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Med sina läppars svalka Theodor Kallifatides, Med sina läppars svalka (With the Coolness of her Lips)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2014.

Reviewed by Anna-Lisa Murrell in SBR 2015:1

Review Section: Fiction

This is the story of the life of Elena, a woman born in Greece before World War II in a small village called the Golden Spring, who spends her old age in Sweden as a respected painter of icons.

Born in 1932, Elena experiences the turbulent war years and the catastrophic German occupation as a child. She marries her teacher Giannis, and they leave Greece together to make their home in Australia. But their longing to be back in their native country is irresistible. They return to Europe and to Athens, but finally make their home in Sweden.

Theodor Kallifatides has created a powerful portrait of a remarkable woman, who overcomes the privations of her childhood to become an artist. The novel is not just about a Greek couple’s life, but also gives fascinating insights into contemporary Greek history and the lives of immigrants in Sweden. The narrative covers the displaced Black Sea Greeks, the tragedy of the Salonika Jews, and the cruel fate of the communists in Greece. Another topic is the economy in the post-war years, based to a large extent – as in other war-ravaged countries at that time – on bribery and gifts, a problem that lives on in today’s Greece. The people also suffered misery after the seizure of power by the right-wing colonels in the 1967 coup, which led to seven years of military dictatorship. But Kallifatides sets against this the goodness shown by ordinary people, the priest and his wife, and the German captain, who is basically a good man caught up in a cruel war.

The novel poses many fundamental questions. What can you forgive? Can you love but not forgive? What is forgiveness?

Another theme is how tough life can be for immigrants. Spending time in an immigrant camp in Australia, where married couples were forced to live in segregation, was an extremely harsh experience. Life in post-war Germany, where miners’ working conditions were grim, was still harder. But even Sweden is not a workers’ paradise. Both Elena and Giannis suffer from their work in a rubber factory, leading to Giannis’s premature death.

In Sweden Giannis involves himself in politics. It becomes part of his life, but disillusionment sets in. Both he and Elena go through the experience of being exploited by professional politicians.

The description of their marriage is both very sensual and deeply honest. Elena’s longing for a child impels her into art and icon painting, and after ten years her longed-for daughter Maria arrives. Icon painting becomes an all-absorbing interest for Elena, and she gains respect as a gifted artist. However, Giannis persists in his naïve belief in communism, while their own little ghetto poses problems for the children, who, unlike their parents, feel part of Swedish society.

The novel ends on a happy note, with Elena, Maria and their friends sharing a magical holiday on Gotland. One wonders whether this remarkable story will be translated into Greek.

Also by Theodor Kallifatides

Other reviews by Anna-Lisa Murrell

Other reviews in SBR 2015:1

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