A bold allegory of a contemporary nativity… The mountainous Cypriot village of Spilia, the Greek word for “cave”, provides the setting for the conception and “birth” of a bodiless, unseen Christ spreading as miraculous energy to liberate, heal and transform anyone it touches.
Author: Panos Ioannides more info
Translator: Despina Pirketti more info
Set in the middle of the twentieth century in a mountainous Cypriot village, Census follows the pregnancy of cancer patient Maria. She conceives after a night with the angelically handsome Michael, visiting from Patmos, the island of John’s Revelation. The gestation culminates in the “nativity” of an invisible Christ in a Nicosia clinic.
Though incorporeal, scentless and colourless, the life-giving force that is liberated from Maria’s womb, brings about premature efflorescence and a diffusion of aromas across the clinic’s flower pots. Akin to healing energy, it begins curing the spiritual and psychosomatic ailments of all those it overshadows, urging the island’s medical community to dedicate their life to studying and utilising this unknown new energy.
Census is both a heretic allegory of the nativity and a cathartic retort to the satanic messages of Roman Polanski’s renowned horror film Rosemary’s Baby. Boasting repeated editions in Greece and Cyprus, this award-winning novel by Panos Ioannides, replete with magical realism, is riveting in terms of conception and execution: a sacred metaphysical thriller that redeems and purifies the reader. A masterpiece in the art of fiction and the recipient of the Cyprus National Prize for Literature, 1973.
A novel of rare literary and philosophical aesthetic | Alithia Daily
His voice is graced with solid psychological poise and unique sharpness of the spirit equivalent to a surgical scalpel | Phileleftheros Daily
A strongly enigmatic and symbolic novel | Athens Review of Books
An excellent artisan of composite plot | Phileleftheros Daily
An innovative novel that significantly predates Umberto Eco’s or Dan Brown’s composite or “bestselling” achievements | Nea Epochi Magazine
Concise, elliptical sentences, the seemingly simplified wording (from a master) are put aside to make room for a language that endeavours to serve as a figure of extra-logical and extra-worldly transcendences. Eloquence, in the best possible meaning of the term, accompanies those passages of the book where cosmic drama cedes its place to metaphysical mystery | Andreas Christophides, Literary Critic
——–Read an Excerpt
THEY CAUGHT SIGHT OF HIM by the curve of the road. Carrying a backpack and a guitar, he was walking uphill in the same direction they were driving. He didn’t nod, nor did he turn to look as they drove past him; a few meters down the road, the driver’s foot went for the brake pedal. The Deux Chevaux screeched and came to a stop.
The stranger paused and smiled at the passenger as she opened the door for him. He was young, twentyish; a foreigner, from Patmos. He had walked across the half of Mesa-Oria and was now heading for “Spiliā”; two friends of his, conservators of Byzantine wall-paintings in small churches of Soleā and Marathasā, were to put him up for a few days. No, he was not a painter or a conservator of icons, nor was he a musician; he was just a visitor.
“We too are headed for Spilia… What a coincidence, eh? By the way, it’s Spilia, with the accent on the –i! We’re staying for a few days, to rest. I’m sorry – I’m Maria Akritas. This is my husband, Joseph Akritas”.
Joseph Akritas glanced at him nonchalantly through the rear-view mirror, nodded his head vaguely and turned his focus back to the road.
“And the region is pronounced Soléa and Marathāsa. But the way you said it is more fine-sounding” Maria Akritas said.
“Only what’s authentic is fine-sounding” commented the young man.
Then there came a gust of wind; the elm trees on the floor of the valley started to rustle.
“And I’m not going there to rest”.
Maria Akritas looked at him awkwardly, not knowing what to say; she let out an “Oh” and smiled.
The stranger held the guitar, gliding his fingertips over it. The music merged with the motor’s buzz. Maria Akritas turned her head backwards to face him. He was tall, blond, with straight, shoulder-length hair, lightly touching his leather jacket that was garnered with fleece. A synaeresis of masculinity and femininity; only his sparse beard revealed his gender – a beard that was almost fluff – and his voice:
“Of course you may! We adore music, especially Greek music. What is it you play?”
She spoke as if she knew him from far back, this maladjusted, bitter woman! From the moment he smiled at her, sitting inside the car with ease, she felt loose and euphoric.
“It’s not Greek music”.
“Then what is it?”
She smiled a smile that was not contagious, so she kept quiet. Joseph Akritas kept looking at the street, emotionless.
“I used to do some singing myself, professionally! Or, rather, as an amateur”, she felt the need to revise.
“You can’t be Cypriot, Maria”, he said.
More than the “can’t be”, she was mindful of his casual address – Maria.
