Hour of The Bell - Review by Kimon Friar
Harry Mark Petrakis
When some years ago Harry Mark Petrakis told me he was planning a trilogy on the Greek War of Independence, I was deeply interested because no great novel of that period has been written, not even in Greek. Of all writers I know, this Greek of Cretan descent raised in Chicago had all the necessary qualifications: he was intensely proud of his heritage and yet was uncontaminated by partisan prejudices; he had behind him an autobiography and seven superb books of fiction (including the much acclaimed Dream of Kings, made into a successful movie with Anthony Quinn); and he had the requisite daring, imagination and dramatic flair he had long admired in his beloved compatriot and mentor, Nikos Kazantzakis. The Hour of the Bell is the first fruit of this trilogy, a magnificent novel of epic proportions, Petrakis’s best and most mature work. There is no reason to doubt that the following two volumes will be as good or better and that this trilogy will take its place as a classic of the period.
The compositional problems Petrakis faced were formidable. How to organize such a mass of disparate material ranging over eight years and including hundreds of characters and incidents? How to write the trilogy in such a way that it would become uniquely Greek and yet universal in its implications? Should one choose as Tolstoy did in War and Peace, one family primarily through which most of the national international incidents are filtered and condensed? Should one follow the changing adventures of a specific group, much as Thodoros Angelopoulos did in his film O Thiasos (The Travelling Players), to bind timeless sequences and events? Feeling that such means could not adequately represent or catch the various conflicting and contrasting factors of national segments and international involvements, Petrakis opted for a larger canvas that would include, intermingle, and represent all aspects of the nation’s struggle for independence (still so vital in our time) so that it might be viewed from all sides and in universal depth. Yet nothing in this book is abstract or purely symbolic, for all incidents are presented as felt through the guts and passionate, dramatic involvement of specific persons, clans, families, chieftains, heroes and villains.
Among the most impressive of the many achievements in the first volume – limited to the years 1820 and 1821 – is how adroitly Petrakis has organized his materials so as to present the ferment on Parnassos, in Crete, in Mani, in the Peloponnisos proper, and at sea. Equally impressive is how each of the more than fifty characters, both actual and fictive, are deftly intermingled and sharply delineated so that each one stands out boldly as an individual characterization to create a web of fact and legend. To confront these problems and not only to surmount them but also to surpass them is one of the great achievements of this novel, and to win more than half the battle. Even patriotic events which every Greek schoolboy knows by heart and are enshrined in the national consciousness, and yet are not historically verified, are included but treated as legend or hearsay. Such are the raising of the Greek flag on March 25th at Agia Lavra by Bishop Germanos, or the death dance of Souliot women on the precipice of Zalongo. Thus Petrakis creates a timeless panorama in which his humanitarian feelings supplant his feelings as a Greek so that the emotion and resonance of past and present are interwoven in cycles of time, beginnings and fruitions, involving timeless sequences of love, hate, sacrifice and vengeance. If we add to all this pithy, clear, dramatic yet lyrical style, we must conclude that in this novel Petrakis has reached the peak of his maturity in a great achievement.
The scene set on Parnassos includes not only the village of Kravasaras where gentle Father Markos is a link of love between both Greeks and Turks, but also the klepht band roaming the mountain slopes, led by the determined and dedicated Vorogrivas, and inspired by the presence of the old Souliot chieftain, Boukouvalas, now an old but smoldering ruin. In Father Markos, Petrakis has depicted the man of peace who has accepted conditions as they are, not from any lack of national pride or love of freedom, but because he cannot bring himself to accept the price to be paid in slaughter and hate. When villagers rise and slay their kind and benevolent Turkish neighbor and his lovely son, and burn their corpses on a pile of offal, Father Markos grieves for them as for his own. The villagers then dig out of the ground the bell they had ordered from Italy for their church, but which had been buried over a hundred years by order of the Turkish authorities. The echo of its resurrected sound becomes not only a peal for freedom but also a toll for the dead, and gives this book its title.
