CULTURE

Destructive passion and healing power of catharsis in ‘Mother Ash’

Fire is the abiding image in Alexis Stamatis’s latest novel «Mother Ash.» The slumbering volcano of Santorini is emblematic of the destructive emotions unleashed when a despotic womanizer invites his three children to spend Easter at the family home on the island. While conflagrations of all kinds – a wedding dress set alight by fireworks, fire-eating, spontaneous combustion – foreshadow and embody the destructive forces of passion, the mother ash of the title also symbolizes the healing power of catharsis, atonement and renewal. A new balance is forged in the crucible of a 10-day ordeal. Kathimerini English Edition asked Alexis Stamatis about his work. Good and evil You use fire as an image of powerful, suppressed emotion in «Mother Ash.» Which came first, the image or the story? In the beginning was the Word – the word anaflexi or «combustion.» When I heard it from an actor friend, what came to mind at once, apart from the phenomenon of spontaneous combustion, was its metonymic meaning – the spontaneous psychical combustion of a person who has repressed vital things in their subconscious for years. Then came the notion of fire and the decision to set the story on Santorini, a location profoundly associated with fire, and to portray a problematic provincial family that is poisoned by the sickness of evil. What made you choose the extreme example of spontaneous combustion, which was used to such effect by Dickens in «Bleak House»? I researched the phenomenon thoroughly, mainly in American books. I wanted the person who «departs» – the mother – to do so in a completely unexpected manner, which metaphorically paves the way for various interpretations. The chain of causes that links events is not necessarily cut and dried for a writer. The freedom of creation allows the author to penetrate them and to speak at the same time of things we can all understand, such as pain, trauma, atonement, patience, love. In Dickens’s famous work, true evil spontaneously combusts, while in «Mother Ash» suffering good does so. How do you perceive good and evil? «And oftentimes to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths,» says Banquo in «Macbeth.» The two forces have always existed; one presupposes the other. The angel-devil duo represents human extremes. We swim in between them, sometimes reaching the shore with its black pebbles and sometimes the one with the golden sand. Like all of us, characters in novels are drawn, dragged by the tide of life which takes us now to one side and then to the other. Although there are always dark shadows, light is stronger than darkness. But we should also remember that the dark shadow is created by humans and by nature itself. Light is simply a free gift. You introduce a range of characters in «Mother Ash,» but we see things through the eyes of Alkis. I must admit I would like to have seen inside the heads of his father and siblings. Is the message one of forgiveness, even for things we cannot understand? The book is basically polyphonic. Alkis may be the main protagonist, but the other characters have and claim their voice – the narrator’s lens shifts constantly from one to another. Even the father, who seems to be a classic bad guy and a tyrant, has his own inner discourse and reasons. In fact, there is a brief phrase of seven words in the book which springs from his subconscious and which explains everything about his behavior. I’m not keen on using the word «message.» I don’t think that novels necessarily need a message, but a meaning. And the writer gives that meaning to the reader to do what they please with it. I think we understand so little in this life that even going a little bit deeper into something we don’t know is an amazing gift. It is this that Alkis and the other characters in the books gain from their 10-day experience. You studied architecture and cinema, and there is evidence of those interests in your books. Both «Bar Flaubert» and «Mother Ash» seem to me to have been made with at least one eye on future screenplays. Is this intentional? I’ve studied both disciplines – and I worked as an architect for a short time. I agree that they have influenced me considerably, mainly in terms of structure and imagery. I see images but then I try to make the images into words. The cinema does the exact reverse, while architecture gives life to images. But my roots are strictly literary. They are the roots of a reader of literature. It is also true that there is interest in making the books – especially «Bar Flaubert» – into films. Do you consciously choose locations and characters that might «translate» for foreign readers? I don’t choose the characters, at least the main characters; rather they «visit» me. The initial motivation for a narrative is difficult for a writer to explain. In «Mother Ash» it was a word; in «Bar Flaubert» excitement about a text. Sometimes I don’t get literary classifications. When I wrote «Bar Flaubert,» I was described as a cosmopolitan writer because the story takes place mainly in three emblematic European cities. But my next book, «Like a Thief in the Night,» was metaphysical; in the one after that, «Thiseos Street,» the hero didn’t set foot outside Athens; while the last takes place entirely on Santorini. Personally, as a writer, I don’t have the reader in mind when I write. I have an urgent need to narrate something, to tell a story. You spend a considerable time abroad at writers’ retreats and courses. How does that help and/or influence your work? In recent years, I’ve taken part in various book fairs and writers’ programs abroad, which has given me the opportunity to stay in many countries. Travel is my great passion, and I’ve certainly been influenced by things I’ve seen and experienced. What are you working on now and does it present a new departure in any way? At the moment I’m in France on a French government scholarship, but I’m writing a book based on a journey of two-and-a-half months which I made to the US last year. That’s a pleasurable combination; travel and narrative combine pleasurably. It is really interesting and exciting to be in a foreign place, writing a Greek book set in a foreign place. Besides, all literature is a journey. At the moment I’m staying in Villa Mont Noir in Flanders, in the north of France, at an old manor house that belongs to the heirs of Marguerite Yourcenar and which has been made into a writers’ residence. The soul of the enterprise is Guy Fontaine who is also a great admirer of Greece. The scholarship requires that I write or continue a work of literature during my stay. This is a magical place, full of greenery and isolated enough to give you compete freedom to dream, forget and remember. The author Alexis Stamatis was born in Athens. He studied architecture at the National Technical University and did postgraduate studies in architecture and cinema in London. «Mitera Stachti» (Mother Ash) is his fifth novel. His first, «The Seventh Elephant» (Kedros, 1998), was published in Britain by Arcadia Books in a translation by David Connolly. His second, «Bar Flaubert» (Kedros, 2000), has been published in France and Italy, is forthcoming in Russia, Spain and Serbia, and has been made into a screenplay with the assistance of director Vassilis Douvlis. «San ton Klefti mes stin Nychta» (Like a Thief in the Night) and «Odos Thiseos» (Thiseos Street) were published by Kastaniotis in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Stamatis has also published six volumes of verse. His second collection of poetry, «Architecture of Interior Space,» won Athens Municipality’s poetry award in memory of Nikiforos Vrettakos in 1994. He has written two librettos for compositions by Theodoris Tombazis which have been performed at the Athens Concert Hall and Hora Theater. For the past few years, he has worked as an arts correspondent for periodicals and newspapers.