Memoirs of a sailor, warrior and jailbird

Greece was the only country which, in the aftermath of World War II, plunged immediately into civil war, the result of the Communist party’s attempt to seize power after the country’s liberation from the Germans. The struggle was brutal and so was the victors’ treatment of the vanquished following the Communists’ defeat in 1949. Anyone remotely considered a sympathizer found it difficult to get a job. Many were jailed and even more had chosen exile in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Since the legalization of the Communist party in 1974, we have been flooded with memoirs concerning the era. Too many of them are a sort of score settling and whitewashing of the Communists’ own mistakes. Some, however, have provided valuable information and insights. One of these books is «Sinbad the Leftist» (Hestia, in Greek) by Nikos Economakos. The title refers to the legendary Arab sailor Sinbad (known in Greece as Sevah) and rhymes in Greek with «Sinbad the sailor,» in reference to the author’s first job. Economakos was never, and did not pretend to be, an intellectual. In fact, his education was quite inadequate, as he readily admits, referring to his struggles with spelling. This book was dictated to a tape recorder and transcribed by two of his friends. The book’s editor claims the only alterations involved cutting down long sentences and avoiding repetitions. Indeed, the book comes out as a lively narrative, with wry humor and a matter-of-fact style. It is fascinating, because the author went through so much. Born in 1923 to a poor Athens family, Economakos became a sailor in 1939, just before World War II erupted. He was discharged less than two years later for having spoken too enthusiastically of the Soviet Union, which he had visited. He escaped from German-occupied Athens to join the Greek army fighting in North Africa, notably taking part in the battle of El Alamein, in the autumn of 1942. Economakos devotes a great proportion of the book to these war years, when the army was torn by conflict between hard-right officers and more progressive officers and soldiers, including Communists. Eventually, he was detained for years at a British camp. This episode is crucial in understanding the civil war that followed. (For an altogether different perspective, see the «Occupation Diaries» by Panayiotis Kanellopoulos, defense minister at the time.) The author vividly describes his subsequent underground work for the party, his 17-year sojourn in jails across the country (he had been condemned to death but UN intervention had forced Greece to suspend executions a day before he was to face the firing squad), his voluntary exile in Paris during the dictatorship (where, for a while, he was Mikis Theodorakis’s bodyguard), the split in the Communist party (Economakos sided against the Stalinists), his brief involvement in party work after 1974 and his improbable employment in the Greek embassies in Belgium and Venezuela in the 1980s. Despite his lack of a formal education, Economakos comes across as far more open-minded than many of the Communist leaders, whose shortcomings he describes vividly. He also pays homage to the many simple people who suffered, thinking they were fighting for a good cause.