It is in Kravasaras that we meet for the first time Papalikos, a monolithic Wolf-Priest, vulgar, obscene, obese, ruthless, teaming with weapons, whose only desire is to slaughter as many Turks as he can, convinced that fire must be cauterized by fire, evil hurled against evil, that the end justifies every execrable mean. He murders a miser for his hoarded gold that he may buy soldiers and lead them into holy battle. He sleeps with a slut that he might obtain needed information, yet feels a tender and spiritual love for her young daughter. In Papalikos, Petrakis has created one of his half-legendary, half-real figures who sputters throughout the book like a lit fuse, creating havoc wherever he goes.
When some of his villagers, including a handsome lad of seventeen, Manolis, decide to join Vorogrivas and his band, Father Markos blesses them and sends them on their way. A dedicated idealist and romanticist, Vorogrivas has vowed himself to chastity until Greece should regain her freedom. Dazed to find he has fallen in love with Manolis, he sublimates his feelings into a spiritual and manly guardianship. The guerrilla raids against the Turks are skillfully and excitedly narrated, in particular the defense of a bridge during which hefty Lascarina, the lusty, emasculating Amazon of the band, is disemboweled. The old warrior, Boukouvalas, his white mane flowing in the wind, dressed in armored breastplate and knee plates, brandishing his bejeweled sword, falls in a suicidal whirlwind of racing flame on the Turks until horse and rider swell to the height and breadth of Titans and the scene achieves the dimensions of myth. Indeed, one of Petrakis’s most skillful manipulations is to weave realistic detail and mythical proportion, precise depiction and lyrical exaltation.
In Crete, the clannishness and pride of individual chieftains makes any coordinated plan of action impossible. Kyriakos Makrakis, who strives in vain for cohesion, reluctantly hides his family and his villagers in a monstrous cave from which sporadic raids are made against the Turks led by Lambros Kasandonis, a celebrated resistance fighter. Andreas Makrakis, Kyriakos’s seventeen-year-old son, has taken it for granted that he will one day marry his childhood companion, Voula; but when her engagement to Kasandonis is announced he goads him to a fight in which Kasandonis is killed and Andreas ostracized, even by his father. Although in the scenes Petrakis does not neglect the war itself, the slaughter and mayhem, he probes deeply into the fierce family life and unrestrained emotions of the Cretans in their intertribal relations where their judgment fails to match their courage. It is astonishing to see how often with only a few strokes Petrakis brings to individual life particular members of the family and of the other clans, and this holds true throughout his novel. He knows how to choose the precise, the outstanding detail that extends traits of character and implies volumes.
Petrakis is no less adept on sea as on land. With a wealth of marine and ship terms he describes expertly the exciting chase of Turkish frigates by the combined fleet of Hydra, Spetses and Psara, and how the huge Turkish fortresses are harried by the Greeks’ smaller ships, like whales by minnows. The skirmishing and harassing, the blowing up of a Turkish frigate by a Greek fire ship are among the most exciting and best written portions of the novel. As in all these varied episodes, Petrakis concentrates primarily on one family or clan, this time that of the Psariot captain Kondos and his tender yet sexual love for his wife Aspasia.
In contrast to the reciprocated love between Kondos and Aspasia is the possessive savagery with which the Maniot Petrobey Mavromichalis takes possession of his wife Katerina, mother of his eleven sons and three daughters. His savage countenance towers above her, vindictive lusts within his eyes; she understands that it is Ares, the god of war, who had assumed the form of her husband to deceive her. In the fictitious creation of Princess Katerina, Petrakis depicts the feelings of all women as the womb of life rejecting the tomb of war: “War produces widows and orphans!” she said, and bitterness honed a raw edge to her voice. “War mocks God’s commandment, violates women, aborts the sons they nourished to life, kills the innocent without mercy! War is man’s ancient, ritual justification for murder!” In Mani, women are born to bear sons and to mourn their dead.
