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Matoula's Echo

Matoula’s Echo


Matoula’s Echo is the epic story of a Greek girl’s journey to womanhood at the brink of World War II. This is the first of four books by Writers Guild of America Award nominee Richard Romans, author of Sketches of Skiathos, Evangelistria, and Act III, a memoir.

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Matoula’s Echo is the epic story of a Greek girl’s journey to womanhood at the brink of World War II. This is the first of four books by Writers Guild of America Award nominee Richard Romans, author of Sketches of Skiathos, Evangelistria, and Act III, a memoir.

It’s the bitter winter of 1940. Greece is on the brink of world war and the Axis powers are poised to invade. All the able-bodied men of Metsovo have left the village to defend the border. Their only means of survival are the supplies the village women smuggle them on foot. It’s a grueling nighttime journey over harsh, snow-bound mountain passes that only the strongest can survive.

Tall, gangly, near-sighted 17-year-old Maria Christina burns to join the resistance, but her physical awkwardness keeps her at home, doomed to an early spinsterhood.

When Maria Christina’s radiant and charismatic older sister Matoula dies on a midnight supply run, the opportunity to become a woman she’s always dreamed of is thrust into her hands.

But not without a price.

As the war rages on—and deadly civil strife is set to erupt across Greece—Maria Christina struggles to measure up to Matoula and raise an infant daughter left motherless by her death. Her grief turns to shame when her long-kept secret passion erupts into an affair with the worldly Yiannis, Matoula’s widowed husband, a doctor from Athens.

But for Maria Christina the most perilous journey of all is the one she still has to make when she’s forced to flee Metsovo and the civil war to begin a new life thousands of miles away in New York City.

Matoula’s Echo is a sweeping coming-of-age story that moves from the hard-scrabble villages of war-torn Greece to the sleek and cosmopolitan post-war New York City. Atmospheric and gripping, Romanus’ writing illuminates the impossible decisions war forces upon us, and the price and meaning of survival.

This is the 2014 edition of Chrysalis

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It’s Greece’s Dr. Zhivago but with a better story. And it would make a great movie”.

Kurt Russell, actor

“A phenomenal achievement, not only because it tackles the great themes – war and civil war, heroism and sacrifice, love and loss, joy and misery, inner conflict and struggle merely to survive – but because it handles them so adroitly.”

Dr Darcy Powers, Professor of English at the University of Denver

“A spellbinding love story set in the thick of the modern fight for a free Greece. It has come along at the very moment when Greece – and all of us – need it.”
Flo Conway, author

“Romanus has given Greeks a new heroine who is more than mythical – and best of all one of their own!”
Jim Siegelman, author

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

There were no women in Metsovo, only men. This had been a source of amusement for countless generations among the neighboring villagers high in the Southern Alps of central Greece. Of course it wasn’t true. All the men who lived in this region known as Epirus were forced by the long, cruel winters to drive their flocks down to more mild elevations for most of the year, but it was only the men of Metsovo who left their women and children behind to do the strenuous work necessary for their survival. And it was precisely for survival’s sake that strength in the women of Metsovo became the measure of beauty, and it was also the reason Maria Christina Triantafyllou, an aspen among sycamores, was considered the least attractive girl in the village. Moreover, in a community where you were considered a near spinster at fifteen, she was already seventeen and not one suitor had appeared, not even a rumor of one. And yet, it was the furthest thing from her mind this morning in October of 1940, as she sat on a small bench in front of a fire in the family’s gray stone cottage. In the last few weeks she had found it impossible to concentrate on anything but Mussolini’s army amassing on the border not eighteen hours from their village, which was the only western route into Greece.

“A cup of my tea, my soul,” came a low hoarse voice from the large platform next to the fireplace, breaking the oppressive silence.

“Right away, Pappou.”

It was comforting for her to pour warm water from a kettle into a cup filled with his special herbal mixture, then swirl the liquid and carefully add two drops of paregoric. She lit a lamp and set it on the low round table in front of the fireplace. It was always dark in the winter room. The two windows and the door to the room were covered in thick wool weavings to help the room retain as much heat as possible. The only daylight was from a small window beneath the hearth.

Lying in his sickbed, her grandfather spoke with difficulty, “How you look like your grandmother just now. So beautiful.”

As he took the cup, Maria Christina leaned into the stubble of beard and softly kissed his cheek. Having been aware of her quiet suffering these years, the old man had decided his gift to her would be that of hope. He would teach her to dream. To that end he plied her with stories of his beloved wife, her namesake, who had died from tuberculosis when Maria Christina was only three. And whenever he described his bride, tall and thin, with long chestnut hair and eyes like sapphires, her skin the color of a fresh white peach and her tiny waist, it was as if he was describing Maria Christina herself.

