I believe this will be my last Women In Translation Month book review for 2015, with only three more days left in the month, the Melbourne Writers Festival calling and a “to be read” pile that is growing faster than weeds in a newly planted spring garden (and you know as you pluck one weed it means two more grow in its place don’t you?), it would appear as though I’ll be randomly selecting my titles without the “female filter” in place. It’s been a great month with some wonderful discoveries and even though I’ve been involved for two years now, I am still amazed at the minimal representation by world renowned authors. The more I dig, the more I learn.
Today’s book is published by Open Letter, as was the very impressive “Lies, First Person” by Gail Hareven which I reviewed a few days ago. Open Letter is the University of Rochester’s nonprofit, literary translation press, and as you may know the University is the home of the three percent website, which includes databases of translated works, reviews, news , and home to the Best Translated Book Award.
Amanda Michalopolou’s “Why I Killed My Best Friend” opens with a nine-year-old narrator telling us of her move from Nigeria back to their homeland of Greece, leaving behind her father:
Aunt Amalia looks like one of those actresses who plays the role of the old maid in Greek movies. But she’s a very modern old maid: she goes to the movies alone, takes off one shoe in the middle of the street to scratch her foot with her heel, whistles old songs like “Let Your Hair Down” or “In The Morning You’ll Wake Me with Kisses.” When she was young she got an idea in her head: she wanted to marry Constantine, who back then was prince and later became king. She didn’t want anyone else. When Constantine married Anna-Maria –who’s from Denmark, where they call her Anna-Marie – Aunt Amalia told my parents that she was giving up on marriage: she dug a hole in her head and buried all the bouquets and wedding dresses. Whenever anything bad happens, she digs a hole in her head and shoves it in there. Now she’s telling me to do exactly the same.
Well in all honesty our story opens with a short piece by a thirty-five year old narrator, Marie, but it is not until Chapter Three that this character becomes formed, it is the same narrator as the nine year old narrator and we alternate chapters between the two versions of our story teller. Until such time as they merge.
At school Marie meets a girl, Anna, from Paris, who quickly becomes her best friend. She is the daughter of revolutionary parents and whilst spending a lot of time at Anna’s house Marie learns of the Greek struggle, and attends protests with Anna’s mother Antigone.
The alternating Marie (the 35 year old) is now a “professional” protester, she works part time in a school or other odd jobs, and it is through her school work that she meets this precocious child, the daughter of Anna. We then flash straight back to Marie as a nine-year-old. These sections giving us the foundations of their friendship, the cement that binds them together.
Once we forward back to current times we find Marie is now living with a gay man Kayo, who she secretly desires, he is also a protester/activist and they travel the world together to “restore social desire”, she is also estranged from Anna:
“They presented it to us immaculate, marble, smelling of disinfectant, like and airport bathroom. Cold white fluorescent lighting. Private security guards. The Athens Metro is a moving walkway that transports us home after hours of low-paying, back-breaking work. It feels like the inside of a bank, exudes an air of industriousness and order. Music and food are prohibited. Human activity of any sort is avoided. In Europe people at least make themselves at home in their metro, they sing, they sleep in it's warmth – after all, no European government care enough to actually solve the problem of homelessness. We take it a step further: we hide our homeless, we kick them out of the station at Omonia. They mar the Europeanized image of prosperity we’re hoping might attract the business of multinational corporations. Sweep the dirt under the rug! Was the new metro designed for people so exhausted they’ve become zombies? Is this the new Athens we’re so proud of? This imitation of Brussels? Say no to this asphyxiating state ‘security’! Say no to the Olympic spirit being promoted by multinational corporations! So no to the paternalistic aesthetic regulation of our city’s working class”! Bring your guitars and your sandwiches. Come help us give the Athens Metro the color and life we all deserve.”
Whilst the prime tale is that of friendship and overbearing relationships, it is also a study of the Greek crisis from a local’s point of view, originally published in 2003 a year before the Olympics in Athens, it is an expose of what the working class and the activists think of these events.
Our story moves back and forth from a young Marie to the current older Marie. Her best friend Anna is an overpowering youth, always dismissive of Marie’s ideas, her drawings (Marie wants to be an artist), relationships, she even becomes jealous when Marie has breakfast with Anna’s father “He’s my dad”. These experiences coming to the fore as they experience growing up, boys and their own independence.
The parallels to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and the similar feel to “My Brilliant Friend”, detailing Lila and Elena’s relationship as children is very obvious. We also have the Greek political climate instead of the political times in Naples.
I lock the door of my room and regress to a time when I thirsted for black. Only now, instead of using black paper, I draw in black on a white background. Black, and ochre too. I sketch the prehistoric animals in the Lascaux caves, as I remember them from the books I pored over at the library. Horses, bison, cows, deer. I practice doing feet and tails for a while, then start to draw little creatures in miniature. Tiny animals entering enormous caves. Or gigantic animals trying to squeeze through the mouths of microscopic caves. The mismatches proportions transport me straight into the realm of fairytale, offering me that particular comfort of children’s drawings. As a child, you’re presented with a rigid world of predetermined sizes and power relations. You lie down on the floor with a piece of paper and deconstruct it all – you draw blue roots on the trees, people with no fingers, see-through bellies with babies inside; you bestow life and take it away again with your colored pencils. With faith and rage you change the world.
I haven’t mentioned too much here about the overbearing dominance of Anna over Marie and their estrangement, nor the title, you will have to read this yourself to see what “Why I Killed My Best Friend” means, is it literal?
An insight into the political scene in Greece in the late nineties and early 2000’s as told through the eyes of a woman who struggles with relationships and has always been dominated, there are a few hidden gems (the story of Marie’s missing finger is one) and the characters are real and you can easily associate with their plight. As a political novel as well, what better way to end than one of the many manifestos peppered throughout:
In the name of progress, modernization and the Olympic ideal, the average Greek citizen has been led to believe that the swift Europeanization of his daily life, in the service of rabid profit-seeking, is the only way to proceed.