“There is nothing that can be done about poor Greece. We are too poor. We have only a lot of rocks for sale. We can only exist on skillful borrowing.” Sounds familiar? No, it isn't contemporary. It's a line from an unpublished novel by Lawrence Durrell, written in the 1960s but set in Greece in the early 1950s.
So not much has changed. When the German tabloid Bild suggested that Greece should sell off Corfu and the Parthenon as part of its asset-stripping, they didn't know that Durrell had foreseen this many years ago: In his novel, a multinational corporation does in fact get control of the Parthenon, in exchange for a “donation to election expenses” to the Greek PM which finds its way to a Swiss bank account.
Durrell had lived on Corfu in the 1930s, in Athens and Kalamata in the first year of the Second World War, and on Rhodes in the transition period 1945-47. His official work in the British foreign service had familiarized him with Greece's postwar situation, so what he wrote in this novel (which I have just finished editing for publication) rings true, then and now.
As a philhellene Durrell would have had mixed feelings about Greece's situation today. He would have acknowledged the need to modernize but he would also have regretted the erosion of traditional values. His brother, Gerald, who made Corfu world-famous with his memoir “My Family and Other Animals,” which is currently on television screens as a long-running series, bewailed the profusion of tourist infrastructure which, he said, had turned “a ravishing creature who was mature and beautiful” into someone “suffering from a terminal case of leprosy, commonly called tourism.”
More and more I see Greece twisted geographically between east and west, north and south, and, as far as the future is concerned, between modernization and tradition. Despite urbanization, most Greeks retain a foothold in the countryside and the islands, with at least a vestigial adhesion to traditional values. As long as they have the internet, they observe local pieties. Despite the imperative to make Greece efficient and entrepreneurial, the job opportunities, especially for the brightest young graduates, are to be found abroad. Despite the demonstrable achievements of the diaspora, the problems of copying them at home are enormous.
And then there's bribery and corruption. I'm a party to it myself. I pay cash for goods and because I don't ask for a receipt I get a hefty discount. I slipped a 50-euro note to a bank manager to “unfreeze” my account when he made it obvious that I couldn't access it until I did so.
I made some reference to a Greek friend of the “little brown envelopes” used for bribes in Ireland. He looked astonished. “You mean you have ‘fakelaki’ in Ireland?” “Of course we do. It's difficult to get planning permission without it.” “But why do you say ‘brown’ envelopes?” I explained that traditionally we use manila envelopes because that is the conventional business format. White envelopes are for above-the-counter transactions. “Brown... Hmm... That brings a whole new aspect to fakelaki.” He went away, thoughtful and inspired.
Lawrence Durrell would not have been surprised by government ministers accepting huge bribes, nor the cronyism that stands in the way of meritocracy. When the PM in his novel suggests giving jobs to some troublemakers in the Ministry of Pensions or the Post Office, his adviser points out: “Imagine the outcry from our own relations. They virtually pack out the two ministries in question.”
But he would have been saddened that Western pressure was being exerted to make Greece less Greek. And his brother would have been saddened that Eremitis, one of his old haunts in Corfu, a pristine headland with rare species of flora and fauna, has been acquired by a US-based development company to build a huge hotel, condominium villas, a marina and a shopping mall. What the remote northeast of Corfu will do with a shopping mall is beyond even a novelist's imagination.
No one would deny the need of the Greek exchequer to maximize its capital base by selling state-owned assets. But the property at Eremitis raises questions about the state's responsibility and the entire principle of cost-benefit analysis: Which is greater, the loss to the exchequer of not selling the property, or the cost to the Greek people of losing an irreplaceable area of ecological importance, natural beauty and sociocultural significance?
Selling the national electricity grid or the state railway company or the telecommunications system does not deprive the citizens of electricity or trains or the internet: In fact, it may raise their quality and increase access to them. Selling Eremitis as it stands today would effectively replace it with a completely different asset, neither owned nor controlled by the state.
The imperative to sell assets via privatization fund TAIPED has to be weighed against the cost to Greeks of losing even a small part of their heritage. Even the much larger issue of Macedonia centers on the same crucial question: Which is more important for the future – a pragmatic compromise and a friendly northern neighbor or the evocative name and associations of Greece's historical identity?
Durrell, who knew the area well, set part of his novel in Macedonia, conscious of the ethnic and religious tensions of the region. And the title of his novel? “The Placebo,” of course!
Richard Pine is director of the Durrell Library of Corfu (where he lives) and author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”