“She was the most beautiful woman in all of Bucharest. And may I be spitting in God’s eye if they aren’t the most beautiful in the world! And I’ve been everywhere!”

Of course she stopped hoping and dreaming and believing him years ago, although she continued pretending to him that it must be so. Still, his stories made her feel melancholic, knowing he felt compelled to lie to her because no man would ever find her acceptable as a bride.

His cheek felt warm. As he sipped the tea, he talked about the last day of October 1912. “I was alone in a remote village in the Rodope Mountains in Bulgaria. I don’t remember the name now. I was carving an altar screen when I heard from a peddler that the Turkish rule over Metsovo had finally ended. After five hundred years. And I had no one to celebrate.”

She had heard all of this before but listened attentively as he then spoke about his three sons, one of whom he had lost in the First Balkan War against the Turks and then his other two in the war that was to end all wars. How tired he was of war. And as he continued, he spoke again about his wife and his voice became softer and slower.

“How we used to laugh… So smart, my Maria. Like you. Like…” his voice trailed off.

Maria Christina took his cup and placed it in a niche in the wall, then leaned into him and gently combed his hair with her fingers. Her hand was cool. He stopped frowning and smiled as he looked up at her. Then he closed his eyes, let out a small sigh, and turned his face into his pillow. After a moment he let out another small sigh.

When she thought he had fallen asleep, she took his eyeglasses from his lap and put them in their case and was placing them beside the cup when he stopped her with a sharp gesture and a renewed burst of life:

“You keep them for me, my blood and heart.”

The old man smiled at her as he settled back into his pillows. It was her grandfather who first noticed they had the same severe astigmatism when at three years old she was looking at her thumb an inch from her right eye. Her father insisted it be kept a secret if she ever hoped to have a husband. Pappou felt responsible, having passed on this handicap to his favourite granddaughter, and discreetly shared his round tortoise shell glasses with her when they were alone in the house. 

As he lay peacefully smiling up at her, Maria Christina quickly dismissed the thought of life without him. He was old and unwell but surely not near death. It was the anticipation of war that tired him so. She wiped perspiration from his forehead with her apron and softly kissed his nose. Then she rose and returned to the bench, running her hand along a beautifully woven tapestry which wrapped around the curved white chimney just above the fireplace. It was the last of the chimney aprons her mother had woven, and it was becoming dry and brittle from the heat and would soon have to be replaced. She put her cheek to it. Over the years so much of the evidence of her mother’s life had disappeared, and the slow deterioration of the fabric only served to deepen the longing for the ghost who died shortly after giving birth to her. Feeling alone and frightened once again, she clutched the glasses to her breast and sat back down on the bench and rocked back and forth a moment. Closing one eye and squinting with the other, she could see huge snow crystals swirling in the wind outside the small window at the base of the hearth, as if they, too, were anxiously awaiting the inevitable sound of war.

Author Q&A

Richard Romanus 

Interview by Miriam Pirolo in In Focus Magazine

Q: How would you describe your book and why should somebody read it?

A: Chrysalis is a historical fiction, a love story set in Greece against the background of World War II and of the overlapping civil war. Intertwined with Greek history during this especially volatile period is the story of a young woman, initially looked down upon by her society who, through a series of unforeseen events, proves her worth and, in fact becomes revered by the inhabitants of her small mountain village and beyond. I have been told that the book is funny, touching, and informative, and well worth the read.

Q: How can a contemporary reader from Greece and Cyprus relate to this book?

A: It seems to me that Greece and Cyprus are involved right now in a kind of war, albeit economic this time. Perhaps in this book they will find the inspiration and take guidance on how to retrieve the courage and fight of their grandparents, and finally win this war as well.

Q: Without revealing too much information to the reader; America starts playing an important role in the third part of the book. Which three adjectives would you use to describe Europe and America in Chrysalis?

A: Europe was broke, devastated, and still dangerous, but it was home.

America was prosperous, secure, and extremely powerful yet, in the end, it wasn’t home.

Q: The reader of Chrysalis will no doubt learn a lot about Greek history between the years 1940 and 1959. What other topics are indirectly discussed in this historical fiction?

