War Through a Child's Eyes
The Heroic Age, by Stratis Haviaris, New York: Simon and Schuster, 352 pp., $15.95
The Heroic Age should appeal to American readers for several reasons. The first is that it is a moving, well-written and poetic novel that allows its young hero to emerge emotionally enhanced, if not exactly unscathed, from a long series of uncommon deprivations and degradations. It should also appeal to readers because of its powerful evocation of the rich texture of a largely unknown world: Greek life in war and peace, on the battlefields, in villages, islands, and prison camps. The novel brings before American readers settings and protagonists that are exotically foreign.
The events and participants of the Greek Civil War, which raged after World War II in the late 1940s, are a chapter of recent history barely known or remembered in the United States. Yet these events deserve to be better known and understood. While The Heroic Age (written by poet Stratis Haviaris) does not aim at filling gaps in our knowledge of contemporary history, it paints a vivid, convincing, and often chilling portrait of the passions of that war and the intensity of the conflict that must rank as one of the most brutal in the long list of not-so-minor wars that followed World War II.
Three factors intensified the hatreds of the combatants. First, it was a civil war. Civil wars by definition are always more divisive and the hostilities they inspire more intense. In such conflicts the conventional distinctions between soldier and civilian recede as the civilian population is pressured by each side to take a stand and render assistance. Second, in the Greek Civil War the Marxist-Leninist beliefs of the communist side assured that the conflict would acquire an ideological dimension. This, in turn, raised the stakes, since what was involved amounted to more than winning or losing battles, taking or losing ground: it was a matter of fighting for the creation of a new society as far as the rebels were concerned. Third, as with many other conflicts of our times, there was superpower backing and involvement from the beginning, with the United States supporting the government and the Soviet Union and its allies the guerrillas. This, too, intensified and prolonged the conflict as these powers provided many of the resources, weapons, and advisors that enlarged the scope of the military operations and sustained them over a longer period of time.
While The Heroic Age is basically a poetic, apolitical evocation of the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of a child (and adolescent), the author has a bit of a political axe to grind. This manifests itself in the way the sufferings depicted are apportioned. Perhaps it is more fitting and appropriate to sympathize with the vanquished than with the victor, especially in a book inspired and permeated by poetic sensibilities. Such a partisanship is irrelevant to the literary merits of the novel. But the uneven emphasis given to portrayals of victimization and its increasingly predictable character does create a problem. Readers are likely to conclude that the forces of the Greek government had a near-monopoly on cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity—since these are the incidents the author dwells on. In fact, the historical record is somewhat different, as, for example, is revealed in a recent nonfiction work by another Greek author who traced the circumstances surrounding the murder of his mother by the guerrillas.
The hero of the novel, a boy in his early teens, ends up more or less fortuitously among the guerrillas and spends some harrowing months with them while they are besieged and ultimately destroyed in their underground fortifications in the Grammos mountains. The author's sympathies lie with the rebels, portrayed as young, dedicated, idealistic, and faced with a more-powerful, better-equipped enemy (the Greek armed forces) that are, in turn, backed by the overwhelming power of the United States. At the same time, the author appears to disassociate the rebels and their praiseworthy qualities from the Communist Party. While the former are selfless and heroic, the Communist Party and its functionaries are often depicted with sarcasm, their heavy-handed rhetoric ridiculed, their policies questioned. In particular, the closure of the Yugoslav border by Tito deprived the guerrillas of sanctuary and support and amounted to their betrayal.
Perhaps the book should not be viewed primarily as a political novel but as one that seeks to provide a more timeless record of the potentials for both evil and good that human beings can display under uncommonly arduous conditions. It is a novel that brings the dehumanization attendant upon war into particularly sharp focus as it is experienced and recounted by a child without home or parents or an understanding of the events he witnesses. The principal lesson life taught the narrator was "how not to cry in front of others but to wait for when I could be all alone, and how to endure pain without complaining."
A major experience and preoccupation of these children was hunger. In their wandering around the countryside, "we took care not to be seen by peasants though we always envied them for having a house and a bowl of soup on the table." In their "re-education" prison camp their rations consisted "of no more than a cup of black-eyed bean soup and a piece of dried bread for dinner. The Sunday Special was to be a cup of navy beans and three olives each." At the end of the war the narrator and his group are described as "a pile of bones wrapped in stained yellow skin. We had no cheeks, nor stomachs and buttocks—just skulls, cheekbones, rib cages, kneecaps and shins.…" At one point, earlier in their wandering in the countryside, they come upon a tethered mule with baskets on each side; peeking in them they discover "the severed heads of four or five young men and women."
Despite such horrendous experiences and deprivations, these children and adolescents avoid becoming a bunch of little wild animals along the lines presented, for example, in William Golding's The Lord of the Flies. Moreover, their solidarity and affection for one another is quite believable. Thus, despite its repeated depiction of appalling pain and suffering, the novel belongs to the genre of writings that seek to convey that it is the simple, instinctive goodness of ordinary people that ultimately triumphs over evil (or at least provides a hopeful counterforce to it). It is this goodness that can counter the contrived, abstract schemes and sociopolitical straitjackets that politicians, power-seekers, ideologues, and bureaucrats seek to impose on groups or entire societies.
Understandably enough, the author harbors a deep contempt for politics and especially the obscurantist jargon of political rhetoric and propaganda. For instance, he writes:
The occupation had been over for more than three years, but the civil war still rages. There were new massacres; more destruction in the name of freedom, in the name of justice, in the name of honor.…Terror, betrayal, and murder by the rightist Nationalists and leftist partisans.…
Now the Americans were all over the place…recruiting Nazi collaborators who had experience in tracking down the Reds…helping the King and Queen to save what was left of the kingdom, to save Greece from the Greeks.
While in the caves with the guerrillas a young couple falls in love, prompting this portrayal of the Communist Party:
In the next few days many more kids began to fall in love. It happened as though love were contagious, and the Party representative had to radio HQ that the crisis was getting out of hand, reaching epidemic proportions, undermining the morale of the revolutionary army. If love was a disease, no doubt the Party representatives were completely immune. HQ ordered "quick and decisive action to combat the outbreak by searing off all vestige of this bourgeois affliction."
At the same time, references to Greece after the civil war as having been "rescued from the crooked talons of Communism" suggest that Haviaris was far from overjoyed by the defeat of the guerrilla forces and their communist organizers and leaders.
Still, the tale ends on a more-positive note, at least in regard to the fate of the hero-narrator. Following his capture by the nationalists he is put into a brutal island camp where such youth were supposed to be reeducated through hard work, regimentation, and little food. Eventually a more humane officer is put in charge of the camp, the food improves, and the authorities in Athens order amnesty. The teenagers (as well as the younger children) are released and placed in the charge of families on a neighboring island where they are given jobs and are supposed to learn useful trades and become reintegrated into society. (About half of the book is devoted to the island camp and the subsequent release.) The Heroic Age ends with the hero meeting and loving an appealing young woman (much older than himself) and leaving behind the stress and turbulence of early youth compounded by a stormy period of history.
It may be noted in conclusion that apart from the central figure (the narrator) there is little sustained character development of the other actors in the story. They come and go, making relatively short appearances, and we learn little of their personalities, their past, or prospects.
Paul Hollander is a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and the author of several books, including Political Pilgrims and The Many Faces of Socialism.