A grim story of a destitute family’s life

A cruel world of hard labor, diminished hope and flinty hearts serves as the backdrop for many stories of poor or working-class Greeks who grew up during the lean and bloody years of World War II and the civil war. These were children who lost one or both parents to illness or violence, who worked dawn-to-dark days at bone-crushing and soul-destroying jobs and who endured shifty bosses and mercenary neighbors. They viewed an emaciated future through the hardened eyes of adults. «My Life in the Furnace,» a collection of personal stories from Panayotis Tranoulis, is the latest English-language addition to this category of autobiographical history. The book is a spare, raw account of his punishing childhood in Athens, where he worked in a hell-hot furnace as a molder at age 7 to help support his family after his father died. He taught himself to read and write at night and has published four books, including his well-received 1973 debut «Keratohori.» «My Life in the Furnace» (translated by Marjorie Chambers and published by Pella in New York) has elegiac moments of beauty and bare-faced honesty, especially in Tranoulis’s memorable character sketches of the menagerie of raging thugs, broken women and lost children. As a whole, however, the book dips too regularly into a vague, unrequited gloom or climaxes in forced optimism with a not entirely believable moral. «My childish heart was filled with bitter experiences,» he writes at the end of one brutal chapter. «But when I saw the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the forests, and the plains a strong faith would flow through me – that something higher exists in this miracle called life.» Yet there are few indications anywhere in Tranoulis’s book that life is miraculous or even bearable. His widowed mother is beaten like an animal by her oldest son, for reasons not entirely clear. Young Panayotis is beaten bloody by his bosses at the furnace for even the slightest infraction. Men work, fight, drink, waste away from consumption. Women beg for mercy or turn to a life of ill-repute. For fun, the older child-molders bury a tiny Panayotis in a hole filled with the sand used in the brick-making, leaving only his head uncovered in the hot sun, sometimes forgetting to dig him out. The misery is relentless and often unexamined. In places like Keratohori, an isolated hollow of 40 or 50 homes that got its name when a pair of sheep’s horns was found hanging on a door (a sign that the wife had been unfaithful to her husband), life is a hot, ugly grimace. Suspicious people lead shiftless, joyless lives there. One pretty young woman called Black because of her dark complexion starves and beats her daughter, Little Baby, to death because the child is the offspring of Black’s rape by the man who once employed her as a servant. «I beat her and it feels like I’m beating him,» a young Panayotis overhears her telling one of her neighbors. Only in the last chapter, «Midwinter Swallows,» does delight outweigh gloom. Neighbors share food, clothes and advice and a kind aunt and uncle lift the family’s flagging spirits. The older molders, gaunt with hunger, are tender with the boy, praising him for his hard work and his daily habit of singing on the job. In this closing text, Tranoulis reflects on his difficult past with the burnished strokes of nostalgia that usually render a story both fact and fable. He is moved to tears when he considers the familiar country landscape that held, in its clear sunlight, the ravages of childhood. «What a fairytale life it is!» he writes in his last sentence, expressing a sentiment that many children of the occupation, now creased by age but living in comfort, embrace with both irony and faith.