CULTURE

Novelist twists and turns her plots

Amanda Michalopoulou is one of Greece’s most successful and productive young writers; in just 10 years she has published a short story collection, four novels, a collection of e-mail correspondence and four children’s books. She also finds time to write a regular column for Kathimerini. In a country where selling 2,000 copies of a book is deemed highly satisfactory, Michalopoulou’s titles regularly go into multiple editions. For example, her first novel, «Wishbone Memories,» written in 1994, earned critical acclaim and won the Diavazo magazine prize for the novel. It is still her best-selling title, with 35,000 copies sold; her most recent novel «Why I Killed My Best Friend» (2003) comes a close second at 32,000 copies sold. Apprenticeship trilogy I shall focus on the four novels, the first three of which the author refers to as her «apprenticeship trilogy,» where the subject is novel-writing itself. Indeed, writing about writing seems to be what the author likes doing most. The entire panoply of post-modernism is here – intertextual references, narrators who draw attention to themselves, who introduce and comment on other narratives, the inclusion of other texts purportedly taken from articles in newspapers and learned journals, and stories within stories. «Wishbone Memories» is organized along the lines of a cookery book, with starters followed by recipes for each of the four seasons. The co-narrators, a brother and sister, tell the story of their family – much of which revolves around a passion for food and cooking. Ilias has written the book in English; his sister Athena is translating it, but far exceeds her remit as a translator by commenting on the original, both its content and her brother’s ingenious literary device of having the food narrate the story. She adds her own version of events, including the story of her father, whom she comes to believe has been murdered by a woman who intends to pass off his revolutionary linguistic theories as her own. Athena uncovers the culprit’s guilt by stealing a letter belonging to her. The effect of having two human narrators – plus the food – all offering variant versions of the story is to bring the text into question and undermine the veracity of the narrative, an effect that Michalopoulou exploits in all four novels. Despite its unconventional structure, «Wishbone Memories» addresses the traditional subject matter of the novel. This is the arena of the heart – love, betrayal, and the battles of growing up and finding meaning in personal life, family and work. The treatment is fresh and inventive, with a thread of subversive humor that brings out the absurd in even the most fraught scenes of conflict and betrayal. In one hilarious scene, the narrators’ brother Vassilis accidentally poisons the dog while trying to kill his wife. In her second novel, «As Often As You Can Bear It» (1998), Michalopoulou engages even more closely with writers and writing. The whole book is permeated with the presence of Kafka – in the form of excerpts from his diary and correspondence, his image in a series of Kafka look-alikes, and his putative reincarnation in the form of Grete Samsa, the author of «Bisection,» a novel about dual identity starring a pair of Siamese twins from Crete, a text which leads both heroine and reader astray. The unnamed heroine, an introverted public servant who has just lost her job, shares a brief idyll with Ivo, a Czech who resembles Kafka, after meeting him in an Athenian pub, then pursues him across Europe, communicating in a kind of Euro-creole or extempore Esperanto with the people she meets on the way. Her journey takes her deeper into a world of Kafka echoes as her obsession leads her to stalk Ivo’s family. She too steals a text, Ivo’s diary, but unlike one of her successors in a later novel, doesn’t dare read it. Michalopoulou revisits favorite themes in «As Often as You Can Bear It» – identities that blur and merge, the role of the writer, and the influence of the past. The reliability of the text is again questioned and set against alternative versions. Otto Spielman, originally billed as a filmmaker but who describes himself as a poet (and who will reappear as such in a subsequent novel), draws together all the threads in yet another variant of the story. But by this time the reader isn’t sure what to believe. In «Foul Weather» (2001) the heroine Victoria is clear from the outset that she wants to be a writer. So far she has written a few poems; now she wants to try her hand at a novel, though she hasn’t admitted this to her lover, Demosthenes, who has already scored a great success with his first novel, «Mossy Stones.» Writer as snoop The issue here – along with the heroine’s desperate desire to make sense of herself and complete the next phase of growing up – is how to start writing, and what material is legitimate fodder for the writer. Victoria takes her search for material to the extreme, sneaking into her friends’ rooms, reading their diaries and letters. She is the writer as snoop, as spy, as the unreliable friend who sets her own literary needs above the claims of friendship and respect for the privacy of others. By setting her story on a remote island in the summer with a varied cast of locals and incomers, both Greek and foreign, who have few outlets for entertainment apart from each other’s company, and who are further isolated when a violent storm cuts them off from the mainland – Michalopoulou puts her characters into an emotional pressure cooker. Some crack, some run away; relationships are tested and fault lines widen. Again there is the burden of the past – the purely personal past, as in parents, whose influence is to be digested or rejected – because they were abusive, like Jo’s, plain boring like Victoria’s, or too cool, like the father of Demosthenes’s character, who brought him up on the Rolling Stones. Then there is the decade of the Sixties, exerting a retroactive fascination over the bedazzled Seventies generation. The act of moving beyond its allure is mirrored in the scene where the young protagonists take refuge from the storm in the abandoned house of a long since departed dress designer. Wrapped in her extravagant 1970s creations, they try to ward off their fear of the storm and the ill effects of an inadvertently ingested hallucinogenic by singing old favorites. Their music flushes out a genuine relic of the era who, in a macabre break with the past, plunges to his death. «Foul Weather» is illustrated with sketches, for whose sake the author has even adjusted some details of her characters, as she does in her «Family Gallery» children’s series. In her most recent novel, «Why I Killed My Best Friend,» Michalopoulou focuses on the intense relationship between two girls who are initially drawn to each other at school because they are outsiders. The book captures the peculiar intensity, that strange amalgam of love and cruelty that can mark pre-adolescent female friendships. Here Michalopoulou casts her net wider to bring in the world of politics, diversely represented by the socialist establishment and a group of young anti-capitalist activists who orchestrate political happenings in the post-dictatorship Greece in which her generation came of age. Art, in this book, becomes a means of political action. Artful structure What typifies Michalopoulou’s novels is their artful structure, the stories within stories, alternative versions of the same event, an intense, introspective, sometimes obsessive, female protagonist who seeks to express herself in some form of art, characters that slip away from us just as we think we know who they are, and an unreliable narrative that is constantly being undercut, reworked, tilted at a different angle and, indeed, brought into connection with the real world. The author has even participated in art exhibitions under the name of a character in «Why I Killed My Best Friend.» It will be interesting to see where Michalopoulou goes next. This is an edited version of a paper presented at the Paros Seminar on July 2. The author Born in Athens in 1966, Amanda Michalopoulou studied French Literature at Athens University and journalism in Paris at the Centre de Formation et de Perfectionnement des Journalistes (CFPJ). In addition to the Diavazo prize for her first novel, she also won the Revmata prize for her short story «Life is Colorful Outside.» The author does most of her writing outside Greece and she is currently a guest writer on the DAAD Kunstlerprogramm in Berlin. She has lived and worked at various writers’ residences, including Akademie Schloss Solitude and Kunstlerhaus Wiepersdorf in Germany, the Ledig-Rowohlt Fondation in Switzerland, the French-American Art Foundation of La Naopoule in France, and the Edward Albee Foundation, the Blue Mountain Center and Djerassi Resident Artists Programme in the United States. «LIfe is Colorful Outside,» «Yantes,» «As Often As You Can Bear It,» «Foul Weather» and «Why I Killed My Best Friend» are published by Kastaniotis. «The Flying House” is published by Ammos and «Family Galleries» by Patakis. Novels by Michalopoulou have been translated into German and Italian and some of her short stories into English, Italian, German, Serbo-Croat and Czech.