Reviewed by Fiona Graham in SBR 2016:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
The year is 1973, the seventh year of the Greek military junta. The students at Athens’ Technical University have been protesting vigorously against the colonels’ regime for three days. Maria (Mary to her friends), a 23-year-old architecture student, has just discovered that she is expecting a baby. While trying to reach her boyfriend, Dimos, one of the student ringleaders, she is arrested and taken to the headquarters of the notorious security service. Given the close links between Mary’s family and the regime, she could take the easy way out, but her integrity and her concern for Dimos prevent her from revealing her identity. She also resolves not to give away the names of any comrades, or the fact that she is pregnant, suspecting that her guards could use her condition to extract information. Sadly, this is a prescient fear.
After a fortnight of semi-isolation, during which she endures torture and simulated rape, Mary is transported to ‘Rat Island’. Here she and five other female prisoners, one of whom is accompanied by her five-year-old son, are ordered to clean the currently disused barracks in preparation for the arrival of a new batch of political prisoners. Overworked, half-starved and, on occasion, sexually exploited, the women nonetheless maintain their solidarity and sense of self. Mary withstands further horrific torture in silence. As a result she is banished to a hovel on the other side of the island, to dispose of the waste that arrives daily from the barracks and tidy up the makeshift cemetery where civil war prisoners are buried. She exists here, alone but for the rats that give the island its name, for a further two months.
Although Mary eventually returns to her remaining companions, there is no respite. Her pregnancy is now visible. Determined to break her, the Commandant issues an ultimatum: if she does not reveal the father’s name, the child will be removed immediately after birth and given to a childless couple loyal to the military regime. In despair, Mary opts for a gruelling abortion, after which the military again banish her to the isolated hovel. There is now nothing left to hope for. Even if Dimos is still alive, she feels that she would never be able to tell him that she saved him by sacrificing their unborn child. The only remaining release for Mary’s tormented body and soul is suicide.
Many interviewers have questioned Aris Fioretos’ decision to focus on the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations accompanying pregnancy. To this reviewer, at least, his narrative seems both credible and moving. Mary resists physical and psychological cruelty alike by focusing on the life within her, which she pictures sometimes as a life-giving sun, sometimes a fruit – first a rosehip, then a plum, an apricot and finally a peach. The sense of being more than herself alone keeps her going. The child to be stands for the hope of a better future in a society free of oppression. Although Mary is not depicted as particularly religious, her name is hardly a matter of chance.
Aspects of the captives’ physical suffering recall the wretched existence of Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich. Fioretos’ novel is a salutary reminder that Greece had its own ‘gulag archipelago’, not so very long ago. It is also a timeless tale of man’s inhumanity to man, and, in particular, to woman. It would be almost too painful to read, were it not for the warmth, resilience and grit of the female prisoners and the memorable central character, the vulnerable yet fiercely independent Mary. At the end, Mary feels that she no longer exists as an individual, that she has been reduced to an anonymous Someone. Yet she will live on for all readers of this powerful novel as a tragic heroine with a remarkable strength of character.