Here the chieftains meet who are to plan the Peloponnisian campaign. Among these are Petrobey himself, handsome, consummately ambitious, proud to the point of arrogance, indescribably cruel to those who disobey him. Here also we meet Kolokotronis wearing his great plumed helmet, a huge, clumsy-bodied man with an immense shaggy head and the neck of a bull. Yet he is a complex, extraordinary man of intuitive flashes and brooding insights with a rudimentary force and wisdom who ‘understood the dimensions of the struggle beyond the scope of his own theatre of action.’ He is accompanied by his scribe and adjutant, Xanthos, a pale-faced, slender teacher from Zante, timid, a lover of poetry, who has come as the Thucydides of the campaign to record the impending revolution for posterity. In Xanthos, it is evident Petrakis has found a mask through which to speak out as a humanitarian against war and greed. He experiences his first blood bath in the Greek rout before Karitena in the Peloponnisos. Before the rout, this gentle man of letters had been longing to share ‘in the grandeur of the experience,’ but after the blood bath he understands that for him ‘war had fled the pages of books and would forever lodge in his heart like a wound.’
This, however, is but a prelude to the six-month siege of Tripolitza and the slaughter that follows. When the city, debilitated by thirst and hunger, is on the verge of surrendering, the rapacious Greek chieftains begin, at first secretly and then brazenly, to set up full – scale bazaars before the city walls and to barter with long lines of emaciated Turks, exchanging food for whatever the Turks could muster in jewels, weapons, money. Obese, rancid-tongued, crafty Bouboulina even enters the city under a flag of truce to sell the harem women ‘certificates of protection’ for jewelry and silks; certificates which, of course, are never to be honored, for the Greek soldiers are enraged to be despoiled thus of their booty. Determined not to fall into the trap of chauvinism, Petrakis does not spare us even one of the war’s classical atrocities: the gutting of women and children, the disembowelments and crucifixions, the inhumanity, the lustful cruelty, the stench of corpses.
Xanthos staggers through scenes of horror, and in trying to save a young Turkish girl from rape and slaughter, slays a hunch-backed Greek soldier and is himself almost mortally wounded. He wakes up in a monastery near Kalavryta, and in convalescence there gives lessons to children whose parents are either dead or missing. He tells them of their noble history, their heritage, their centuries of bondage; but when he sadly watches them lustily playing at killing their Turkish enemies, he warns them of ‘the malignancy of power, the corrosions of greed, envy, vanity, ambition; the eviscerations of war, throttling mercy and compassion, despoiling men’s dreams so they became the gutted shipwrecks of nightmare.’ He finds that the children are not listening. Instead, all pause to listen to a thrush perched on a narrow ledge of the school, to its ‘…fluent and iridescent melody rising in clear, cherished tones from the bird’s throat and tiny beak. The sweet and haunting song was a medley of vast journeys; flights above rocks and crests of trees; shadows of wings reflected in island-strewn seas; soarings by the map-vigils and candle-flakings of the stars; leapings through storm and tempest; into the wild and honey gardens of the sun… The thrush was Greece, its song the unfoldment of the lovely eternal and inextinguishable land.’
One day during a difficult period in the writing of his book, Petrakis lay down on a couch and fell asleep. He dreamt about this thrush, as he had once read about it in Kazantzakis, and on awakening knew that this is how his book must end, that his mentor had extended his mercy and blessing on his project. And indeed, Petrakis is precisely one of the young writers Kazantzakis had dreamt of his life long, comrades in spirit whom he hoped would one day reach the summit where he had stopped, and continue much higher. In Book XIII of Kazantzakis’s Odyssey, Odysseus says farewell to a young follower who now intends to cut off from his master and to follow his own destiny:
‘Blessed by the bold, audacious daring of your youth! / Steady your knees, my friend, don’t let my blessing throw you! / Now may that winnower God, who scatters age like chaff, / grant you the power to cast the disk of earth much further / … May you reach that far land I’ve aimed at since my birth / and, if you can, load my large flowering tree with fruit.’
Petrakis has taken up this challenge and on Kazantzakis’s flaming tree of fire, whose fruit is light, has hung his own dazzling pomegranate, bearing the seeds of more fruit to come.