23 July 2009

Christ, Nature, & Custom—Boundless Garden Reviewed

In my Memphis motel room Saturday morning, before my wife even awoke, I finally completed The Boundless Garden: Selected Short Stories, Vol. 1 (Limni, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2007), the first of a projected three-volume anthology of the short stories of the brilliant Greek writer, Alexander Papadiamandis. It is now time for a little review. Having already been surpassed in sheer encomiac eloquence by the Ochlophobist (read this if you want to be convinced beyond any doubt of what a profound and beautiful book this is), I will attempt a modest description of some of the contents. I already blogged about the book’s arrival here, linking to articles and posts at other blogs about it, and followed that up with a post focusing on the story which remains my favourite—‘Poor Saint’ (pp. 48-64).

But I now have a bit more perspective, and while I can still name my favourite with confidence, there are a good number that stand out to me, and there is not a dud in the bunch. It’s true that, while I may just be overthinking it, I’m not sure I quite ‘got’ ‘Carnival Night’ (pp. 132-47), about a young boarder in Athens who avoids a pre-Lenten party downstairs for reasons I don’t think I can explain. I also generally preferred the Skiathan stories (the majority in this volume) to the Athenian ones.

That said, I really loved ‘The Monk: A Short Study’ (pp. 148-78), the story of a young Athonite hieromonk who has been languishing at a parish in Athens ever since he went there for a medical treatment. For one reason or another, Fr Samuel has put off returning to his monastery, and is actually getting harassed by a parishioner who feels that he is making a mistake by remaining in the city. It is revealed that Fr Samuel is being gradually drawn into temptation in the form of a too-hospitable widow and her pair of young daughters. Papadiamandis’s description of his torments—recalling first the joys of the monastery, then the flames of hell and the perils of the ladder of divine ascent—is pure gold:

And he beheld the mystical ladder on which monks ascend upwards, to watchful prayer, to contemplation, to Paradise. And he saw in the air the dark forms of the demons which impede the monks from reaching there. He beheld his own soul struggling and slipping, unable to ascend and in danger of being hurled down into the old woman’s mouth. And he ssaw bove him at intervals the dread points of reckoning, with the pairs of scales and the gigantic books held open by compassionate angels and the demons frenziedly dragging the tongues of the balances downwards. And he saw a great number of monks falling headlong from various steps of the ladder which stretched to the skies. And he pitied those hapless souls as, with trembling knees and strengthless arms, he tried desperately to hold fast to the bottom rungs. But suddenly, hovering in the air beside him, a black demon, with the characteristics of one of the two girls etched on its face, grabbed him furiously by the hem of his cassock and with all its might dragged him, dragged him relentlessly to fling him down. His trembling hands were just at the point of losing their grip on the upward leading rung of the ladder when he awoke suddenly with a nervous shudder. (pp. 173-4)

Finally, the young hieromonk makes arrangements to slip away in the dead of night. It is a beautiful scene when he packs ‘his meagre belongings’ onto a cart and heads off to Piraeus while the ‘whole neighbourhood was asleep, and no one saw them’. ‘He boarded the first steamer for Thessaloniki, and with a sense of relief, which came as a surprise even to himself, he returned to Athos and to the monastery of his repentance’ (p. 178). Although I already knew the outcome of the story, I believe I actually breathed a sigh of relief myself, said ‘Yes!’, and did a sort of victorious elbow-pumping at this. I was literally thrilled at such a resounding moral triumph.

The first tale of the collection, ‘Handmaiden: A Christmas Story’ (pp. 3-9), the second, ‘The Gleaner: A Christmas Story’ (pp. 10-20), and the third, ‘The American: A Christmas Story’ (pp. 86-103), have similarly triumphant, almost eucatastrophic endings, the last one reminiscent of the joyous comedy of Shakespeare or Dickens. Other stories are, of course, quite sad. Although it doesn’t turn out as badly as one fears, ‘Black Scarf Rock: A Story’ (pp. 31-47) features a poor man losing almost everything he has, and ‘Civilization in the Village: A Christmas Story’ (pp. 65-85) is quite simply the most tragic, heart-wrenching ‘Christmas story’ I’ve ever read. One cannot but weep over it.