“Just by half; my father was Cypriot, my mother was Egyptian, a Copt. I was born in Amman. Joseph here I met in Barcelona. He’s a journalist, a cameraman, a war correspondent – you know, a Jack of all trades! And a very adept one too. Joseph Akritas! He was there for a story, the atomic bomb that sank in the Mediterranean, you remember; and instead of the bomb, he dug me up!”
Joseph Akritas turned her way. She didn’t see his gaze but she felt its rigidity. And with a grimace of submission, she changed the subject:
“Is it a beautiful island? Patmos!”
“It’s my island”.
She asked him how it was he decided to travel in mid-winter. Cyprus is nice in the summer; or spring. Or, as a mocking local poet says, “in the darkness”. And journeys become more comfortable, especially up in the mountains.
“Now is always the best time” he replied.
She felt his gaze caressing her.
“You’re beautiful” he told her and carried on playing the guitar.
Joseph Akritas restrained himself from reacting; he pretended either not to have heard or that the phrase was an unfinished line from a song. And he remembered that this simple two-word statement was exactly what he had wanted to tell her when they had first met, but he hadn’t dared; instead, he had spoken of a journalist’s “missionary” work.
On her part, flattered from what she heard and grateful for the other’s silence, she turned ahead, sank into her seat and surrendered herself to an unanticipated bliss.
The car left the main road and with a bump entered the snaking street that led to “Spilia-Kourdali” as indicated by the bilingual street sign at the turn. The carrosserie of the Deux-Chevaux shuddered from head to toe; for a moment or two, fingers jumped recklessly on the steering wheel as well as on guitar strings.
“This road does not lend itself to… to music” she said, without turning her head back. “It goes on like this until Spilia. But it’s so picturesque, especially the first kilometres. In the summer, at dawn or before dusk, I like to walk here, all the way up the road”.
Orchards became denser, and the street, for approximately one kilometre, turned into a spiral. The Deux-Chevaux squeaked maniacally; at the turn, down the road from the village’s first houses, a big, broken plane tree branch was blocking the way. Joseph Akritas sharply stepped on the brakes, put the car into neutral and got out. The young man followed him. They removed the obstacle, in silence, and faced one another for the first time. The young man’s eyes were cyan blue; Joseph Akritas’ a washed-out brown colour, sank into two cold crevices below a forehead dichotomized by two wrinkles, as deep as knife wounds. He was around thirty five but he looked fifty. She wasn’t older than twenty-five. The two of them were separated by ten years and a crop of wrinkles that was rather large for someone his age. Her concealed despair made them coeval.
“Thank you”, Joseph Akritas said.
It was the first time he spoke. Voice broken just like his face.
“Patmos is one of the islands I haven’t visited. Perhaps someday… Patmos and Cythera. Though I’m in no position to benefit from either”.
“Your job must have taken you…”
“…everywhere it shouldn’t have”, Joseph Akritas cut in on him.
“We usually go where we should”.
The young man was right. Akritas was annoyed. He felt the need to retort; for what he’d said to his wife a moment ago too, as if he wasn’t even there, as if he wasn’t…
“Why do you speak like that?” He wanted to ask about the casual address, but he chose not to.
“If you prefer, sir…”
Though not ironic in tone, the “sir” sounded like irony.
They went back to the car.
“Aren’t you freezing?” she asked, content with the conversation she had observed behind the window, without actually hearing it.
And when the car continued its course:
“I’m freezing… Aren’t you? I do hope Avgi remembered to have the tsiminia mended. Tsiminia – that’s fireplace in these parts. Avgi is a friend of ours, she’s the school teacher. Each time Joseph emigrates here for a while, she puts us up. Say, where are your friends staying?”
“I don’t know. I’ll find them”.
“Have they been in Cyprus long?”
“It’ll be two years in two months”.
“And they work with wall-paintings?”
“They’ve restored two chapels; it will take them an additional nine months to complete the third”.
“No. He’s Russian, from Crimea. She’s Jewish, Alexandrian”.
“And they worked in Patmos?”
“No. I met Piotr and Hanna Archangielsk on a fishing boat, travelling to Matala”.
“Can they speak Greek?”
“They can. Among six languages”.
“What about you?”
“Alr eady? So young?”
“What about you, Maria?”
“Greek and Arabic. I’m not much of a polyglot. As opposed to Joseph. He definitely doesn’t fall short. He can speak three languages fluently, and studies another two, when he has time. How did you learn to speak so many languages? At university? Or was it… through sleep-learning?” she joked.
“Sleeplessness!” he reciprocated the joke. “Relatively easy; I live them in their cradles”.
“In the countries where they are spoken? You must be travelling all the time”.
“It’s not terrible”.
“Of course not. As long as you’re well-heeled, which certainly makes things simpler”.
The Deux-Chevaux took a sudden turn before it exhaled, sliding along the downhill road. In the nick of time, a herd of goats sought refuge by the roadside. The young shepherd, brandishing his rod and cussing, had no time to recognize them.
