Reblogged from The Short Review
“To his left, blood-red with azure reflections, the sea; in the distance, half sunk in the water, the sun; to his right and behind him, a green strip of land, perfectly geometrical, a symmetrical carpet spread in an inhospitable, bone-dry valley, scattered with shells and rocks, barren for a thousand years or more, since the time of the great drought which filled Cyprus with reptiles and monasteries.“
Reviewed by A J Kirby
“Have you experienced violence? Personally?”
“No. I avoided it as much as I could.”
“Then it would be better if you left Cyprus again.”
(The Unseen Aspect)
Type the words “Cyprus” and “war” into Google and it comes back with approximately 39,500,000 results. Type the words “Cyprus” and “holidays” in and it returns with a meagre 2,000,000. This idea of Cyprus as a land torn apart by conflict is somewhat at odds with how we’ve recently come to think of the island, as a sun-soaked holiday destination, the ideal getaway. Even a brief reading of Panos Ioannides’ 2009 collection, Gregory and Other Storiesshould set us straight on the true nature of Cyprus, however. His Cyprus is a place in which bloody history has scarred the landscape and the people, in which war has burned itself into the generational memory, and in which the bones are buried just under the surface: “Wherever you dig, two inches below the ground, you will find them: bones and stones and reptiles.”
Ioannides’ work uses the broad, sweeping history of Cyprus, from the Homeric times to 1974 and the Turkish invasion, as its canvas. The twelve short stories explore ideas of belonging and home, of appearance and reality, trust and mistrust, loyalty and disloyalty, and they explore how individuals and whole societies can come to terms with guilt and suffering. They are post-traumatic stress narratives, animated by Ioannides’ wonderful eye for telling detail and his succinct style.
Gregory, the title story, was originally published in 1964. It’s a mini masterpiece which explores how deeply our humanity becomes mangled in the midst of war and how our own moral compasses can become warped by the twin pressures of obeying commands and obeying our own ideas of what is wrong and right. Set in a prisoner of war camp during the war with Britain, the story immediately engages us with this straight-to-the-heart-of- the-action opening: “My hand was sweating as I held the pistol. The curve of the trigger was biting against my finger.”
The protagonist, we learn, is the executioner, the one-man firing squad. He has “no choice”but to shoot the prisoner known as Gregory as an “exemplary punishment”. He has orders from HQ, from Lieutenant Rafel. This order comes as though from “on high”, which neatly emphasises the disassociation between the commanders and the on-the-ground troops: “When the order came, it was like a thunderbolt.” Indeed, as we come to discover, the protagonist has far more in common with his prisoner than his commanders, despite the fact they are on opposing sides.
This is not the only occasion of situational irony within the piece. Indeed, much of the emotion of the piece seems to stem from these moments, such as when, later in the piece, it is revealed that the captors have twice tried to give Gregory the chance to escape, and he has twice failed to do so. Something which ultimately leads to his grizzly end.
This is not the protagonist’s first execution. And he tells us about the strategies he’s tried to formulate in order to deal with this moral conundrum. With Gregory, he tries a new tack. He tries to justify his actions by seeing the prisoner as a “miserable little creature, a puny thing, such a nobody…”And yet he can’t keep up the illusion for long. Soon he’s remembering their shared history:
“Even though his name was Gregory and some people on his side had killed scores of ours, even though we had left wives and children to go to war against him and his kind – but how can I explain? He was our friend. He actually liked us! A few days before, hadn’t he killed with his own bare hands a scorpion that was climbing up my leg? He could have let it send me to hell.”
But in the end it comes down to self-preservation, the realisation that “it’s either your skin or his,” and “maybe I’ll lose my sleep tonight but in the morning I will wake up alive.” In the end, he shoots Gregory, and almost botches the job, which makes for horrible reading. But, in an act of humanity, they choose not to hang his corpse as the “example” HQ wanted it to be. Rather they give him the burial which he deserves. The real poignancy comes even after this apparent climax however, in a crushing conclusion which drives home the true futility of war and the often sad results of the unquestioning following of orders.
Another shockingly brutal story about the legacy of war is Kypriani, from 1972, which is set at the time of one of the many Turkish invasions. Here the Turks lurk on the edge of the page ready to enter at any point, a fact which underscores the action, lending it greater gravitas. Like Gregory, Kypriani has a particularly explosive opening: “Maria de Molino, the young wife of Filippo de Molino, the Venetian Proveditor of Cyprus, saw in horror the signs of leprosy on the body of her child.” This devastating discovery is rendered even more terrible by the fact that Kypriani, the nursemaid, has been in physical contact with the child and will thus, most likely, spread the disease:
“Kypriani had given him the breast as she did every morning and had put him to bed. Had she noticed? She must have; He was naked. She would have seen and would not have touched him. But no, if she had left the baby hungry, he would have raised the roof. So she had suckled it! She had dared! … Kypriani had fed the baby and gone away with the sickness in her nipples.”
Maria finds herself in a moral quandary, a labyrinth through which the only means of escape she can see would be to kill herself and the baby. The Turks are edging ever closer and it feels like death is the only way to escape this “island of snakes.” Ultimately, she throws herself and her young baby off a cliff and to their doom, leaving the rest of the story to be told from the point of view of Kypriani herself, the servant girl.
When Kypriani discovers her mistress has committed suicide she is devastated, but immediately forms a new plan of action, turning herself into a walking, talking Trojan horse to slink into the new Turkish colony:
“She tied the meat in her apron and set off for the town. The Turkish invaders had already begun to bring their families and a servant was always welcome, a servant whom no one knew had worked for a leper or that the first spots had begun to redden on her breasts… Until they found out she had time… The milk in her breasts was fire… It was pus… It was…”And: “Before the sun had set she was wet nurse at the lodgings of Musellim Hakki Ibn Affan.”
Ioannides’ Cyprus is a landscape made up of sleeper-agents and spies, of morally confused executioners and slippery leaders. His stories stretch back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, and yet they always tackle contemporary themes. This collection deserves to spread its wings and travel much further than the sandy shores of the island of Cyprus. Because despite the highly localised nature of these stories, the themes are universal, just like Homer’s.