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Greece's lost soul

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Nick Malkoutzis

There is a memorable scene in Theo Angelopoulos’s award-winning film “Ulysses’ Gaze” when an exiled filmmaker played by Harvey Keitel is being driven from Greece into Albania by a cabbie portrayed by the late Thanassis Veggos. Their journey is hampered by a snowstorm and as the two men share a drink from the same bottle, Veggos delivers a lament for his fading homeland. “Greece is dying,” he says. “We’re dying as a people. We’ve come full circle; I don’t know how many years, among broken stones and statues... and we’re dying. But if Greece is going to die, she’d better do it quickly because the agony lasts too long and makes too much noise.”

Ironically, it was Veggos’s death last week that made these words ring truer than ever. Succumbing on May 3 to a long battle with ill health, Veggos’s passing seemed to confirm that Greece is watching its true heroes agonizingly disappear one by one. The 84-year-old had entertained Greek cinema, theater and TV audiences for more than 50 years with his own brand of frantic comedy and everyman pathos. But his reputation as a hardworking, honest and generous man was just as significant in establishing him as a respected and loved figure as his acting talent.

“I have been running fast all my life,” he told Kathimerini’s Maria Katsounaki in an interview a couple of years ago. “But I have never been able to break through the finishing tape because they keep moving it. Whenever I got close, they moved it a few meters away.”

Veggos has now crossed the finishing line and he will find a number of worthy competitors on the other side of the tape. He died three days after another respected figure passed away. Apostolos “Lakis” Santas died at the age of 89 on April 30. He had been one of the two men who climbed up to the Acropolis on May 30, 1941 -- a month after the Nazis had occupied Athens -- to tear down the swastika flag. It was one of the most significant and symbolic acts of resistance by Greeks during the Second World War. It led to Santas, and his partner Manolis Glezos, being imprisoned and tortured.

Santas died a few days after much-admired singer-songwriter Nikos Papazoglou drew his last breath. Many Greeks had a special fondness for Papazoglou not just because of his music but also because he shunned the trappings of fame. Papazoglou died just over a month after one of the men he collaborated most closely with, composer and lyricist Manolis Rasoulis slipped away. Like Papazoglou, he was loved for his great contribution to Greek music but also his depth as a human being.

A week after Rasoulis’s death, Greece also lost playwright and screenwriter Iakovos Kambanellis. Like the others, Kambanellis also left his mark on Greece, where he is considered to be the founding father of the country’s modern theater. Kambanellis worked closely with director Nikos Koundouros, who gave Veggos his first big break in his 1954 film “The Magic City.” Like Veggos’s character remarked, it feels as if Greece has come full circle.

There is a line from a poem by Nobel Prize winner Odysseas Elytis currently on display in the Athens metro. It reads: “Make a leap faster than decay.” It’s exactly what Veggos, Santas, Papazoglou, Rasoulis and Kambanellis did. Through their own skill, devotion, honesty and fortitude, they managed to rise above and beyond the complacency and malaise that set in over the last few decades.

Some of these men went through inconceivable sacrifices and hardship for what they believed in and represented. Veggos was exiled on the island of Makronissos for his leftist background, Santas was tortured by the Nazis and then persecuted by his countrymen for being a communist and Kambanellis was interned at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria during the Second World War.

From this suffering came an honesty and appreciation of life’s true value. These were qualities reflected in the songs of Papazoglou and Rasoulis, who did not endure such horrors. They all represent a generation that is now disappearing from Greek public life. There is something sadly poetic about them dying almost within a month of each other. It has given an added poignancy to the fact that Greece is gradually being left without cultural and moral reference points at a time when its society is in flux.

The passing of men like Veggos and Santas highlights the current paucity of figures to command the respect of Greeks. On the barren landscape of contemporary Greece stand gutless politicians, vapid celebrities, fleeting music stars and hyperbolic journalists. At a time when the country desperately needs heroes, the number of people worthy of Greeks’ respect is diminishing rapidly.

Perhaps, though, these testing circumstances are just the fertile ground that’s needed for new men and women of true stature to step forward. Greece may not be in the grip of a war of resistance, a civil war or a battle for democracy, but it is very much in a struggle to survive. If anything, Greece is at war with itself as the voiceless majority struggles with its own conscience and limitations to wrestle control of the country from the myopic minority. It is in desperate need of people -- maybe from the worlds of politics, music, film, literature, academia or journalism -- capable of leaping into the void and being faster than decay.

“Ulysses’ Gaze” begins with a quote from Plato, who describes a supposed dialogue between Socrates and the Athenian statesman Alcibiades. “If the soul is to ever know itself, it must gaze into the soul,” the philosopher tells the politician. And so Greece has reached the point when it must also look within itself and discover a new morality, a new purpose, a new narrative. It needs to rediscover its soul, because although the one it had was once strong and vibrant, it has now virtually vanished.

ekathimerini.com , Tuesday May 10, 2011 (23:37)  
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