth of feeling is indicated with impressive economy. Memorable tableaux achieve more than dialogue might: Jannis falling in love with his host’s young nanny as they fold a sheet together, for example. Jannis grows to love ice skating and croquet – hence the book’s cover – in his adoptive country, and these run like leitmotifs through the book. The characterisation is subtle and perceptive, producing even minor characters that are rounded and human. The humour can sometimes seem a little knowing and self-conscious, but is warm and funny. The use of language is superb from the very first, as is the imagery: Grandmother Eleni who fled the Turks and lost most of her family felt, for example, ‘like a spider without legs, sick with sorrow’. The novel was shortlisted for the 2009 August Prize and the Swedish critics were unanimous in their praise, one of them calling it ‘a multi-layered, profoundly gripping, sumptuous love story [...] as close to a masterpiece as you can get’.