CULTURE

The chronicle of a nation trapped in the suffering of a political rift

How can a well-researched analysis of a country’s sociopolitical situation begin as a romantic novel? Birt Birtles’s «Exiles in the Aegean» (originally published in English in 1938 and published in Greek by Filistor Press in 2002, translated by Yiannis Kastanaras) begins in September 1935. An Australian communist journalist, Birtles had just gathered material from a trip to Palestine, where tensions between Jews, Arabs and the British were reaching dangerous levels. Birtles hadn’t seen his wife, Dora Toll-Birtles in three years. An author of travel guides and children’s books, Dora was herself in the middle of a long journey, which had begun in Papua, Malaysia and Singapore, and then China and Japan, and was coming to an end in Europe. The couple had decided that the point of reunion had to be Athens – finding each other at the Parthenon at sunset. Timely questions For the two archaeologists in love, the joy of meeting at such a mythical landscape would most certainly have ended in an Arcadian utopia, had it not been for Birtles’s profession, which, almost masochistically pushed him into asking many poignant and timely questions. This sent them off track, along with their dreams of a regular daily life in a country suffering from a political rift, and Kondylis and Metaxas’s military coup. The first question was an attempt to link their vision of Greece prior to their visit with what was lying in front of their eyes. For Birtles, it was the Greeks who had written the first Utopia, who had been the instigators of political science. What if, wondered the author, after all those discussions on Democracy, Monarchy, Freedom and Injustice, they now sensed a fierce class struggle taking over the entire country, where instead of discussing ancient ideals, the talk was all about low wages and unemployment, the devaluation of the drachma and the cost of living; they discovered a country very different from the land of Plato and Aristotle? The majority of journalists these days are after a couple of good shots and one or two sensational eyewitness stories. There was a time, however, when their forebears – such as Hemingway, for instance – covered events in a different way: They were knowledgeable about the country, could analyze the political situation in detail, understood the mentalities of the locals and were ready to set up meetings and schedule interviews (That is why correspondents used to spend months, if not years, in a country). Birtles was that kind of man. His arrival in Athens coincided with the Kondylis coup d’etat – and he immediately criticized a colleague who was not aware of the situation, using as an excuse the fact that she was on vacation when it took place. Furthermore, besides taking information from local newspapers and official documents, he also took into account the people’s point of view as expressed in private conversations. Birtles developed a close relationship with members of what was, at the time, the semi-illegal Greek Communist Party, meeting with various party officials such as Vassilis Filippas, the editor-in-chief of the party newspaper Risospastis. He also met with Costas Varnalis (Birtles translated excerpts of the Greek author’s works for Varnalis’s English-speaking audience) as well as Giorgios Seferis. He covered landmark events of Greek life, such as Venizelos’s funeral and took photos of refugee camps. As a conscientious professional with left-wing ideology, Birtles felt that his duty was to go as far as possible to uncover unseen aspects of the country’s life. A principal subject of his research was the exiled who did not return home even after Kondylis’s death – despite the repatriated king’s declarations. He took great risks when he traveled to the islands of Anafi and Gavdos and stayed with the exiles, sharing their scarce food and the parasites lurking beneath their rugged clothes. He also went further, discussing not only the deplorable living conditions and the survival tactics they had developed, but encouraged discussions about sex (which was forbidden in that harsh regime of survival coexistence), the role of women, and listened in on discussions about whether or not revolutionaries should have children. «Exiles in the Aegean» could aptly be titled «Chronicle of a Military Coup Foretold,» namely, that of August 4, 1936. Yet beyond the field of political events and the telling remarks – even for historians specializing in that particular period today – the reader also receives information on daily life: the Athenian kafeneion, fashion and women, the food habits of those living in the city and the countryside, the city streets, the Ioannina bazaar, they way people discussed politics. When the book was published in London, few were aware of its existence. Largely responsible for the publishing surprise was translator Yiannis Kastanaras, who took the Greek edition a step further by adding a great number of useful footnotes.