Refugees, migrants, outsiders

Humor, realism and an inclusive view of the human race infuse «Athens, Capital of the Balkans,» Petros Markaris’s new collection of fiction (published in Greek by Gavriilidis). Fans of the author’s murder squad inspector, Costas Haritos, will relish the return of his hard-boiled hero in some of the stories. «Englishmen-Frenchmen-Portuguese,» the novella that opens the book, is set during the mounting excitement of Greece’s winning run for the 2004 Euro soccer cup and shortly before the Olympic Games. When the zeppelin patrolling the skies of Athens – too intrusively for some of those under observation – registers the sudden appearance of a series of naked corpses planted at Olympic sites, gesturing indecently at the sky and daubed with the names of extremist groups like Al Qaeda, the specter of terrorism is raised. But the mood is light-hearted as Haritos is caught between the soccer mania that holds Greece spellbound and the irritation of being overseen by the overbearing American agent Parker. In the Athens of these tales, interaction between Greeks and newcomers is still cautious and often fraught. Most of the protagonists are new arrivals – migrants and refugees from Africa, the Balkans and the former Soviet bloc, who are forging new lives against harsh odds. Markaris has no illusions about human nature and his characters are neither all saint nor all sinner. A washed-up hit man is matched with a suicidal writer in «Frappe.» An out-of-work Greek goes begging, pretending to be a Bosnian Serb, in «Green Card» and gets such ill-treatment that he rejects his own identity, to the incomprehension of his Bosnian-Serb wife, a former French teacher reduced to cleaning hotel rooms. In «The Emancipation of Tatiana,» a Greek family from Odessa runs a small restaurant where the daughter endures her father’s savage oppression until a new customer, a standover merchant from the old country, allows her to exact an unusual but satisfying revenge. «Sonia and Varia» tells the story of women forced into prostitution, from their point of view. There’s no slavering over towering Russian beauties here – just the cruel reality of beatings, stolen passports and ruthless exploitation, until one day the worm turns. Grim though his themes are, Markaris almost invariably leavens them with humor. «Superficially,» the darkest of the stories, is also the least successful, because there are no contrasting shades. A migrant laborer struggling to make a living is killed for his wages in full sight of his employers by fellow countrymen in a relentless portrayal of need, greed and callousness. The outcome is scarcely less cheerful in «Without Scenery» yet laughs abound. Bashir from Sudan is making excellent progress in idiomatic Greek with the help of Giorgos, who seems to be a good friend. It all goes pear-shaped when a shared lottery ticket wins the jackpot. At the police station afterward, Bashir’s affidavit – which will condemn him – is in perfect Greek. The novella «Englishmen-Frenchmen-Portuguese» and some of the stories were first published in Ta Nea newspaper.