CULTURE

Common human denominator

Dimitris Nollas’s latest collection of short stories, «The Old Enemy» (Kastaniotis), contains tales in which a primal absurdity that nests deep within the psyche of the heroes unexpectedly rises to the surface to wipe out in one decisive move any feeling of safe normality and to reveal – by means of an oblique, liberating viewpoint – another aspect of the world. Nollas’s heroes are simple folk from the lowest rung on the social ladder, people who sometimes inhabit a shabby, gray and eerie environment. But they are not, as I have noted before, on the sidelines in the sense that the writer manages to reveal the common human denominator – even in those who are so different from his usual readers. In other words, Nollas makes the oddity of his characters representative of the oddity of every person. The way the author works is by mining emotions that lie buried in the common mine of the human psyche – and that is why we recognize them, even if we are (socially speaking) light years from one another. Paralyzing fear, the sense of duty without expectation of direct recompense, crushing nostalgia and the betrayal of the psyche comprise that common deep mine. And Nollas does no more than create small and exceptionally effective fissures in the slopes of that mine, from which emotions surge up with the force of an explosion. The lonely working-class characters and social outcasts in Nollas’s short stories keep alive the element of the foreigner, the transient, the misfit and the combative figure which play such an important part in his poetics. Now, why stories such as «The Rusty Knife,» «The Blessed Virgin of the Curtain,» «The Road of Parting is Long,» «Stolen Words,» or «Velvet Under the Table,» are to my mind some of Nollas’s best short stories, while others, such as «The Silent Other,» «No One Alone and Sad» and «The Cafe Road» create a sense of some invisible weakness. This is something I find very hard to explain, indeed for a writer of his range. Perhaps because, as the leading postwar critic Tellos Agras claimed, «the sense of form – the sense of perfection or its lack – is a metaphysical sense, in other words, immeasurable, and perhaps subjective.» However, all the stories combine a dramatization of their material on the one hand, while on the other, its own commentary. They combine the simple old grandmother with the thoughtless town-planner nephew who tries to throw her out onto the street, while at the same time also have an awareness of the deeply rooted knowledge of the meaning of necessity («The Blessed Virgin of the Curtain»). They combine Sozo, his wife and Sozo’s substitute, as well as the sense that there are things that cannot be put into words («Stolen Words»). But the stories I find weakest, «The Silent Other» and «No One Alone and Sad,» are structured in exactly the same way – dramatizing the raw material and commenting on it. What’s going on? The fact that the stories are related to grave social problems or ultra-sensitive issues of «political correctness» creates suspicion and inhibition. Is it better for a madman to live in an asylum or in a village, in his own community, that is, which, despite its possible callousness, treats him as one of its own? Who makes up the rules of the game and who is protecting whom in the relationship between a young social worker and an opinionated elderly man? And what are the consequences of encroaching on the environment and violating the all-powerful rules of nature for town-planning purposes? Since the dilemmas are already familiar, while the answers are in the air from the beginning, the development of the text loses the revelatory force of the other stories, in which strong choices infuse the characters with the cool breeze of the unforeseen outcome.