On the trail of a long-gone past in Greece

In «Samali kai Kok» (published in Greek by Kedros), Giorgos Dendrinos refers to time past. He writes about his long-gone childhood and a neighborhood that has disappeared. But in this book, named after two sweets that used to be sold at outdoor cinemas, there is no sense of loss, sadness, resentment, or even nostalgia. In the 37 brief chapters of «Samali and Kok,» the writer has captured the atmosphere of the era with extraordinary zest, recounted the adventures, large and small, of his childhood and recreated the places and the people who dominated his youthful paradise. In other words, he has recreated a world whose traces have otherwise been lost forever. The setting is Vrilissia in the mid-1950s, a time when the now-luxurious northern suburb of Athens was a semi-urban area full of farms, melon fields, cattle sheds, piggeries, stables and barns. It was also a small neighborhood of houses, shacks and sheds built around the once-green precinct of the Melissia tuberculosis hospital. Life moved at a different pace – baths were once every two weeks in a wash tub, and the laundry was done in the courtyard with ash and lye in blackened cauldrons, from dawn to dusk. Grandmothers, grandfathers, teachers and fellow pupils parade through these pages, manifesting – through Dendrinos’s lively descriptions – habits, peculiarities and failings that make them into extremely funny characters. There is a tantalizing enigma here. Though the community the narrator refers to was poor and deprived, and though life had aspects that would have made it unbearable for us, the text exudes joy and happiness. The family home is built up, room by room, under the threatening gaze of the gendarme, who is systematically bribed not to put a halt to it. In the most savage days of post-civil war terrorism, communism is deemed to be one of the dangerous contagious diseases. «Mum, what’s worse, chickenpox or communism?» the unsuspecting lad naively asks, only to be told that communism is worse. It is far from today’s notions of proper child rearing, as the cane works non-stop. Meanwhile, ruthless pupils also continuously torment those fellow students suffering from incurable diseases. So where does this happiness come from? The answer lies in a combination of factors. The austerity resulting from deprivation and need in the mid-1950s contrasts with today’s greedy and overfed society. In the spare world of Dendrinos’s novel, a sticky sweet swimming in syrup is the height of culinary pleasure, even if there are several black flies swimming with it. And a bicycle can still please the most demanding youth. Society also possessed a certain cohesion. Though quite poor, people were able to save enough to have a little left over for those worse off, an attitude expressed vividly by the narrator’s mother, who can be overbearing at times but is so good-hearted and compassionate. Is the gaiety of this book due to the fact that the 1950s differed radically from the present decade of 2000, or to the fact that in his earliest childhood the writer was in a state of delirious glee as depicted in the eloquent photograph on the cover? It is hard to answer, because one of the greatest virtues of Dendrinos’s book is that he has the present-day narrator see things through the innocent eyes of his childhood – eyes that are fresh, observant, just and witty, sometimes naive and sometimes sarcastic about himself. Everything is constantly made fun of, but with the utmost discretion so that nobody is ever insulted – not even the one-eyed servant or the countless churchy aunts, godmothers and grandmothers, or the clumsy blunderhead, Uncle Panaghis.

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