Obviously, such stories form a marked contrast with the more comedic or eucatastrophic ones, but there are also those ‘slice-of-life’ tales that make little use of real drama. Four of these—‘A Village Easter: Memories of Childhood’ (pp. 21-30), ‘A Pilgrimage to the Kastro: A Christmas Story’ (pp. 104-131), ‘At Saint Anastasa’s’ (pp. 179-199), and ‘The Easter Chanter’ (pp. 263-291)—centre around liturgical celebrations, always lovingly depicted in the fine detail one would expect of a priest’s son and a proficient chanter who knew the liturgies and hymnographies of the Church by heart. (On the centrality of liturgy in Papadiamandis, Anestis Keselopoulos has remarked, ‘In Papadiamandis all events are marked and defined within by liturgical time, because it is this time that the Church lives and by it man lives rightly the eschatological expectation of eternity’—Ἀπὸ τὸν Παπαδιαμάντη στὸν Πεντζίκη, No. 6 of Λειμὼν Ἀμφιλαφὴς [Thessaloniki: To Palimpsiston, 2003], p. 19) The first named, ‘A Village Easter’, features a beautiful moment of repentance, when the priest celebrating Pascha at a rural island chapel leaves the church in the middle of the service to claim his share of the ‘profits’ at the village church and stops on the way to have a drink of water from a stream.

. . . But his lips had not yet touched the surface of the water, when he suddenly remembered, and realized what he was doing.

‘I have to celebrate the liturgy,’ he exclaimed, ‘and I’m drinking water . . . ?’

And he did not drink.

Then he pulled himself together.

‘What am I doing?’ he said, ‘Where am I going?’

He made the sign of the cross.

‘I have sinned, Lord. I have sinned! Do not hold me to account!’

He resumed: ‘If he is a thief, it is for the Lord to . . . forgive him . . . him and me. I must do my duty.’

He felt a tear run down his cheek.

‘Oh Lord,’ he exclaimed with all his heart, ‘I have sinned, I have sinned! You gave yourself up for our sins, and in return we crucify you daily!’

He turned around and hurried back up towards the church to continue the service. (p. 26)

But the second—‘A Pilgrimage to the Kastro’—may well be my second favourite story of the whole book. It tells of a brave and jolly Skiathan priest, an ex-sailor, who leads a group of family and friends by boat to celebrate the Nativity in an old church dedicated to the feast in the island’s abandoned old fortified town, where a small group of hunters has been stranded by the severe winter. Not only do they come to the aid of the hunters, but the fires they light guide a runaway ship to safety as well, and all enjoy a bountiful feast together—the reward of their courage, love for one another, and dedication to the Feasts of the Lord—and ‘God’s grace shone brilliantly that joyful day . . .’ (p. 130). While the story itself is heart-warming enough, and the account of the vigil profoundly uplifting, perhaps the strongest impression is left by the simple virtues of the Skiathans. It was interesting for me to note how much I was reminded of the people of our own small parish in Thessaloniki, many of whom in retrospect seemed like they’d just stepped out of a Papadiamandis story, and of the many pilgrimages we made together simply to celebrate various feasts.

Finally, I’ll just single out one last story: ‘Fey Folk’ (pp. 223-249). It has already been mentioned in the comments on this post over at the Ochlophobist, and in this post Och has beaten me to the punch in describing it (and naturally done a much better job than I could have). But I would like to second his sense (though I don’t think he uses the word) of the strong sacramentalism in Papadiamandis, a sacramentalism which, while being genuinely Christian, is also somewhat reminiscent of pagan myth as described by Ernst Cassirer in An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale U, 1964):

Whatever is seen or felt is surrounded by a special atmosphere—an atmosphere of joy or grief, of anguish, of excitement, of exultation or depression. Here we cannot speak of ‘things’ as a dead or indifferent stuff. All objects are benignant or malignant, friendly or inimical, familiar or uncanny, alluring and fascinating or repellent and threatening. (pp. 76-7)

Similarly, in his essay, ‘Τὸ φυσικὸ περιβάλλον στὸν Παπαδιαμάντη’ [‘The Natural Environment in Papadiamandis’], Anestis Keselopoulos observes that for Papadiamandis ‘the things of the cosmos and of nature . . . are not viewed as impersonal objects, apart from man and his life’, but as something with which we have a ‘personal relationship’ (Ἀπὸ τὸν Παπαδιαμάντη, p. 107).

