Madeleine Thien has, bravely I think, chosen to write about a particular evil reality. Through Janie she unveils a dreadful truth.
My Life Among the Ruins, I, by Kenneth Radu
The Acropolis, Athens
Baked brie, grilled sardines, Greek salad with a slab of feta cheese resting on top like a crumbly raft, a basket of bread still warm from the oven, and bottles of Mythos beer constituted our dinner that night as we sat on a terrace in Pylos, watching the sun set over Homer’s wine dark sea. I failed, however, to see that particular hue although myriad colours glinted like fractured light in the water. My thoughts turned to paintings by Monet and Seurat rather than epic poetry. Perhaps Homer had a specific wine in mind, or I missed the time of day when the blind poet imagined the sea as an alcoholic beverage. References to Homer abounded on this excursion through the mountainous Peloponnese, not surprising since classics and history professors at Montreal’s McGill University and John Abbott College organized the trip. The stated purpose was to visit places made famous by the Peloponnesian wars. At various sites, standing among fallen temples and tumbled fortifications, one listened to students read out their research on the history of the times and the role of particular city states, but that was a small price to pay for the satisfaction of stepping into ancient Greece and wandering among ruins few people see, even today, and at a fraction of the usual travel costs for such a trip.
In a state of endless reconstruction and/or preservation, the Acropolis is imposing, even on a searing, sunny day, especially when one is loaded with litres of water and negotiating treacherous stones worn smooth by centuries of feet. While standing on a hotel balcony on a warm evening, wine in hand, one’s beloved nearby, overlooking the rooftops of Athens, and in full view of the gloriously lit ruins of the Parthenon, I savoured my experience of the day. Despite scaffolding, cranes, and camera-laden throngs, the ruins triumphed over obstacles and stood before my eyes as if still in their original state and no millennia had passed between then and now. Overheated, a bit weary, I sat on a plinth, hoping the scene would induce a state of awe. I believe it did; either that, or I suffered from a touch of heat stroke.
Essentially a ceremonial and religious site built on the highest point above the city, the Acropolis can lead to poetry or hallucinations of deities. I failed to see divinity, but I absorbed the beauty of the Erechtheion, especially the six caryatids forming the Ionic columns of its so-called Porch of the Maidens. Absorption seems the accurate term. As I grew more and more oblivious to the crowd, I could not help but think of Greek philosophers, dramatists, and speculators about life and the purpose of a civilized polis. A group of students shouted and jostled into my reverie, and I remembered to drink. Stay hydrated under the myth-inducing sky for the journey is often arduous and the days are hot.
Once we left Athens, where armed police in bulletproof vests patrol the streets and the square in front of Parliament, the hordes of visitors dispersed and prices for the ubiquitous plastic bottles of water noticeably lessened. Among its many internal political rancours and financial problems, modern Greece has an Olympian accumulation of plastic bottles. I imagined flotilla after flotilla of plastic debris rising and falling to the motions of the sea like miniature triremes. Waste management and recycling, however, may be a success. Water out of a tap not being recommended, I paid as little as forty cents for water in Nafpaktos that cost three times as much in Athens. I read that a resurgence of tourism was helping to save the country’s devastated economy, although I met few tourists except in Delphi and Epidauros. It was relatively early in the season.
In a mountainside village we stopped to answer the call of Mother Nature. No other foreigners were visible, but then our routes led us off the beaten path. I chatted with a gentleman outside a cracked stucco café built on the edge of a cliff. When he learned that we hailed from Quebec, he reverted to French, having spent several years working in Paris, he informed me. He asked about the liberation of Quebec and Canadian winters. Both were chronic conditions, I replied, offering to buy him a bottle of Mythos. The café owner saw her shelves delightfully emptied and her cash register filled with euros. Next door to the café, an old Orthodox, heftily bearded priest sat on his porch, a silver-worked cross resplendent on his black cassock. Directly across the road a little white Byzantine-styled basilica gleamed on top of a hill. Well, a lot that is worth seeing in Greece sits on top of a hill. I trudged up, recalling my own childhood basilica, also Orthodox, but not Greek. My reward for strenuous effort was a lovely view of valleys and mountainsides covered with olive trees. Baptismal white in the sun, the church offered no surprises. One could imagine Kazantzakis’s obnoxious hero Zorba breaking free from sanctity and dancing down the path.
The same kind of view greeted us at Bassai, location of the temple of Apollo Epicurius, the last temple standing in Greece, so precious that it is protected from the elements by a giant tent. Unlike my sensations on the Acropolis exposed to the elements, I wasn’t transported into architectural ecstasy by the magnitude and beauty of the structure because it was so wrapped and bound that it was like touring the inside of a container box. Such confinement notwithstanding, imagination admitted the presence of the god on the rocky terrain. I shall always remember Bassai, not only for the temple, but also because our bus driver directed the front wheels of the bus to the very edge and slightly beyond the precipice as he turned the vehicle around. From my seat in the front it looked as if we were perilously poised between safety and disaster.
© 2014, Kenneth Radu
The author in Argos
Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being the novel Butterfly in Amber (DC Books). He is currently working on new stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.