Harry Mark Petrakis, justly renowned for his writing about the Greeks of Chicago, has never written with greater power or authority than in The Hour of the Bell and The Shepherds of Shadows, his two novels on the Greek War of Independence (1821-1833).
The Greek War of Independence is routinely celebrated in the United States by Greek Americans, but many are not truly familiar with its particulars. Also troubling for many Greek Americans is that the revolt involved bitter infighting among the Greeks, outright treason, and other inglorious behavior. In addition, the final outcome of the struggle was a rather small state headed by a monarch imposed by foreign powers. Petrakis addresses all of these issues with utter candor. Precisely because he does so, his novels are all the more powerful, realistic, and inspirational.
Extensive research done by Petrakis has made him totally familiar with the sights, tastes, and sounds of the early nineteenth century. This knowledge allows him to weave telling detail into every scene and character. The Hour of the Bell explores the genesis of the revolt and the ensuing national jubilation. Petrakis, however, refuses to indulge in simple-minded nationalism. His most memorable scenes involve the great Greek victory at Tripolitza [Tripolis] in the center of Peloponnesus led by Theodoros Kolokotronis. The Greek troops slaughter everyone on the Ottoman side, including civilians. The battlefield itself is so strewn with bodies that one cannot see the ground. A despondent Kolokotronis, walking among the dead, fears that by making killing too satisfying and acceptable, the revolution risks destroying the very principles of human dignity it champions.
Similar reflections afflict Father Markos in The Shepherds of Shadows, which is set in the troubled years of 1923-25. The priest thinks about Turkish villagers indiscriminately slain by his own parishioners at the onset of the revolution. With the enormous pain of the revolution visible everywhere, Father Markos is repelled by the murderous divisions within the rebel forces and the indifference of third parties that seek their own national interests at the expense of Greece. The intent of Petrakis in such scenes is to go beyond the usual laments for innocent dead civilians to offer weighty meditations on the costs of even a just military struggle.
Petrakis describes how as the euphoria of open rebellion and initial victories pass, Greeks realize their struggle is going to be very long and deadly. The Sultan’s own forces have been defeated, but the Sultan has called upon Ibrahim Pasha to invade Greece with a fresh army of thousands of Egyptians. The outcome of the war is very much in doubt.
Petrakis does not allow these terrible realities to trump the revolutionary vision of a better life that motivates the men and women of Greece. The romances featured at the opening and closings of Shepherds reaffirm the positive values that the revolution embodies.
Exactly who the shepherds of shadows are is not specifically stated. They certainly include the klefts [thieves] who swoop out of their mountain strongholds to protect the vulnerable inhabitants of the valleys and play a major role in the ultimate Greek victory. These fierce warriors must commit acts and release emotions that would not normally be considered acceptable. When they return to civilian life, even though they may never speak of what they have done in the name of patriotism, their being has been forever altered. Petrakis paints them as inspiring heroes, but he makes it clear that patriotism can have a bitter price. The villagers are not portrayed as sheep but as creating the families that have bred the heroes.
At times, the narratives become so exciting that the books literally turn into page-turners in which the reader simply must know, as soon as possible, the outcome of a political battle or romance. The individuals we come to know, however famous, remain recognizable human beings, not cardboard cutouts shaped to embody one or another legend. By daring to deal with the failings of the Greeks and refusing to glorify war or vengeance, Petrakis succeeds in capturing the genuine valor and the incredible sacrifices of the Greek people as they struggled for national independence.
Dan Georgakas is Director of the Greek American Studies Project of the Center for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, Queens College, City University of NY. He was the Leontis Distinguished Lecture Series at OSU in 2011.