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Life in the Tomb , by Stratis Myrivilis

Life in the Tomb - Stratis Myrivilis, Peter A. Bien

With the beginnings of World War I well prepared by the two Balkan wars of 1912-1913 (briefly discussed in my review of Richard C. Hall's The Balkan Wars 1912-1913: Prelude to the First World War) and with the Great Powers raring to go at each other after decades of planning and amassing weapons, at the beginning of August, 1914, Germany invaded Belgium and Luxembourg on its way to deliver a first and final blow to France (Home Before the Leaves Fall: A New History of the German Invasion of 1914 by Ian Senior) while Austro-Hungary invaded Serbia to put a swift end to the Slavic upstarts' pretensions (The Gardeners of Salonika: The Macedonian Campaign, 1915-1918, by Alan Palmer). None of it went according to plan.


Greece, triumphant in both of the Balkan wars against its Ottoman and Bulgarian arch-enemies (the enmity towards the Bulgarians going back even further than that against the Turks), was torn between standing at the side of the powers who were responsible both for its liberation from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820's and for some of the territorial gains the Greeks had made at the cost of the Turks in the meantime (this faction was led by the on-again, off-again Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos) or with the Central Powers (the King of Greece was related to the Kaiser's family and to the British royal family, but he and the Greek high command were strongly bound by admiration for Prussian military values to Berlin) and officially opted for neutrality.


However, the Entente had "legal" rights on the Greek peninsula dating back to treaties made during Greece's war of independence, and French and British divisions soon landed at Salonika (Thessaloniki) on the Macedonian coast won by the Greeks in the wars of 1912-1913. Alan Palmer gives an excellent history of the politics and warfare taking place in southeast Europe after this point in The Gardeners of Salonika, including the formation of a rival government by Venizelos and the subsequent forced abdication of the Greek King. His son came around to Venizelos' point of view. So, finally, Greece came into the war against the Bulgarians, Austro-Hungarians, Turks and Germans,(*) providing a weight of numbers which was important to the final collapse of the Central Powers on the southeastern front.


Efstratios Stamatopoulos (1890-1969) - Stratis Myrivilis was his nom de plume - served as a soldier in both the first Balkan War and the Macedonian campaigns of WWI, and Life in the Tomb - first serialized during 1923-1924 and then published in final form in 1930 - is based upon his experiences on the front in WWI. It is reportedly one of the most important books in modern Greek literature, both in its popular resonance and in its literary qualities.


Presented in the (not seriously sustained) pose of a journal written by a Greek soldier for his fiancée back home, Life in the Tomb is told in a figurative language which contrasts mightily with the very direct diction spiced with soldier's argot used by Maurice Genevoix to describe his WWI experiences in Sous Verdun, Août - Octobre 1914. In fact, for my taste Myrivilis sometimes gives us too much of a good thing, as in this excerpt from a passage describing the excitement of the anti-royalist crowds on Lesbos when Venizelos' rebel government was announced:


Commotion everywhere: waves of intoxicating uproar formed from a thousand disparate voices. The city's church bells had gone insane. They cried in exultation above our heads, over the red-tiled roofs, like a flock of frenzied, hooting archangels beating lances against brass shields and filling the air with a horrifying reveille. With their brazen voices and frightening wings they made the atmosphere as turbulent as a storm-lashed sea.


"Frenzied, hooting archangels", "horrifying reveille"? Maybe not. But likening the rolling, deafening sound of a city full of pealing bells to "beating lances against brass shields" works very well for me, making the cliché "as turbulent as a storm-lashed sea" even more disappointing. However your personal taste may react to this passage, there is a good deal of this florid language in the novel. I don't know about Stamatopoulos himself (since this is the only book from his hand I have read), but his journal writer is a romantic, a poetaster who appeals often to the ideals of the educated middle classes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, of course including the Christian God and an idealized vision of his fiancée going beyond donning rose-tinted glasses into the ideological. So how does such a narrator react to the all-too-coarse reality of warfare?


Though literary effusions with a distinct tendency towards hyperbole are never more than a paragraph or two away, war is very much present in this text - the forced night marches to avoid the notice of the reconnaissance aircraft, night after night after night; devastated towns shelled with poison gas and phosphorous; the nearly constant filth and lack of potable water; meals snuck in once a day; the tedium, discomfort and mortal danger of life in the trenches(**); the inevitable reduction of life to its lowest conceivable denominator. And then there are the random moments when the shells sweep in and one must cower and endure, or the rare moments when two bands of screaming maniacs try to murder each other. Only generals like Patton and Lee can love war; for the common soldier it is a misery without compare, alleviated only by the incredibly powerful bonds of comradeship such misery always forges between the men sharing these tribulations. Myrivilis captures all of this very well.


He also gives all a Greek accent. Though so much is the same whether the sad sack in the trench is British or German or French, yet there are differences. The narrator shares his dugout in the trench with his younger brother (!); his memories and fantasies are cast back to the island of Lesbos; to the south, in neighboring Thessaly, the royalists  were ready and eager to receive deserters from the rebels' ranks - as the weeks in the trenches became months and then years, they enfolded no small number in their welcoming arms.


What better place than in the army to find a large cast of characters under extraordinary pressures, from pompous peacetime officers - murderously incompetent in war - to frightened, teenaged foot soldiers pining for their sweethearts or, failing that, their mothers? Additional characters come to life in the narrator's extended reminiscences of life on Lesbos, breaking the increasing tension in the main narrative. But, surely, the most memorable is the narrator himself, the man through whose eyes we see the world for 300 pages and whose initial fervor (all are volunteers in this Archipelago Division) shrivels:


I engaged in insurrection against our lawful government in order to honor the Greek promise to stand by the Serbs as allies. Now I am helping the Serbs to enslave the Greeks of Monastir. I came here in order to stand side by side with the French and to be killed with them for the sake of democratic ideals. When I arrived I found them thrashing their black troops and heard them greet us in the trenches with the cry "chiens grecs"...


In spite of oneself, one becomes quite attached to this 22 year old disillusioned idealist, even though one knows from the first pages of the book that he dies a particularly horrible death.


A novel of the failure of faith in ideals in the face of reality, of life under extreme stress, and what ordinary men do in order to continue, all seen through the quietly reflective eyes of the increasingly engaging narrator. I have to agree with the Greeks - this is a very fine book.



(*) The Bulgarians came into WWI late in order to get some revenge on the Serbs and Romanians, their principal adversaries from the second Balkan War. It backfired badly. The Turks were mostly occupied elsewhere against the Russians and British (and the latter's Arab allies).


(**) For also on this front months and years were spent in fixed positions with deadly squabbles over a 100 meters of useless ground.