A: The two wars herald a period of great societal change from women’s place in society, their rights and liberation, to the awareness of the plight of the poor. It also underscores the futility and waste of armed conflict. The reader will also learn about the wisdom of certain rituals, for instance, in mourning, a series of memorials helps one  deal with a great loss and slowly slowly release their grief. There are also certain celebrations and festivals that allow the participants to feel joy even in the midst of turmoil or the harshness of life.

Q: Why would an American write about the Greek Civil War?

A: I didn’t start out to write about the Greek Civil War. I started out to write a story about a young girl in Metsovo in 1940 at the beginning of World War 2. The Greek Civil War happened to correspond with the life of the heroine in the story.

Q: You dedicated the book to the women of Metsovo. Do you think that this book reflects the contribution of all women worldwide, who independently fought for freedom during periods of war?

A: Yes, of course, as the women in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and now in Syria currently demonstrate. Yet women have been generally overlooked when it comes to value their contribution in times of war.

Q: Could Maria Christina be for Greece what Marianne is for France?

A: What Marianne is to France, Bouboulina could be for Greece. She represents all Greek women, like Maria Christina, who courageously and selfishly fought for their liberation throughout history.

Q: The title Chrysalis refers to the transformation of Maria Christina, the heroine of the book. It is noticeable, though, that every character in your novel undergoes some kind of deep transformation. Maria Christina, Zoitsa, Yiannis, Papa Yiorgos and Panorea – how would you describe the developmental evolution of each character?

A: I believe everyone goes through deep changes in life, depending on the circumstances which confront them and how they learn to deal with them. The more extreme the confrontation, the deeper the change. Part of the value of reading a novel, like reading the obituary page of a newspaper, is to see the arc of certain lives from beginning to end, and relating their unfolding lives to your own.

Q: This book reads like a movie. How has your background helped you in formulating the plot.

A: Although I spent years both acting and  writing screenplays in Hollywood, I spent a number of years before writing songs. I always felt a scene in a movie was like a song. It had a great deal to do with the thought, the words, and a scene should have a musical flow to it. Writing screenplays was not unlike writing a song album with a theme, where a series of scenes take you through a complete narrative. Writing a novel is like writing a screenplay but, unlike a screenplay where everything must be spoken or visualized, a novel allows for unspoken thought, even philosophizing, whereas a screenplay must stay rigidly  faithful to the narrative.

Q: What inspires you to write?

A: I can’t say, except that it is my bliss. I feel as though I have always written. I started around four years old when I wrote a song on the piano with the following lyric: “I’m an old cowhand from the Rio Grande / And my pants are wet, cause I have no toilet. / When I’m out on the range I stop at the grange / and have a beer and rope some steer / I’m an old cowhand from the Rio Grande.” I only remember this because it was the first thing I’d ever written and I was quite proud of it at the time.

3e28af27Q: What are the hardest parts of writing?

A: Avoiding the temptation of manipulating your characters as opposed to listening to their voices and allowing yourself to go where they want to take you.

Q: Gustave Flaubert once famously remarked: “Je suis Mme Bovary” – I am Mme Bovary. Which character of the book do you feel the closest to?

A: There is a lot of me in Maria Christina, the myopia, the feeling of being rejected by the father. There is much of me in Papa Yiorgos, his belligerence, the wrestling with his faith. Other characters are amalgamations of friends and relatives, for instance, Panorea was not unlike my godmother.

Q: What else, apart from European history, have you learned from writing this book?

A: Since this was my first novel, the most important revelation for me was that if you know your characters, and you know the setting, and you listen closely to your characters without knowing where they will end up, you will have a book.

Q: As an American living in Greece, how do you feel about the current situation in Europe? Which elements of the books are contemporary?

A: I think Europe is entangled in a third world war, only it is economic. I also think the Greeks are being starved to enrich the bankers and, as in world war 2 when the Greeks drove Mussolini’s Italians back into Albania in two short weeks. I would like to see the Greeks come together as a nation, drive the bankers back into their holes, and return to the drachma.

Q: Have you ever read any Cypriot authors and have you ever been to Cyprus?

A: I have never been to Cyprus but I have read Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell several times and a rather charming book of short stories by Cypriot Panos Ioannides entitled Gregory and Other Stories.

Q: What comes to your mind when you hear ‘Cyprus’?

A: Exotic. Mysterious. Divided country. The same old Greek/Turk problem. Pygmalion, a Cypriot sculptor, carved a woman out of ivory that he fell in love with and Aphrodite heard his wish that the statue become a real woman and granted his wish.

Publisher’s note: The book entitled Chrysalis has been renamed to Matoula’s Echo.