Thursday, September 8, 2016

Leprous Bathos

There is a long and storied history among "serious" writers of using some more interesting moment in history to add flavor to their muddling bourgeois tales of self-discovery. Jonathan Safran Foer did it most famously, reducing Soviet pogroms and Nazi extermination of Ukrainian Jews into so much tear-porn for his self-insertion character in Everything is Illuminated. Good business model but makes for lousy storytelling. And lousy storytellers.

Victoria Hislop doesn't have anything as sexy as the Holocaust to pad out her own sentimental novel, The Island, but still found a pretty interesting piece of Greek history: a leper colony! The titular island, it serves as the fulcrum for a family drama stretching back to the Inter-War years, through joys and tragedies that valiantly manage to remain a steady "meh" across more than four hundred pages.

Just off the shore of the tiny Cretan village of Plaka sits a dry and hardscrabble island named Spinalonga. It's a leper colony, one of the last in Greece so it receives "patients" - really internees - from as far away as Athens and Thessaloniki. These Cosmopolitan Hellenes are quite a contrast to the local Cretan villagers, Hislop tells us. And only tells. There's maybe ten pages out of a hundred devoted to telling about the difference - and how it gets all wrapped up neatly with bi-weekly film showings - before this very interesting clash of cultures is left by the wayside, the better to make room for the soap opera drama of three generations of Petrakis women. Noble women of course, as enduring and determined as their provincial island home. Except for Anna, who's a big ol' slut.

I'm inferring quite a bit about the setting as Hislop is less interested the external world of Cretan islands - full of exotic history going back to the Minoans trading and fighting wars with the Pharoahs to the south and the Hittites to the east - than she is in the internal world of her characters. Which is very bad because there's so little there there. The most compelling of them is the aforementioned Anna, a headstrong drama queen determined to escape the doldrums of village life. She marries into a rich family, the only means of social mobility in a society as stratified and chauvinistic as Greece, but quickly finds married life to be just as punishingly boring as kicking around her father's fishing village. This leads to affairs and murders that everyone blames on Anna's perfidy - including the author - though it all comes across with the dull familiarity of predestination. Or a pudding of narrative cliches.

Anna is of course presented in contrast to her dutiful sister Maria and their martyr of a mother Eleni. The eldest Petrakis catches the dropsey from a little boy at her job as a schoolteacher and the both of them are shipped across to the leper colony. Maria follows on the eve of her wedding to the same wealthy family her sister joined, freeing her groom-to-be to plow Anna like a wheat field. What could be a grim and naturalistic look at family history gets a Hallmark makeover however, as a fancy doctor soon arrives to treat Maria and all the lepers with a cure that frees them from exile. Maria doesn't even carry any scars from her five or six years on a leper colony, much like her mother died with quiet nobility offscreen, as it were, with no description of her final horrendous hours.

In fact, aside from a few comments on gnarled hands or feet and one old lady with walnut-sized boils on her face, the leprosy at the center of this turgid tale gets very little attention. From the first introduction to Spinalonga, the focus is much more on the day to day doldrums of any village - just with the added caveat of "Oh BTW, they all lepers." The colony even vanishes from the narrative for long stretches, particularly when Anna and Maria are doing their little girl dream wedding stuff. Even World War II happening in the first third of the book doesn't generate more drama than a few boys running out into the mountains to play soldier, returning after peace is declared in the newspapers without so much as a lost toe and goddamn did Olivia Manning do the banality of war better! All the talk of leprosy is really there to distract the reader from how this book has fewer sharp edges than a rubber nipple.

Really, you can't expect much from a middle of the road Anglo writer like Hislop. She even has a name like one of PG Wodehouse's third tier antagonists, Honoria Glossop the lady sergeant major who forces philosophy books she doesn't understand herself on those who've already mastered the Buddha's path to the good life. Hislop doesn't share that same bludgeoning personality - near as I can tell - but certainly agrees with the Glossops of the world that thick books of ponderous seriousness are what is most needed.

I haven't even gotten to the framing device yet! The bourgeois self-discovery that necessitated all this tiresome historical lecturing, the young Alexis and her misgivings about her fussy boyfriend. I don't remember his name but we'll call him Chad because he is very much that sort of stock character. Actually, we won't call him anything because the frame narrative is even duller than the village girls trying on wedding dresses. In fact, let's forget this whole fucking novel!

But let's not forget Hislop. Proving that history repeats itself as tragedy and farce, Victoria Hislop has managed to craft a literary career for herself out of being the same sort of high-serious dunderhead the almighty Wodehouse skewered so brilliantly with a hundred better stories.

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