“Mr Mathew’s son”, Maria Akritas said. And, turning to their co-traveller, she added: “Here we are!” and pointed to the houses in the village, penned in their lavish green narrowness. “She has probably been waiting for hours. We wrote we would be here earlier. We’re late. The soup must be cold by now. You know what? You should come with us, have something warm. Then we’ll take you to your friends”.
“The gentleman must be tired”, Joseph Akritas unexpectedly intervened.
“Not at all”, replied the youth. Then: “But not tonight. I’ll take a rain check on that”.
He saw Maria’s disparaging look and her husband’s neutral expression and he smiled, picking up the guitar and backpack.
“To the coffee-shop, please”, he said.
“Just for a soup! It’s really no trouble …” the young woman repeated with obvious disappointment.
“Thank you. I need to be at the Archangielsks at six”.
“What if… you hadn’t hitched a ride? Cars are quite rare in these parts, this time of the year”.
“Then they wouldn’t be expecting me at six”.
When the car overtook him, the mountain side along with Spilia vanished in a blinding sulphurous glow. He stepped on the brakes to stop the car. Rain came pouring down. Maria Akritas turned to look at the stranger; he’d disappeared.
“We should get out too. Until the weather clears”.
“We’re almost there”.
And he started the engine. The wipers juddered on the windscreen. The second they wiped it clean, it was covered again in layers of rain, replete with sounds and bubbles. He drove on, guessing where the street was, using his handkerchief to wipe the fog of their breaths, glued to the glass, solidified. A dog, on the uphill path to the church, threw itself against the car, barking desperately. Kicking its legs, it leapt up onto the window beside her.
“It’s Rex! Shall I open the door?”
He shrugged and slowed down. The dog along with a gush of wind and rain swept inside the car.
“Why do they keep pets if they are going to throw them out on the street?” she said to herself.
They parked at the fence gate. The rose bush and dahlias had been trampled by the wind; the young plane tree too. Windows and doors, hermetically closed. No light whatsoever. They looked at each other in bewilderment. That was a first. She had spoiled them, always standing at the door, waiting, the entire house lit up, the scent of latzia –quercus alnifolia – and trahana soup lingering as far as the street corner. The one time she hadn’t welcomed them at the door was when an inspection had been scheduled and she had to stay at school – but even then she had opened the entire house for them and asked a neighbour to welcome them.
He honked; again, harder. There was no trace of life inside the house, or in the entire neighbourhood; only the dog growled, annoyed.
“Why don’t we go in?” Maria Akritas said. “You do have a key”.
He groped for it in the glove-box where he kept insurance papers and his driver’s license; and found it.
He went on, without rushing, defying the rain, to the door. He opened it and hit the light switch. The glow brought out the wilderness, both in the house and outside. Maria Akritas pushed the dog aside and in two bounds it jumped into the sunroom where it began shaking off the rain, sprinkling the fleece carpet. She lifted the fur on her coat, tucked her head inside it and in small, quick steps squished through the mud puddles.
“We’ll bring in the suitcase later”, she told him on her way in. “Let’s light the fire first”.
“She left a note”, Akritas said, and walked across the room to the chest.
Leaning against the vase with the juniper berry, a folded note awaited.
“What does it say?”
“Nothing… That there’s food in the fridge and fruit and smoked ham in the pantry.
“Is that all?”
“Not where she went? Nothing else?”
“We’ll find out. Soon enough”.
“Can I see it?”
She held the note:
“I leave in a hurry. Will be away. Don’t know for how long. The house is at your disposal for as long as you want it or forever. There’s roast chicken in the fridge, fruit, groceries and smoked ham in the pantry. Farewell. Love you, Avgi”.
“It’s…” she began, but then stopped.
She slowly took off her coat and hung it on the portmanteau. Then, her muddy shoes. She picked them up and walked to the bedrooms. He sat in the high back rustic chair in the sunroom, made somewhat more comfortable by two thick embroidered cushions. The note he folded and left beside him, on the wooden carved chest; there, clusters of black and red grapes, sky blue birds, were slaughtered by the wood cracks.
When she returned, now in her bathrobe and slippers, she found him motionless in the same spot where she left him, absent-mindedly patting the chest.
“Everything is in its place in her bedroom. If she took something, she did so hastily and… I do hope…”
“Enough, Maria. We’ll find out”.
“It’s so strange. Almost terrifying. I can’t make any sense out of the note she left for us. She left in a hurry, doesn’t say where to or for how long, why she’s going, and that creepy ‘stay for as long as you like or forever’, it makes me feel I’m inside the house of a… Like an heir or a burglar”.
“I’m sure there is an explanation for everything, Maria”.
“There isn’t always, Joseph”.
“I’m afraid there is”, he replied, trying to conceal, albeit subtly, his own tormenting concerns.
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