February 8th, 2010 by EVENTS

Swell by Ioanna Karystiani; trans. by Konstantine Matsoukas

In Swell, Ioanna Karystiani’s novel of modern Greece and its relationship with the sea, we follow the path of the container ship Athos III thousands of miles from the Mediterranean. Mitsos Avgoustis is our Odysseus, bouncing from port to port across Asia and Australia with his faithful crew. But here it is Avgoustis who refuses to put an end to the journey; though his shipping company wants the 75-year-old to retire, he simply refuses to leave the sea.

His wife Flora—not much of a Penelope, having seriously entertained a few suitors in his 12-year absence from Greece—stages an intervention, only to discover Avgoustis is blind and successfully hiding the fact from his crew. He persists in his stubbornness. “The sea won’t give me back,” he tells Flora. “I have no will for the land.”

It’s not clear why Avgoustis is so troubled by “the swell,” beyond the fact of having bobbed up and down on it his whole life, becoming one with the water and the weather. But his reluctance to return to shore is interesting: “as long as he didn’t go back to Greece, there still lived there all the people who he wished were still alive.”

The includes Chadzimanolis, head of the shipping company, whose life Avgoustis saved at age 16. After Flora leaves, Avgoustis directs all of his cunning toward denying both his blindness and the death of Chadzimanolis at a ripe old age. With the old man’s son running the company, Avgoustis’ time is running out, and he craftily blackmails a colleague to help arrange continued contracts for the Athos to continue operating in the Pacific.

The 30,000-ton cargo ship gives this odyssey a decidedly modern spin. Based out of Greece’s largest port, Captain Avgoustis hauls across the ocean the mix of raw and manufactured goods of today’s globalized economy: manure, palm dates, bricks, rice, bicycles, sinks, toilets, tapioca. Mobile phones are a necessity for the modern merchant marine, and while some of the men may have a girl in every port they also manage to keep up-to-date on Greek soccer standings. Crewed by only twenty, the ship is a male refuge for swapping stories and caring for one another in a way nagging wives don’t understand. And it’s where Avgoustis has lived for his entire adult life, while the land can only mean admitting his blindness and need for help, loss of control, and ultimately death.

Except for one place, that is: Elefsina, home to an ancient Greek rite that conferred immortality and assured redemption, as well as to a contemporary Greek woman with “guileless eyes and a body like a flame torch” full only of “balminess and sunny weather.”

This woman, Litsa is the joy of the novel—and its real pain. She is also the joy and pain of Avoustis’ life. She is the true Penelope, waiting and loving and writing poignant, ingenuous letters to Avgoustis for decades. Her first-person narrative blows in on a land breeze that interrupts the third-person story of Avgoustis’ aging and decline:

I heard the familiar comments plenty of times since. Litsa, you raise me from the dead. Litsa, you’re a garden, Litsa you are the joy of living. But those of us who are such fun, are only good for illicit affairs. The brooders become the legal spouses, those who won’t put up with no nonsense.

I get back full speed to the plants. I seed, they grow. I water, they shoot leaves. They give birth to strawberries and, then, the shadow ministry of the sparrows gather to feast and bust my eardrums. Even if I plant on the tiles things’ll grow, even if I throw the seeds on the cement, they’ll thrive, even if I spit apricot pips in the middle of the asphalt, apricot trees will spring up.”

Her voice is full of life and redeems a novel that at times can feel lost in its own brooding, as she redeems Avgoustis for his sins against land and family. Swell suffers from a prose style—or translation—that sometimes attempts too much, packing whole paragraphs of exposition into single sentences, antecedents be damned. But it succeeds as a story of aging and the precious gift of redemption that can only come with acceptance and resignation to the reality of mortality.

Reviewed by Nicole Perrin

Swell by Ioanna Karystiani; trans. by Konstantine Matsoukas
Europa Editions, 2010
Paper, 240 pp, $15.00
ISBN-13: 9781933372983

Posted in Reviews

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