on Something Will Happen, You’ll See, stories by Christos Ikonomou, tr. by Karen Emmerich (Archipelago Books)
In March 2015, the editors of Der Spiegel met with a group of six influential Greeks for a roundtable discussion on relations between Germany and Greece. The six included a state minister, the mayor of Athens, a pop star, an entrepreneur, a journalist, and Christos Ikonomou whose second story collection, Something Will Happen, You’ll See, published in 2010, had attracted an avid readership at the most dire moment of the Greek financial crisis and IMF bailout. The collection won the prestigious Best Short Story Collection State Prize and was the most widely reviewed Greek literary title in 2011.
The sixteen stories of Something Will Happen, You’ll See take place in the sprawling working class sections of Athens, notably the depressed neighborhoods around the struggling port of Piraeus. The Greeks hardly require literary production to remind them of difficult times or to find portrayals of hardship, and if Ikonomou were merely a sententious describer his work would not resonate so deeply. Although righteous indignation isn’t the seed of his work, it and other emotional pangs are triggered by his brisk prose. Ikonomou taps into and articulates something larger, looming, and relevant to all peoples.
His characters are luckless -- fired from jobs, threatened by thugs, robbed and hungry. But typically, the actions leading to their impoverishment occur before the narratives begin. Sometimes we find these people alone, or in moments of stricken repose, or drinking tsipouro together at a bar, or wandering aimlessly through the harbor district. Without exception, they exert no agency and have no recourse. In “Mao,” a retired navy man tells his drinking buddies, “Ever since I was a kid I had a thing for America. I always said I would find some way to go and live there forever. And my father rest in peace who’d traveled all over in the navy used to say America isn’t for the likes of us. In Europe people think being poor is a matter of bad luck. In America poverty is shameful. Can you bear to be poor and have to feel ashamed of it too? So just sit tight and don’t dream those kinds of dreams.”
Americans forget that the first Cold War confrontation after World War II didn’t occur in Berlin or Korea or Indochina but in Greece. The country’s civil war of 1946-49 resulted in the defeat of Greek communists and a deep schism between leftist and rightist partisans that still festers today. Political dysfunction continued until the country’s military junta dissolved in 1974 and a new constitution specifying political freedom was enacted. But Ikonomou’s people have inherited decades of turbulence, misuse, and inertia. Another character in “Mao” spells it out:
That’s how it goes, Vayios says. The commies were out of control back then. They thought they were going to turn Kokkina into another Stalingrad. Now those pests are in Parliament and we pay their salaries on top of it all. It makes me sick. Screw your democracy you fucking frauds … Especially the ones who sold out and got into the game. Who go around in ties and fancy cars and sit in front of the TV at night with one hand on the remote and the other on their dick dreaming of the revolution. I’ve got the biggest beef with those assholes. Lefties, sure, you know that that means. There’s only one lefty thing on their body, and that’s their left nut. The assholes.
But Ikonomou’s stories amount to much more than tart speeches. In fact, voicelessness is a more common condition. In “Placard and Broomstick,” Yiannis Englezos walks through Nikaia with a sign that says nothing:
But he couldn’t write anything. All the things he had inside, everything he was feeling, were like these fish he’d seen once on TV, strange fish that live deep down in a lake in Asia somewhere and when you take them out of the water and the sun hits them they rot right away and dissolve and disappear. … There are certain things it’s hard to pull out from inside. Very hard. Impossible. It’s like asking something to cry from only one eye.
In “The Blood of the Onion,” a man describes the plight of an unemployed co-worker named Michalis who liked to quote the poet Miguel Hernández. Michalis shows him a magazine story about a man, sentenced to death by the Nazis, who wrote his own epitaph on a wall while waiting to be shot:
I thought about what Michalis had said. If you don’t say what you’re feeling at some point you stop feeling it. I thought about what it would be like to write I will be executed on a wall. What it’s like to eat onions and bread day in and day out. To suckle on the juice of the onion and have the juice of the onion be blood. What it’s like to work and save and dream and have those dreams melt like ice, as if there were special hands that existed in this world just for that – to hold the dreams of poor people and squeeze them until they melted like ice. But I didn’t say anything.
In a 2008 Gallup poll, Greeks were asked “whether it was better that the right wing won the civil war.” Only 43% said yes – but 39% responded “neither side.” Ikonomou’s stories speak for the latter, caught between life’s “bad luck” and an almost completely extinguished vision of social justice. Celebrated during the crisis of 2010-11, these stories were written beginning in 2004 when Greece hosted the Olympic Games and the coming turmoil was unanticipated. An admirer of English and American prose fiction, Ikonomou has translated Raymond Carver, D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabakov and Tobias Wolff. Carver especially echoes in his work – though Ikonomou is much less coy about allowing his characters to utter their grief. (Karen Emmerich, known for her fine versions of poetry by Yannis Ritsos and Miltos Sachtouris, is Ikonomou’s translator. She clearly hears his tonal intentions.)
In a Lithub interview he said, “I’m trying to write things that … have some kind of moral background, a moral base. I’m trying to write about matters of life and death. That’s what I’m interested in as a reader and that’s what I want to do as a writer.”
Fortunately, Ikonomou is able to write from within the conditions and not above them. His characters proceed without progressing – that is, they are inadvertent models of behavior in a world where “progress” means profits. Just when the situation is most bleak, Ikonomou allows a slight breeze that carries the scent of the world’s troubled lives and you find you want to breath it in deeply. In “Foreign. Exotic”, the unidentified narrator tells a story about a hardworking but jinxed couple:
It seems that everything in life is a matter of luck, that your life and everyone’s life is a small inside-out universe through which everything moves blindly and without purpose, a universe without a god, without rules, without purpose – chaos. And then something happens to shake that belief and you start to wonder whether you might have made a mistake, if there might in fact be something that gives meaning to the chaos … a secret thread that ties your life to the lives of others.
[Published March 15, 2016. 275 pages, $18.00 paperback]