I happened upon a newspaper article a couple of days ago, regarding the large numbers of Greek migrants abroad: their renewed chances of finding work, getting promoted based on merit, assuming key positions, and earning enough to live on. Their prospect of establishing new businesses, having left behind a country that drained them of their energy, ignored, and even oppressed them. How much we forfeit, I thought, we who choose to prolong our stay in this bleak Greek reality. And for how long can this Mediterranean blue, this hot sun, offset the stress of unpaid taxes, the stifling embrace of Christian Orthodox ethics supplanting citizens’ rights, and the civil-war-like tristesse that deepens as we move away from our ideological pseudo-opponents?
And yet, despite my always flying the fugitive’s flag, here comes Literature to remind me that there’s a human dimension to emigrating that no article can convey: there’s a liminal gap of time experienced by those trying to adapt to a new country, a continuous sense of suspension one feels in a foreign language. There’s the emotional vacillation of the – willingly or unwillingly – departed.
Whenever I happen to bump into Nancy Huston’s Losing North in a bookstore, I immediately buy it as a future gift: it’s a book that checks the impulses of those prone to fleeing, as well as the racist tendencies of those who find themselves coexisting with people of other nationalities. From this day forth, however, Losing North has a sister book: Takis Katsabanis’ Walkabout, a confessional-cum-philosophical narrative whose fusion style I last enjoyed in Milan Kundera’s The Festival of Insignificance.
The storyline is pretty simple: the author moves to Australia, tries to adapt. Will he make it? Will he not? The answer’s not important. What’s important is the road to it. Some readers will always have an Ithaca to go back to; others have suffered its loss, along with the loss of the language, the climate, the flavours, these tense gestures so typical of the Mediterranean.
In the chapter entitled Conversion we find an intense, literary version of the West’s inability to integrate its immigrants, or any outsider: a young Australian man finds himself drawn to a bakery Pakistani-owned bakery after a lascivious night out in his multi-ethnic neighbourhood. His conversion to Islam happens in the silence of the night, during the preparation of the world’s most modest food, prompted and aided by the smell of freshly-baked bread.
Interestingly enough, the listed building opposite my apartment in Exarcheia, which for over a decade housed a bar, was sold last month – for the sum of 300,000€ – to a Church whose denomination I am not even sure of. I can now gauge the impact of religious catechism taking place by looking at the attention young people pay to the proceedings opposite my living room window. Isn’t it strange that all this is happening in the same place that, until recently, hosted (the same?) young people in a state of extreme drunkenness and oblivion?
To go back to the book, though; its theme is nostos, the Greek word for homecoming. Nostalgia is the painful wish for nostos. The English have a cognate word to homecoming that describes this feeling exactly: homesickness. Katsabanis is not sick, as such, but he is lost inside an unfamiliar tongue. Lost enough, to dedicate a whole chapter to it, too. But when it comes to his own literary language, he is in full control, carrying off many superb literary moments.
My favourite is this: “I didn’t do what I wanted to do. And that’s how one grows up towards the inside.”
Takis Katsabanis, WALKABOUT