Friday 22 June 2012

Μεγάλη Ιδέα - Big Idea

Difficult to recommend the book I have just finished - The Thread by Victoria Hislop - because it is ill-written and its characters are strong, intelligent but put-upon women on the one hand and attractive but thoroughly gormless men on the other who screw everything up but are eventually taken in hand - by the women.

Yes, readers, I accidentally picked up a chick-lit novel and, having spent the money, as a good Cardi I was too mean not to read it. For the record this example at least is a lot better than "lad-lit" - trashy thrillers with smart-arse men and attractive but gormless women.

And yet I recommend you read it because its background is the transformation of what is now Greece's second city Thessaloniki from a cosmopolitan mish-mash of roughly equal parts Christian Greeks (speaking Greek), Sephardic (ie of Spanish origin) Jews (speaking Ladino - a kind of Spanish with some Hebrew added) and Muslim Turks (speaking Turkish) in the early 20th century to an almost entirely Greek community by the end of WW2, a consequence of the swirling forces of Greek imperialism, Turkish nationalism, Nazi antisemitism and Soviet barbarism.

All this is fascinating and worth the read but the novel's unrealistic heroines, drawn from the three ethno-religious backgrounds, are pure 21st century and have seemingly been transported back in time having just passed an intensive equal opportunities course with flying colours. So naturally they are bewildered and appalled by the Mediaeval attitudes of their fellow citizens and stand out as reasonable and modern. Big deal. It would have been more interesting to portray otherwise reasonable people caught up in perpetrating the cruel behaviour of that time.


"Greek imperialism"? Well, yes. We think of Greece in terms of the doughty little nation throwing off the mighty Ottoman Empire with the help of Lord Byron but by the end of WW1 the tables were turned and the Greek army very nearly succeeded in reconquering Constantinople (now Istanbul) for the first time since they lost it in 1453 and reestablishing the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire - no, seriously, that's what they had in mind (they called it their Μεγάλη Ιδέα - Big Idea) and to this day most Greeks see their spiritual capital not as "provincial" Athens but as that timeless and holy city straddling Europe and Asia. Not unreasonably the Turks resisted and, following the predictable pattern of such conflicts, the resentful Greeks committed unspeakable atrocities as they retreated.