Of course, in ‘Fey Folk’ the particular charactres involved do not necessarily view the forces with which they deal as purely ‘malignant’, to follow Cassirer’s binary opposition, but they do recognise that they are potentially dangerous. Actually, I think Och has got it right when he says (in the comments here) that Papadiamandis describes the charactres’ experience of these natural/supernatural forces in terms of ‘a false determinism which has enslaved those subject to such beliefs’. It is interesting that ’Ma Synodia feels trapped by the negative forces she has brought on her family by securing Agallos for her daughter instead of the girl’s rival. When the monk tells her (on pp. 248-9) that she must either help the other girl find her own husband, or, if she is married or dead, do something else for her like the Forty Liturgies, we are apt to think that this is obvious advice. Why was the woman unable to think of this on her own? Not merely, I think, because the monk was spiritually wiser than she. It seems clear to me that she was almost literally ensnared by the supernatural forces of envy she was sure she’d stirred up, and could see no way out.

In the short prologue to ‘Easter Chanter’, Papadiamandis writes, ‘For my part, as long as I live and breathe and am of sound mind, I will never cease, especially during these resplendent days, to praise and adore Christ, to depict nature lovingly, and to represent with affection those customs which are authentically Greek’ (p. 267). I can think of no better summary of the reasons we should read him, and I include the last of them even for non-Greeks. For while the world he depicts is ‘authentically Greek’, it is also just one of many manifestations of traditional life, of life lived, in its entirety, as a reflection of the Gospel and in loving awe of the heritage people once received from their fathers the world over. Don't walk, run, to acquire and read this book. It is a precious treasure.

(As an aside, I've already had one query about the image above—see the comments below—so I thought I should add that I believe one can find this image in Constantine Cavarnos's book, Meetings With Kontoglou [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1992], available from the publisher here.)


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Very nice, Aaaron! I'm glad you enjoyed the book, too. There are so many good stories in there. If I had to pick a favorite, it'd be "A Pilgrimage to the Kastro." It's just perfect. But then so are the others!

Where on earth did you find that Kontoglu drawing of Papadiamandis?! Very, very cool!

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, my friend! I believe I found that drawing in a Google image search for Papadiamandis conducted in Greek. I find new things turn up if I switch languages.

I think one can find a better image of this printed in Cavarnos's wonderful little book, Meetings With Kontoglou. Unfortunately, I gave my own copy away and it's been many years since I've seen it!

Blue Fox said...

(Put isbn 091474495X into Bookfinder dot com) "Meetings With Kontoglou" is now a 20 dollar paperback book. Must have been published in England because the cheapest copies are listed from there

aaronandbrighid said...

Blue> Actually, it was published by the Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies in Belmont, MA, from whom, thankfully, it's still available for $12!

Sorry, I should have linked to it in the post. I'll correct that forthwith!

Anonymous said...

Hello Aaron, Thanks for the review of a beautiful book. I was wondering if there was any relationship between Alexander Papadiamandis and Apostolos Makrakis. Both seemed to be fighting the westernizing and corrupting influence in 19th C. Greek society. Was Papadimandis widely read and accepted by both the traditionalist and modernists? Makrakis ran afoul of both because he despised the secular/freemason ideas of the modernists, but he also introduced some new understandings of the tiune nature of man: body, soul and spirit as opposed to the more accepted nature of man: body and spirit. Do any of Papadiamandis' stories expound a theological point of view as well as the "slice of life" or sacramentalist type you mention? Again thank you and Ochlophobist for sharing these wonderful stories. I will be purchasing a copy for myself soon.
Yours, Tom S., Norwalk, CT