Building a narrative up from scraps

Thomas Skassis’s novel «To Roloi tis Skias» (The Shadow Clock), published by Polis, fits into a contemporary trend of using public or private archival material or invented evidence as the basis of narrative. Skassis’s narrator fashions his story from raw material found in a carton of letters, contracts, certificates, degrees, extracts of printed matter, and handwritten notes. Reconstruction Structurally, the book has some similarities with Pavlina Pampoudi’s «Hartini Zoni» (Paper Zone) in that it, too, reconstructs the story of two families that unite after many years in the person of one main descendant who tries to reassemble (and, in the case of Skassis, redraft) his family’s past. The story, in brief, is as follows: Antonio Rivolti of Corsica, an officer in Napoleon’s navy, is wounded in the Battle of Trafalgar and imprisoned by the English. On his release he comes to Greece, then under Turkish rule, to teach the mariner’s art and mathematics. Meanwhile Tzortzis Karvounis, the son of nobles from Kythera, studies law in Italy, takes part in uprisings against the Venetians and becomes a consul for the French and then the English, in which post he saves the Parthenon Marbles from a shipwreck off the coast of Kythera in late 1802. Archives By contrast with Pampoudi’s novel, which recast the story by juxtaposing the evidence, in «The Shadow Clock» the narrator himself recasts the family chronicle by steadily working his way through archival material. Thus the novel develops on two planes. At one level it is a narrative of the past, which the researcher puts together with earlier family events to reproduce the ambience of the era – the conditions that shaped the revolutionary climate and forged the national awareness of Greeks before 1821. At the same time it is a contemporary working diary where, in addition to his queries, methodological dilemmas and speculative thoughts, the narrator sets out the history of his family and generation. Skassis’s great achievement is the balance he has attained between the type of material being worked on and the type of text he fashions. We cannot say that the way in which the narrator relates the exploits of Rivolti/Karvounis is gripping, or that we held our breath as we read about the conditions of Rivolti’s two-year imprisonment or the ingenious diplomatic maneuvers of Karvounis. Those pages refer more to the illegible notes of a research historian who, while studying the vast and – by definition – incomplete body of documentation, tries to find his way in a labyrinth of half-known incidents, to provide coherence to unconnected situations and give doubtful answers to extremely pressing questions. But who would have guessed that archives could offer such charming descriptions? Who knew that without long-lasting, selfless dedication, without arduous effort, without endless hours of study of almost incomprehensible and semi-ruined documents, we could acquire the precious information that reveals the past? Traces Works that remake history by relying on partially erased traces of historical subjects are the product of an exceptionally time-consuming process that demands a methodical approach, persistence, inventiveness and imagination. The conquest of an archive demands a superhuman effort in aid of what must always be an uncertain outcome. How is it, then, that the densely written recreation of the eve of the Greek uprising is not the product of the writer’s embarrassment, that it is not a failure on the part of Skassis to create a vivid account of his two heroes’ adventures? Glory of fiction The other achievements of his book prove it: The lively figures of the daydreaming intellectual editor of the chronicle and his hyperactive wife who emerge from the working diary and the exceptional recreations of the spirit of the generation to which they belong, the generation of the «Polytechneio,» now in their 50s. And it is also shown by the upending of the entire enterprise which, rejecting the spirit of historical recreation, in the end gives precedence to the glory of fiction.