Fiction created from fact

When Petrie Harbouri first heard of her husband’s well-connected Cephalonian forebears, she thought: «There must be a novel in there somewhere,» but many years were to pass before she herself wove some of his family history into fiction. Now her novel, first published in English as «The Brothers Carburi» (Bloomsbury, 2001), has been released in a Greek translation by noted author Alexis Panselinos as «Philadelfos» (Patakis, 2003). Harbouri talked to Kathimerini English Edition about the genesis of her latest book, and the process of writing fiction. London-born and bred, Harbouri came to Greece in 1970. She works as a translator of Greek fiction under the name Caroline Harbouri. Though for years she wrote short stories, it was mainly to share them with friends, and her own literary career remained on the back burner until quite recently. Her first book, «Graffiti» (Bloomsbury, 1998), was a collection of short stories involving a single group of characters. That was followed by «Our Lady of the Serpents» (Bloomsbury, 1999), which she considers to be her best book. But the character closest to her heart is that of Giovambattista, the eldest Carburi brother, for whom she feels «a very strong sympathy.» An in-between place Explaining her relatively late start as a writer, Harbouri says: «One of the reasons is that I write in English, I think in English but I haven’t lived in England for many years. I live in Greece, and although I occasionally think in Greek, I’m not Greek. Therefore, the place of my novel has to be very carefully chosen; it has to be an in-between place and I think that’s one of the reasons I paused for a long time before writing. The Harbouri brothers interested me among many other reasons precisely because they – like me – ended up being neither fish nor fowl nor fair red herring.» The brothers all left their native Argostoli, Cephalonia, in the 18th century, eventually pursuing illustrious careers abroad: Giovambattista became a physician at the court of Versailles, Marino worked as an engineer for Catherine the Great, and Marco was a chemist in Padua. Yet when Harbouri first planned her novel, all she knew of the brothers was the outlines of their lives as handed down by family tradition. Then she came across a 1904 account of famous Cephalonians: «I read it in one go. Everything they did was wonderful, so much so that I took it with a pinch of salt. However, where I was able to verify, I found it accurate.» The first chapter of her novel was already complete when she had the good fortune to receive some extraordinarily rich archival material. Tassos, the elder cousin of the family, who lived in Austria, had responded to her request for any relevant family papers by arriving in Athens with an entire suitcase of documents. «Most amazingly, there was a collection of handwritten letters by some of the brothers. I qualify some of the brothers, because there was nothing in Marino’s hand, nothing from Marino, except letters from his elder brother, of which his elder brother kept copies, after they quarreled.» Harbouri scoured memoirs of the period for detail and in order to avoid anachronisms – reading everyone from Casanova and Lorenza da Ponte to Lady Mary Wortley Montague – but it was never her intention to write biography pure and simple. Though she did use some parts of a few letters, «in fact,» she says, «almost all the letters in the novel are invented by me. I used in them details from genuine letters. Most of the letters the family obviously kept because they were about property or money, but of course in the letters about property or money other things are mentioned that are more interesting to me. For example, the fact that Giovambattista, in Paris, at the age of nearly 70, sent knickers to all the women in his family in Cephalonia. He sent one pair each, and I think it must be one of the earliest written references to knickers, because women didn’t wear knickers in the 18th century or earlier at all, only men wore pants, but not women. Women were wearing them in 1820 or thereabouts, so this letter, which is 1790 or 1791 is a very early reference.» Pre- and post-Freud Nor did Harbouri fancy writing historical fiction, which she believes has a tendency to romanticize the past: «It makes the good characters too good and the bad ones villains,» she says. «The book had to be a modern novel set in the 18th century, i.e. a psychological explanation in contemporary terms. Yet here arose the problem, crudely speaking, of writing about pre-Freudian characters for post-Freudian readers.» As Harbouri believes that human feelings never change, though the social and cultural context in which they are expressed does: «I felt the most effective way would be simply to present e.g. Marino’s dependence on Marco (dreaming of holding hands with him, the two fossil shells, etc.), the reason Marino strangled his mistress (she more or less repeated something his mother had hurt him with when he was a child), or Giovambattista’s psychosomatic constipation, vomiting and stomach troubles as they themselves perceived them while putting them into a context that would allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.» Another structural issue to tackle was that, unlike in most fiction, the fate of the protagonists was known in advance, and Harbouri thought the reader should be aware of that too. Her solution to handling the inevitability of what happened, she explains, «was to provide pointers throughout the book, and also to move backward and forwards through time. I conceived of it a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle, where some pieces are altogether missing and others fit in later with information provided earlier.» During the course of writing the book, Harbouri experienced an extraordinary sense of closeness to her characters. «I hated the inevitability of Giorgio’s and Marino’s deaths, wept when I wrote of the first and put off writing about the second until the very end as if it were a hurdle.» She thinks a novelist must love his or her characters: «I think it is absolutely fatal for a novelist to be in love with his or her characters. When you’re writing about characters – I don’t know how you do it, or where it comes from – but you don’t make moral judgments about them, you just love them, with their faults, then you can write about them.» Alchemy of fiction The character she felt closest to was Giovambattista: «I do love him very much. I feel a great sympathy for him. Although I think that my second novel, ‘Our Lady of the Serpents,’ is a better novel in some ways than ‘The Brothers Carburi,’ I think that the character of Giovambattista in ‘The Brothers Carburi’ is the best thing I’ve written.» And it was in writing this character that Harbouri experienced some of the strange alchemy that takes place during the process of creating fiction: «This sounds mad because I’m a very feet-on-the-earth person, but while writing – and I often write late at night because it’s quieter and nobody disturbs me – I’d have a feeling that I’d called them up from the dead and that they were somehow almost there and if I really strained my ears to listen, I’d hear them faintly. «I actually spoke to Giovambattista, I said, ‘Don’t be frightened.’ It’s completely mad because I’m not at all fey but I had a strong feeling that somehow they were lurking on the periphery, especially Giovambattista.» The archive she worked from is now at the Koryialenio Museum in Argostoli, but the Harbouris brothers live on in fictional form, and one of Marino’s engineering feats is the subject of «The Rock,» an exhibition at Technopolis, Gazi.