If you mixed Lionel Shriver’s chilling We Need to Talk About Kevin with a Joycean stream of consciousness from a female Ulysses in contemporary Athens, you’d be approaching the spirit of Ioanna Karystiani’s Back to Delphi. Viv is the mother of a notorious rapist and murderer, now locked up in Korydallos prison. Granted five days to take him on leave of absence, she decides that a trip to Delphi might provide salvation for her damaged son and for a relationship based on silence and betrayal. Strange, disturbing and funny, the book reveals the seedy neighbourhoods and bedsits of 21st-century Athens, its hot, dirty parks and ‘the drone of Balkan, Asian and African languages rising shrill above every badly designed square’. Not what the Greek tourist board is going to recommend, but all the more intriguing for it.
Ioanna Karystiani is a much admired writer who won the Greek National Book Award (for her novel, The Jasmine Isle) and whose screenplay, Brides, was made into a successful film, directed by her husband, Pantelis Voulagaris, with Martin Scorsese as executive producer. Born 61 years ago in Crete, she belongs to the celebrated ‘Polytechnic generation’ — as a student in the early 1970s, she fought against the Colonels’ Junta. Now a leading voice in the Greek literary establishment, Karystiani’s writing is both lyrical and brutal, sometimes experimental and underpinned by ancient myth and tragedy.
Carrying ‘52 years of weariness and 72 kilos [12 stone] of sadness,’ Viv is a double victim — a woman whose son has committed horrifying crimes and who has to hide from public vilification. ‘The mother’s belly is the cradle of every good thing, the cave of every evil.’ The reader gradually learns more about Viv’s contribution to her son’s character and to his capture by the police, but there is little promise of redemption. Viv’s chaotic mind sometimes recalls Costas Taktsis’s celebrated The Third Wedding (1963), where the tyranny of mothers and family conflicts are made real by anarchic, vernacular female voices. Her mental instability brings on the bizarre symptom of adding an R to words that don’t have them: ‘Now brehave and be grood.’
After the trial, Viv takes up a job frequently done by Bulgarians — earning her living from the ‘flabby and half-rotting carcasses of the aged’. No amount of elderly incontinence, coughing, farting or disfigurement is too much for Karystiani, who is also fearless about entering the pornographic misogyny of the rapist’s mind. There is humour too: ‘The dictatorship of summer… the immodest July in full deployment, full of female mercenaries of lust, tourists and locals with their lethal shorts.’
In Greek, the book is called The Sacks, a reference to the burdens people carry; the theme of guilt underpins it like a sewer through the city. Unfortunately (especially given the tiny number of novels translated from Greek into English) the author is not consistently well served by the translator, whose inaccuracies undermine the unusual nature of the writing, notably in the first part of the book.
His mistakes give the impression of English as a second language: stuffed cabbage leaves are stuffed lettuce, quick-lime is ‘asbestos’, oleanders ‘rhododendrons,’ small womanly things in a handbag are ‘womanly tidbits’, the verb ‘to eventuate’ is used awkwardly, and there are some grammatical typos. Nevertheless, the book is powerful enough to overcome this burden. Its subject is grim, complementing the sombre mood of a country wracked by political, economic and psychological turmoil, but it produces a slow burn that remains long after the final page.