“Orthokostá” by Thanassis Valtinos

Reviewed by Thomas Michael Duncan

Image of “Orthokostá” by Thanassis Valtinos

History, it is often said, is written by the victors. But who exactly are the victors of a conflict as brutal and complicated as the Greek Civil War? Part of the Cold War, the Greek Civil War was rooted in the Nazi invasion of the country and funded by world superpowers including the Soviet Union and the United States. Tens of thousands of Greeks died, and much of the nation’s infrastructure was laid to waste. Certainly the narrators of Orthokostá would not be counted among the victors. Rather they are survivors, Greek men and women who have lived through invasion and imprisonment, torture and interrogation, the destruction of their homes and the killings of their families. These people are anything but victors, yet in the pages of Thanassis Valtinos’s novel, their voices are heard and their history recorded.

Originally published in 1994, nearly fifty years after the civil war ended, Orthokostá eschews a single narrator in favor of a collaborative narration to recount the events leading up to the Greek Civil War and the early days of the conflict. Each chapter presents a new narrator telling his or her portion of the story, sometimes as a straightforward monologue, and sometimes in the form of a documentary-style interview.

One man tells of his arrest and internment at the hands of the Communist Party. He is taken from his village by former friends, and marched to Orthokostá, a monastery turned concentration camp:

“I say to one of them, You’re in control everywhere and you bring us here. Why didn’t you interrogate us in Kastri? And find us guilty, and hang us from the village plane tree? That’s exactly what I told him . . . . He gave me a punch on the back of my neck. I’d never fainted before that. Everything went dark. That was all the beating I got. I don’t know about the others.”

It’s striking how often the narrators express gaps of knowledge in their stories. Phrases such as “I don’t know,” “I don’t remember,” or “No one knows” appear regularly throughout the novel. Of course this makes perfect sense as it is impossible for a person to comprehend everything happening around him at once, especially under such duress as war, and oral stories lose and gain details over time. Still, the recurrence of these phrases serves to emphasize just how much was unclear to the Greek people at the time and how much remains unclear today. Likewise, Valtinos is a master of the twists and turns between perpetrating and being the victim of violence. In one scene, a narrator speaks about encountering a soldier who killed his brother:

“We take him outside. I tell the others, Leave him to me . . . . And then I started beating him. I beat him like an octopus, until the same time the next day.”

But the victim of that story survives and, in one of the most touching moments of the novel, the two meet again years later on a public bus:

“He couldn’t get up, he was an old wreck by then . . . . Well, hello there Nikoláou, he says. Hello, Anétis, I say. And I thought, now that we’re about to leave this life, why did we do all that? For revenge, that’s why.”

The vast majority of Valtinos’s sentences are like this, a simple relaying of events and actions in unadorned language, with only small moments of quiet contemplation. As a result, when a narrator does pause for consideration it stands out from the rest of the text. Another of Valtinos’s narrators, while telling the story of her brother’s vicious beating at the hands of their own cousin, stops to reflect: 

“It’s one thing to have your differences, to have different interests, but to carry things that far, I mean, why? Why to such extremes?”

Valtinos avoids the type of character development that is integral to most modern novels. In fact, most of the characters exist for only a handful of pages. It is at first distressing when characters die so soon after being introduced, but before long it is the expected outcome. In place of a few central, well-developed characters, the multiple narrators create a sort of composite character. The picture painted is not so much a portrait of Greek life during the war, but more like a collage. In an appended translators’ note, Jane Assimakopoulos and Stavros Deligiorgis explain that they “resisted Anglicizing [Greek] names (Georgia for Yeorghia, for example) in the interest of preserving the Greekness at the core of Orthokostá.” They acknowledge that most of the proper names in the text are unfamiliar and often unpronounceable to an English-speaking audience. As a result, names of people and places tend to blend together, even under a careful reading. This is not exactly a detriment to the text, being that Valtinos is less interested in a single individual’s story than that of the culture as a whole. If not a perfect solution, this is at least the correct choice, as the alternative—populating the novel with a cluster of European names—would ruin an otherwise genuine experience.

The novel does not follow a linear path and some events are retold several times by different narrators. The burning of Kastri, for example, Valtinos’s own home village, is reported multiple times, the specifics changing with each retelling. Names and dates do not always line up, the number of casualties or homes burned varies, but over time the stories come together to form not just a full picture of the event, but a full accounting of the event's impact upon a people. Readers will finish this novel without a clear and definitive understanding of the burning of Kastri (or of the Greek Civil War as a whole), and that is the point. This is not a history textbook, but an imperfect retelling of an imperfect people living in an imperfect world, wherein the confusions and contradictions of the story mirror to perfection the confusions and contradictions of civil war.