Walking to the Heart of Greece

As a boy in 1940s Greece, my friend Costas, now a retired banker, had a pistol shoved in his face by a communist guerrilla screaming that he wanted to requisition the family mule. Knowing that the animal meant his family’s survival in desperate times, Costas refused. He might have been shot then and there if the guerrilla had not been restrained by more compassionate comrades. Many years later, attending his nephew’s wedding in Athens, Costas was stunned to recognize the best man. It was the very fellow who had nearly killed him over a mule.

Such stories are common in Greece, where a merciless occupation by Germans and Italians during World War II, violence between left and right, and foreign meddling during the civil war (roughly 1945-49) and the Junta years (1967-74) left Greeks living cheek by jowl with people they could never forgive.

Kevin Andrews experienced the dangers of the countryside during the civil war. “The Flight of Ikaros,” the book he produced from his travels, remains not only one of the greatest we have about postwar Greece—memorializing a village culture that has almost vanished—but also one of the most moving accounts I have ever read of people caught up in political turmoil. (It is richer than George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” because Andrews spent more time getting to know the people he wrote about.) “Flight” was first published in 1959 and last reprinted by Penguin in 1984. For too many years, this rare account has languished out of print.

Kevin Andrews posing in the ruins of Mistras during his travels through the Peloponnese in the early 1950s.

Born half English, half American in China in 1924, Andrews saw combat with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, graduated from Harvard in 1947, and set out to study archaeology in Greece. A fellowship allowed him to spend years in country, working on a study of the ruins of the medieval fortresses of the Pel o pon nese. The research was largely conducted on foot in perilous times, when the mountains hid bands of guerillas and the rugged villages were full of soldiers and suspicious police.

Though “Flight” occasionally sketches the larger political picture—the sources of the civil war and effects of the Marshall Plan—Andrews’s interests are consistently in the ordinary people he encounters. His politics were clearly of the left, yet many of the villagers he befriended were rightists, royalists or worse. Kostandí, a hardened killer living near the ruins of the Byzantine city of Mistras, is exuberantly generous with his foreign friend. His wife grows to trust Andrews enough to tell him the gripping story of a recent battle for the hilltop castle, where the guerrillas charged outnumbered soldiers. In her telling, it merges with a crazy feud between Kostandí and his brother: “I said, ‘Eh, Kotso, did you kill him?’ because I saw his clothes, his hands, his whole body covered with blood, but he only laughed. ‘Him? No, he got away through the upper gate. He’ll be halfway across Taygetos by now. Why do you look at me like that? This morning I killed sixteen men near Pend’ Alónia. Now give me my baby and take my clothes and wash them.’ ”

The villagers were intrigued by the foreigner dressed in rags who was as happy sleeping under the stars as in their homes, and he captured their speech and manners. He had a perfect ear for the conversation—the rumors, the paranoia, the generosity—of rural Greeks. Roger Jinkinson’s biography of Andrews, “American Ikaros” (2010), suggests that he was a difficult man, lacking empathy for others. You would never guess it from the affectionate portraits in “Flight.” The book is full of intimate dramas. On a train to Athens he meets an old man and his youngest son, Greeks who had been forced to leave Romania after the war and were essentially interned by the Greek government. ” ‘You who come from America,’ said the boy, ‘tell me, is it possible to live there like a human being? Is there a place in the world where one can live like a human being?’—he repeated the phrase bitterly.” After the father explains their woes—” ‘Sorrow lasts as long as life. Life is long; I can never remember a time when I was not alive,’ he murmured absently”—Andrews shares some “dusty, half-squashed grapes” with them so they can satisfy the demands of hospitality.

Later, Andrews becomes koumbáros (godfather) to the child of a royalist shepherd, Andoni, a man who finds a visit to Athens utterly baffling:

He looked across the shabby, humble, sprawling little town to the blurred outlines of the mountains he knew better, and then back up at the columns of the Parthenon, and said, “Who made these things, Koumbáre?”

“People who lived here thousands of years ago.”

And he said, “Things like this are from God.” 

Distracted by his study of castles and a climb up Mount Olympus, Andrews took a long time getting back to his godson’s family in the book. When he finally did, it was to acknowledge that he would soon return to America and did not know whether he would see them again. “At last Andoni and I sat alone over the end of our meal. One of the girls came in and put on the table a bag full of biscuits she and her mother had baked that morning, a bottle of some kind of red syrup and a jar of sweets. ” ‘For you, Godfather,’ she murmured softly, looking at me; then she lowered her eyes and went out of the room. I sat gazing at the objects on the table and suddenly turned my face to the wall. Andoni leaped up and clasped my head in his arm.”

A life in America did not work out. Andrews eventually married a daughter of the poet E.E. Cummings and returned to Greece. The couple separated during the Junta years, she taking their children abroad while he stubbornly stayed on—in 1975 he renounced his American citizenship in fury over our support of the absurd and incompetent government. Among his books, most of which remain nearly impossible to find, are two studies of Athens, two longer poems and a volume called “Greece in the Dark: 1967-1974,” perhaps the best account in English of resistance to the colonels’ regime. It stirringly re-creates the major protest marches as well as the funeral of Greece’s first Nobel Prize-winning poet, George Seferis. One day in 1989, Andrews set out to swim the rough waters off Kythera. He was heading for Avgó (Egg), a little islet said to be Aphrodite’s birthplace. His body was recovered the next day.

“Does anything impoverish like caution?” Andrews asked, and reading his books most of us will feel a twinge of regret about our more conventional paths, likely combined with relief at having avoided many of his mistakes. Few would call Andrews’s life a success. He was too much a loner, too contrary, and though he wrote much—including a long-labored over, probably unfinished novel—he published little and obscurely. But he left behind at least one indisputably great book. “The Flight of Ikaros” is evocative and painful; restrained and full of compassionate feeling. Here are Greeks in all their flinty reality, their contradiction, their resistance.

Mr. Mason teaches at Colorado College. His latest book is a memoir, “News From the Village: Aegean Friends.”


Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703735804575536320623293144.html