REVIEW OF NOVEL ABOUT GREEK IMMIGRANTS IN CANADA
A FOREIGN COUNTRY
by Fotios Sarris
Dumagrad Books, Toronto
416 pages, $19.95
There are several hundred thousand Canadians of Greek descent in Canada made up mostly of those who were born in Greece and came to Canada after World War II and their offspring. One source states that there were 300 Greeks in Canada in 1900 and that there are about 350,000 of us today.
They have done well but a shelf that I have tried to fill with books written by them in Canada is relatively small. Wikipedia lists only four Greek-Canadian Authors. They are Pan Bouyoucas, Tess Fragoulis, Thomas King and Dimitrios Roussopoulos. There are many more. Tess Fragoulis, in her Musings: An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature, includes samples of the writing of a dozen authors. There are others that I may not have heard of to my great shame.
A Foreign Country, a first novel by Fotios Sarris, takes its position as an addition to that short list and as a major literary achievement on its own. The narrator is Alex Doukas, a 45-year old Montrealer running a pool hall that he inherited from his father in Mile End, a poor area of Montreal where immigrants from Greece settled in the 1950’s.
But the novel tells much more than the story of one family. It tells the history of an entire community of Greeks and by extension the story of Greeks from Pythagoras to the present. It is a story and a world that most immigrants and their children will recognize because to a startling extent it represents their personal experiences. It feels like you are reading your biography.
Andreas Doukas emigrates from a village near Thessaloniki, Greece in the 1950’s and starts working in a restaurant. A friend suggests that he marry his sister who works as a maid in Greece. She comes to Canada, they marry and have a son, Alex or Alexander.
Andreas and his wife are ill-suited for each other and there is a huge gap between father(s) and son(s). What is true of Mr. and Mrs. Doukas and their son holds true for a huge number of immigrants and their children. The fathers want to retain their Greekness as they brought it with them. Their children speak Greek badly and there is a chasm between the two generations much bigger, it seems, than that experienced by the Anglos who raise their offspring. Appearances may be deceiving.
Alex’s father runs a pool hall with fellow immigrants as his customers. The father wants to keep the old: the son wants to bring in the new. The fathers want to fight and argue about the politics of Greece; the sons are not interested in them. The fathers keep the Greek flag and the star of Vergina, the eternal Macedonian issue. They are furious at Canada’s recognition of the Republic of Macedonia under its constitutional name. The sons do not care about the issue and want to move forward.
The novel is a biography of every Greek immigrant to Canada. The unifying themes of the German occupation, especially the famine, the Civil War and all the traditions and rituals of patriotism, religion and history are embedded in everyone’s soul. But that does not hold true for their children. More often than not they consider themselves Canadian.
The patriotism of Andreas and his friends knows no bounds. When Greeks invented civilization the rest of humanity was in the trees. The common patriotic thread runs from time immemorial – Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato - to the present.
Alex is named Alexander after his grandfather but also after Alexander the Great. He is a Canadian and cannot quite fathom the patriotism of his father’s generation. It is another running thread that almost every child of immigrants can relate to.
It is that shock of recognition that made a big impression on me. It is what we say depends on our age. That is the biography of all of us that Sarris gives us.
Sarris has a marvelous comic sense and the section about child rearing is hilarious. The facts of life are simple. People get married and a child starts growing in the mother’s stomach. When the time comes, she is cut open with a knife and the baby comes out. His mother told him that her stomach was cut open and he was born. Alex is sure of that and nothing will dissuade him.
His friend tells him that girls do not have penises; they have holes. The mother has an egg in there, and the father covers it with cream and the baby is created. It comes out of the mother’s hole! No way says Alex. He sees a picture of a naked woman and there is no way a baby could come out of that small hole.
The only way to raise a Greek child is by the mother devoting all her life and love on (to?) him and force feeding him. Forget spurious arguments like a child will let you know when he is hungry. You do not have to force feed him? Nonsense. If you do not force feed him, he will die. There can be very few if any Greeks who cannot relate to this attitude.
There are funny, moving and marvelous incidents while Alex is growing up. He meets with bullies and unpleasantness. He discovers books and Jews through Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler. The latter lived in St. Urbain, the same neighborhood that Alex is living in. It is an astonishing discovery.
We go through his descent into what he tells us at the beginning of the book about himself:
At the beginning of the novel our hero or anti-hero is running a pool hall. He meets some old acquaintances who are successful. One of them is making films. Another one is a Lecturer, Media Communication Arts at a university and a writer. Chronologically it is the end of Alex’s story and he will take stock of his life for the rest of the book. At 45 Alex feels that he has ruined his life completely, that he is a fraud and a failure waiting for his life to start. Maybe he has found peace between his ambitions and his limitations, but we doubt it and that is the end of his story in any event.
We go back and read Alex’s life story. In Toronto while studying for a PH.D. he has a tempestuous relationship with a medical student named Laura. He assaults her viciously and almost kills her. He returns to Montreal to visit his father to whom he has not spoken to for two years. He has had a heart attack and a stroke, but the visit ends up with Alex and hurling obscenities at him.
He tries to be a good son of a doting and perhaps over-protective Greek mother. He takes her to church every Sunday and lives with her as long as possible. He lies to her as he lies to just about everyone. In the end he tries to break away from her and reaches the apogee of moral criminality. He strikes her and as she is on the floor imploring him not to leave her, he spits on her. That is a despicable act in any culture, but it is far more pronounced in Greece. Nicholas Gage in Eleni, a paean to his mother who died so he can live, describes his attempts to find the “judge” who was responsible for her torture and murder during the Greek Civil War. Gage searches for the murderer intending to kill him him. He eventually finds him asleep in a chair. He is ready to kill him but realizes that killing him would be a denial of all that his mother stood for. He decides to deliver the ultimate insult: he spits on him. Alex’s mother is found a couple of days later dead, lying in her vomit and urine.
His murderous assault on Laura, the ultimate moral crime against his mother and his contemptuous treatment of his father should bring the ultimate feeling of guilt and remorse. It does not. He is worried about about being arrested for his assault on Laura and about what his uncle knows about the death of his mother.
His father is an adulterer, and a liar. He has fathered a child by another woman and he separates from Alex’s mother. There is an unsurmountable gap between father and son that will resonate with most Canadians perhaps regardless of their origin. It may be the tragedy of many immigrants and non-immigrants.
A Foreign Country is probably autobiographical to some extent. Like Alex, Sarris has a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. Unlike his fictional character, Sarris is a communications instructor at Ryerson University.
Sarris writes writes in a literate style and uses many Greek words. They reflect the speech of the immigrants who are speaking Greek. He explains most of them and also translates what was said in Greek word for word rather than put an approximate English translation. If you disagree and show your disapproval of what someone is saying, in Greek you say kolokithia (pumpkins). Sarris has the speaker say “pumpkins” which means nothing in English but in Greek could mean nonsense or bullshit. Non-Greek speakers may not enjoy all of his use of Greek, but it is an added pleasure for those who can.
In his rich and marvelous prose, he refers to a broad range of writers from Homer to T.S. Eliot, to Noam Chomsky, Nabokov, Chekhov, Freud and others.
In the end, Sarris gives us a a cool, sometimes hard, often ironic and humorous view of immigrants and the children. He eschews, thankfully, giving us a heroic tale of “my son the professional” by writes about a deeply flawed human being who may or may not find his moral compass.