Nota Bene: I have combined the reviews of two closely related novels by the same author into one. If you've read the one review, then you've read the other.
Efstratios Stamatopoulos (1890-1969) - Stratis Myrivilis was his nom de plume - has been described by some Greek critics as the first modern (i.e. since the War of Independence of the 1820's) Greek novelist who could stand beside any other European novelist without fear of embarrassment. After reading all three of his novels, Life in the Tomb (1923-24/30), The School Mistress with Golden Eyes (1933) and Mermaid Madonna (1949), it is clear that Myrivilis did not have the scope of an author like Thomas Mann(*) and, since he wrote canonical realist novels, did not introduce innovations of style and form like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce did. But I am indeed impressed with his insight into his characters (and his readers), with his poetic sensibility and excellent prose, with his clear grasp of both the beauty and the horror of life, with his ability to see through, very early, the illusions spun by the various political currents of his time. Nor is his scope at all negligible, for each of the three novels, though clearly sharing a common sensibility, is quite different from the others, and together they encompass a great deal of human experience.
I have set certain aspects of the context of Stamatopoulos' life in my review of Life in the Tomb. So suffice it to say here that he not only fought in the First Balkan War and in World War I, but he served in the subsequent Asia Minor campaign of 1919-1922 which was so disastrous for the Greeks (see my review of Michael Llewelly Smith's Ionian Vision for background on this campaign). Both The School Mistress with Golden Eyes and The Mermaid Madonna deal with some of the many consequences of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, as the Greeks call it.
The protagonist, Leonis, of The School Mistress with Golden Eyes is clearly Stamatopoulos' alter ego, a native of Lesbos and a sensitive and disillusioned junior officer who served in WWI and in Asia Minor and was seriously wounded in the leg. He returns to Lesbos traumatized by his experiences on the front and in the military hospital where he shared a room with another junior officer who was slowly and excruciatingly dying of gangrene poisoning. Leonis bonds with his fellow sufferer and tries to ease his suffering. In extremis the dying man commissions Leonis with the task of conveying his most private and valuable possessions to his young wife. Stunned by the widow's beauty and poise - and by other matters I won't disclose - Leonis tries everything he can think of not to fall in love with her. He also must deal with his ghosts from the wars, which have left him embittered and hollowed out. On the side, the reader is treated to a very amusing portrait of provincial Lesbian society, as well as detailed evocation of Lesbos' many beauties. Life in the Tomb, as befits what is supposed to be a war journal, is episodic and meandering, but The School Mistress with Golden Eyes is a very tightly constructed, multi-faceted novel.(**)
Though written much later, The Mermaid Madonna is also set on Lesbos directly after the Catastrophe, but this time Stamatopoulos' focus is on the Greek refugees forced out of Anatolia in 1922 - hundreds of thousands of them, most with nothing but the clothes on their backs, all badly traumatized - who must now find a place for themselves among people who speak another dialect of Greek, have different customs, and with whom tensions inevitably rise. The ones who settle in provincial Lesbos (instead of in the capital Mytilini) are simple, proud and religious fishermen whose stubbornness, nay pigheadedness would try the patience of the saints.
Unlike the characters in The School Mistress with Golden Eyes, who were finely drawn, distinct and very credible, the vast cast of characters in The Mermaid Madonna is hugely colorful and a bit larger than life, and the tone of the prose hints of that of folk tales told around village tables (that is, if the storyteller were unusually sensitive and sophisticated). Presenting a twenty year pageant of life in a fishing village with a soupçon of early magical realism, Myrivilis is unsparing in his portrayal of its expected narrowness - the superstition, ignorance, and envy of the villagers - but also generous in his portrait of the better side of the villagers - their homespun wisdom (particularly in the persons of old Aunt Permahoula and the doctor), their steadfastness and endurance.
The centerpiece of the story is a remarkable baby, girl, then young woman, Smaragthi - named after the unusual tint of her eyes - about whom stories of the supernatural are spun and for whom many of the the men of the village develop an obsessive love-hate. With this character Myrivilis probes the rigidity of gender roles in such a society and illustrates the maxim "the nail that sticks out must be hammered down." But Myrivilis did not write sociology nor, explicitly, societal criticism. He gave us a wide panorama view of a narrow setting which opens up through the underground channels of our common human weaknesses and strengths to a panorama of the most basic aspects of human life.
After the necessarily lugubrious and bitter Life in the Tomb and the quite understandable bitterness and self-torment of The Schoolmistress With Golden Eyes, this beautifully written, colorful and very human story of life re-establishing itself after disaster is most welcome. Some books one re-reads in order to unfold their secrets, others just for the sheer pleasure of it. The Mermaid Madonna will be one of the latter.(***)
(*) But then few do.
(**) Kudos to Philip Sherrard, the translator.
(***) Again, kudos to Abbott Rick, the translator.