THIS IS A poet's work of fiction in many ways. Most of the sections (often no more than a page long) that build its 30 short chapters are essentially prose poems, each meant to convey an immediate poetic statement as well as contribute to the novel's progress. That progress can be described as a developing portrait of the artist as child exile in his home country, specifically Greece during World War II.
The landscape that surrounds the first- person voice in the novel belongs to the same region delineated by the late poems of Yannis Ritsos, which in turn reflect the waste land of George Seferis' poetry: "This land, a narrow strip between rocks and seas, can afford only so many of us. It has no trees, no water - only an illusion of trees and water. The old springs are choked, desecrated with corpses of animals and men. We dig new wells for water, but do not find it." And the figures who inhabit this often symbolic landscape are, again as in Ritsos, the dispossessed: a blind man, an itinerant puppeteer, a one-eyed playmate, a cast-off whore, a gold-toothed grandmother wise as her years, and a troupe of cruel, changing enemies.
The young hero who "grows down" in this landscape of ruined homes and empty wells escapes the shifting pursuit of death by learning to survive on cunning, folk wisdom, the arts of imitation, the aid of companions real and imaginary (including his own collection of shadow puppets).He also learns to extend his vision beyond the real world to the secret resources in folk legend and in the mysteries of nature.
The perspective of a child-poet whose vision develops dramatically under the pressures of terror and deprivation allows the author to project the poetic, sometimes mythic, aspects of the harsh reality that almost overwhelm his young hero. It also allows him to move back and forth with grace from horror to comedy, from violence to lyricism. Here is a typical passage that introduces the description of a cage full of hostages that "the enemy" has attached to the front of a supply train that will presumably strike a mine buried under the track by the "Mountain Fighters":
"The setting sun spread a pure tangerine glow over the western sky, warming the bare landscape. A hawk made a broad circle, then hovered for a few moments and, stretching its neck downward, remained transfixed, as if scanning the ground; and the ground underneath rose steadily until the hawk's talons touched down. When the train appeared in the distance, the mountains receded into a violet haze.
"The cage, the cage.""
The author's governing strategy does not always work so effectively as it does here; as the hero's grandmother implies at one point, what is real and unreal depends on how you look at it - or how the writer makes you look at it. Some episodes in the novel seem rigged too arbitrarily by the author's manipulating hand rather than emanating from a plausible vision in the narrator. One example is the predictable victory of our hero over the forces of evil in the battle of kites, and another, the most blatant perhaps, is the sudden entrance by the local priest "out of the bushes, his black cassock flying behind him," to scream "Paganists! Satanists!" at the villagers taking part in an unlikely orgy during a festival honoring "the Goat-legged One and the Nymphs." (This priest seems to have sprung not out of the bushes of any known sanctuary but out of the lesser fiction of Nikos Kazantzakis).
The implicit political commentary, which hides for the best part of the novel behind vague terms such as "the enemy" "The Mountain Fighters," "the Allies," comes in more overtly and obtrusively at the end, oversimplified, almost as black and white as the drawings of Fred Marcellino that decorate the book's margins, though without that artist's redeeming verisimilitude.
But the lapses in control are not so many as to diminish the cumulative impact of Stratis Haviaras' novel. We emerge from it with the sense of having heard a distinctive new voice, of having shared a special sensibility, one that usually succeeds in guiding us safely along the dangerous border between the real and the unreal, inspired as it is by a poet's courage, cunning and insight.