A special aura hangs over Greece -- even today, when it has absorbed more of history's shocks than any country should suffer; even in a place as poor and drab as the little Peloponnesian village of Livani, which is the scene of most of "Birds of Winter." The novel opens with a child being born -- through all the ages, a traditional sign of hope -- but in this case, it is an omen of impending doom. The birthday is Good Friday and the child is stillborn, to parents who would have been too old to care for it if it had lived.
The novel centers on the dead baby's older brother, Jason Leonakos, 23 years old, just back from his compulsory military service, eager to leave Livani, which hems in his soul like a cage, and facing some basic life decisions. He wants to move to Ahtens -- or to America, with his uncle Pavlo, who has secretly saved enough money for the trip. He is vaguely attracted by religion, although its local representative is not very impressive. And he is drawn, almost irresistibly, by a local woman, Duane, whose love will almost certainly be disastrous because it will imprison him forever in Livani.
Jason tries to postpone a decision, and by delaying too long he loses the power to decide. It is 1940, Mussolini invades Greece, Jason and Pavlo are conscripted, and his life is no longer in his control, if it ever was. He goes off to fight in Yugoslavia and Albania, is wounded and discharged, limps back toward Livani but stops on his way for a long stay at a monastery perched high on an inaccessible cliff, where he meets the birds who form the book's title. "These white friends came to us in the heart of winter many years ago," a monk tells him. The birds are tame, now, and never leave; "They have no desire to fight either the wind or the outside world."
Jason turns away in anger: "They were endowed with wings and they did not want to fly," and ultimately he goes back to the village, encountering on the final page a horror worse than any of those that have gone before.
"Birds of Winter" is a simple story in outline, rich in small details, often very beautifully written, and almost overpowering in its resonances. The characters are small to the point of insignificance, but observed with the fine detail Vrettos summons, they become larger than life, figures of parable. f
Even stronger than Jason, the focus of the story, is the figure of Pavlo, a man of Rabelaisian appetites, irreverence and intellectual restlessness who makes the other characters in the book seem pale in comparison. He stands out with particular vividness against the background of Livani, a village where time has not exactly stood stil but accumulated in a stagnant pool, where olives and sheep are still the basic economic necessities as they must have been in the time of Homer, where the grape harvest is a major event and where the pagan gods, Zeus and Charon, are a present reality still more vivid than the Christian saints.
In a key scene, jason's father, Marko, cuts his thumb and points to the blood, telling the young man, "This keeps you from being free . . . . These are your ancestors, each pulsating drop. You cannot hide from them. No matter where you go, Athens, Salonika, America, they will always be inside you."
Jason does in fact carry inside him something -- a complex of things -- that he can never escape, and his unsuccessful attempts at escape form the action of the book. But Livani in 1940 is no longer a reality that can endure in its self-enclosed universe; forces are unleashed in the book that are sure to change it, perhaps to destroy it. This is the message of the book's traumatic, fatalistic last page, which should not be divulged until it is reached through reading the book. Once it is assimilated, and its relation to the pages that have gone before is grasped, it becomes clear that the book's innermost meaning and the source of its power is the tension of time and its passage -- not so much a tension between old and new but between time and the timeless.