Constantinople early in the 20th century
"We've lost everything we had," thinks Leonis. "I've lost my city. I've lost my comrades. I've lost my best friend. I've lost my love. I've lost my art. Now let's see how we come out of this."
Leonis is a coming-of-age novel, but one with a difference: the protagonist is a Greek boy in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the city which was for centuries the political and cultural heart of the last Greek empire. The author, Giorgos Theotokas (1905-1966), himself was born and grew up in Constantinople, and he calls this book a "confessional," freely admitting that he is writing of his own experiences. Adding to the interest of this story of the genesis of an intelligent and sensitive youngster (in whom many of us can recognize ourselves) is the fact that Theotokas wrote the text, which opens with the news of the assassination in Sarajevo and ends after the Greeks have been ejected from Asia Minor and Constantinople as a consequence of the disastrous Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, during the first half of 1940. The author is recalling how he, as a boy, felt history's muscles tightening for a leap - and witnessed the appalling consequences - while they were once again bulging for another, even more destructive lunge into the future.
After (quite deliberately) reading so many novels about the lower economic and educational rungs of Greek society, about people living in small towns, villages and hamlets from Crete through the islands and the peninsula all the way to Thessaly and Thrace, it is a welcome change to find an urban, well-to-do family, well informed about European affairs and not loathe to pick up a book other than the Bible. To see early 20th century Constantinople come to life, to see how the contemporary Greeks reacted to events, to see the Turkish troops marching proudly through their capital at the outset of their mobilization in World War I and then the schools slowly being turned into hospitals as more and more of them returned horribly injured, to see the Field of Ares become a camping site for the hordes of White Russians escaping the Revolution, to see the desperation and loss of the Greeks exiled after 1922, in short, to see what I have been reading about in histories turned into that simulacrum of life which is the realist novel was very engaging.
The center of the book, though, is the boy, Leonis, his family, his school, the competitions with the other boys, his love of drawing and budding love of poetry, and, above all, the compelling mysteries of the Female. Coming of age. Little can be new here, but much can be charming, and is in Leonis. Enhanced by the fluid translation of Donald E. Martin, reading this book was a pleasure.(*)
(*) Nota bene: Though news of great events surfaces in this novel, Theotokas shows none of them, only their effects on Leonis and, with lesser emphasis, his generation.