"THAT DAY HE had the face of a Jesus crucified ten times," Oriana Fallaci wrote in Interviews with History. "Neither the most atrocious tortures, nor the death sentence, nor three nights spent waiting to be shot, nor the most inhuman prison, five years in a concrete cell one and a half meters by three, had broken him." That day and night in Athens, just two days after a general political amnesty had resurrected Alexandros Panagoulis from prison, Fallaci fell in love with him. And who would not have?
Panagoulis was the real thing: A hero who had been condemned to death for attempting to assassinate a dictator. He only regretted having failed. The first portrait in Interviews with History is of Henry Kissinger. The last, of Panagoulis, ends like this: "I'm not a hero and I don't feel like a symbol . . . I'm so afraid of disappointing all of you who see so many things in me! Oh, if only you could succeed in seeing in me only a man!"
"Alekos," Fallaci says, "what does it mean to be a man?"
"It means to have courage, to have dignity. It means to love without allowing love to become an anchor. It means to struggle and to win. . . . And for you, what is a man?"
"I'd say that a man is what you are, Alekos."
A Man is a documentary novel. It records a hazardous three-year love affair, which survived personal and political violence, fear, and the scars that years of torture and solitary confinement had wrought on Panagoulis' mind as well as on his body. Alekos Panagoulis was not an easy man to love. And almost from the beginning he was marked for assassination. In exile in Italy, he and Fallaci were spied on at dinner and in their bedroom; the telephone in their hotel room was tapped; horrifying attempts were made to force their car off the road.
After the junta fell, Panagoulis returned alone to Greece where he was elected to Parliament, and became an awkward actor in the "politics of politicians," convincing even Fallaci that he was the sort of rebel who could serve freedom only by dying for it. After all he did not understand party politics: He could not make compromises that concealed even a shard of truth.
So, he was murdered, soon enough to merit a hero's funeral: "Anyone who dies for a mirage deserves a good funeral." At his, a tumultuous crowd of thousands and thousands and thousands marched, chanting, "Alekos lives, lives, lives."
A Man is a passionate document, painful to write, painful to read, frequently overwritten. It is too long, too repetitive, too much given to political preachments. But it is utterly compelling. It would be denigrating to label this book a love story. Neither is it a practical novel or a political apology, nor even a dirge for Panagoulis, the lover, the man.
It is rather a dirge for Heroes. For all the insurgents and freedom fighters that Fallaci has crossed continents and war zones to speak to. For the sort of political prisoner who writes on toilet paper, on bits of rag: "I don't understand you, God/tell me once more/are you asking me to thank you/or to excuse you?"