Letter from Thessaloniki

As one watches Greek political events unfolding, and as speculation grows over whether Prime Minister Costas Simitis or Foreign Minister George Papandreou will lead polls next March or April, one can’t help but think that Socialism (not to mention Marxism) of a different sort is at work here. Not the Socialism-Marxism of Karl, but that of Groucho, with Pangalos-style wisecracks, a silent puckish Laliotis-style Harpo, a Chico playing havoc with the language – Venizelos perhaps? – and Zeppo the straight man, like most in the party. «The leader in this battle, the one who will lead PASOK to yet another victory is Costas Simitis,» George Papandreou said in an interview last Wednesday in the daily Ta Nea. Sadly, yesterday he was contradicted by almost all the Sunday papers. «Well, who do you believe – me or the evidence of your own eyes?» This is another famous Groucho Marx quote from «Duck Soup» which has just reopened in our cinemas. It’s always worth seeing, especially during the the pre-election period. The film attacks the pomposity of small-time governmental leaders, the absurdity of government itself (there is a hilarious Cabinet meeting scene), governmental diplomacy, an arbitrary legal system, and war fought over petty matters. The preposterous plot, full of political disrespect, goes like this: The government of a «mythical kingdom» – the Balkan state of Freedonia – is suffering a crisis. It has gone bankrupt through mismanagement and is on the verge of insurgency. The country’s richest dowager millionairess, the wide and widowed benefactress Mrs Gloria Teasdale (could it be the EU, or the USA perhaps…) has offered $20 million to sponsor and support the cash-poor government, but only if it is placed under new leadership: «The government has been mismanaged. I will lend the money, but only on condition that His Excellency withdraw and place the government in new hands,» she says. «Duck Soup» is the Marx Brothers’ most anarchic and irreverent film, considered by many to be their masterpiece. The way His Excellency Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) leads Freedonia to war against Sylvania is undoubtedly absurd, yet no more so than the way PASOK attacks New Democracy – «in keeping with our target (a PASOK victory)» – a quote by George Papandreou. I warmly recommend one of the funniest films ever made and you’ll be able to discover for yourselves how easy it is to produce a diary of current Greek events beginning each chapter with a quote from Groucho or Chico. Although our entire government unfortunately lacks the brilliant satirical spirit of the Marx Brothers, it still resembles them in double entendres, in puns and also, sometimes, in their art of pure surrealism, as well as in insult-spewed lines of political debate. In short, it often seems that it inhabits roughly the same universe as the Marx Brothers’ «Duck Soup.» I wonder how the following film quote spoken by Groucho would sound to the ears of those in the allied forces now fighting in Iraq: «You’re a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.»