Letter from Thessaloniki

In ordinary circumstances, the library of Anatolia College near Thessaloniki – my former high school – had the hushed feel of a Byzantine church. The library was a place of routine – the year began in September, classes started at 8 a.m. sharp – and this made the events in the books I read there so extraordinary. Under the watchful eye of Miss Theano, the librarian there at the time, I first encountered James Thurber’s surprisingly wise and witty «Fables for Our Time,» a collection that continues to impress me many years later. A founding member of The New Yorker staff, Thurber (1894-1961) produced some 30 volumes of humor, fiction, children’s books, cartoons and essays in just about as many years. I still remember his version of «Little Red Riding Hood:» Little girl visits her grandmother, but takes an automatic out of her basket to shoot the Big Bad Wolf dead. «It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be» was Thurber’s moral. After the tragic «we-are-all-in-this-together» events on Saturday in Sharm al-Sheikh and the death of the young Brazilian electrician mistakenly shot by British police looking for suicide bombers, another appropriate Thurber fable comes to mind. It is the story of this fine gander who spends most of his time singing to his wife and children. «There is a very proper gander,» somebody who heard his singing said one day. An old hen overheard this and told her husband about it that night in the roost. «They said something about propaganda,» she said. «I have always suspected that,» said the rooster, and he went around the barnyard next day telling everybody the very fine gander was a dangerous bird – more than likely a hawk in gander’s clothing. The story goes on with another hen saying she once saw someone who looked like the gander throwing something that looked like a bomb. This gossipy fiction becomes fact in the minds of the animals, who soon descend on the gander’s house carrying sticks and stones and yell «Hawk lover! Unbeliever! Flag-hater! Bomb-thrower!» Soon, the mob has driven the gander out of the country. The moral: If you or your wife suspects someone of planning to overthrow the government, he or she must be driven out of the country. Doesn’t Thurber’s wry humour still show great sensitivity to the human fears and follies of today? This gander could be a metaphor for the innocent young Brazilian man, whom British police shot dead last Friday in their hunt for the suicide bombers who had caused destruction in London. Yet reasonable people continued to maintain that all measures are excusable in the face of an enemy as fearsome as terrorism – with its tentacles wrapped around the earth, intent on our destruction. Meanwhile, the metaphors – however strained – continue, even on a petty scale. Consider last week’s clumsy attempt at literature-inspired aphorism by two prominent Greek politicians over the controversial issue of store hours and cheaper overtime. At odds were PASOK deputy Anna Diamantopoulou and independent Stefanos Manos, who had been elected on PASOK’s ticket. Diamantopoulou, only partly in jest, accused Manos of spinning Hans Christian Andersen-like tales. The next day, showing his great sense of humor, Manos submitted a copy of Andersen’s parody of political hypocrisy, «The Emperor’s New Clothes» to Parliament for debate. In response, Diamantopoulou, a former EU commissioner, invoked Aesop’s fable about the folly of vanity – «The Crow and the Fox.» Hans Christian Andersen and Aesop are fine, but I prefer the unforgettable morals of James Thurber. Here are a couple of titles for thought. In «The Birds and the Foxes,» Thurber writes that the «government of the orioles, by the foxes, and for the foxes, must perish from the earth.» In another, «The Seal Who Became Famous,» Thurber writes that someone «whom God has equipped with flippers should not monkey around with zippers.» That one best suits Stefanos Manos.

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