on 31 July 2004
MANI ... It is not for nothing that Patrick Leigh Fermor is generally considered the greatest living travel writer in English. Reading any one of his books, always a smooth, elegant and intellectually exciting undertaking, is to accept an invitation to the private world of a master observer of places and manners who is also pretty sharp in such areas of human endeavor as history, architecture, music, theology, psychology, mythology, and languages both classical and modern. He is extremely erudite - an autodidact, he says - and his approach to travel writing is strictly literary and sometimes sublimely so. This book, doubtless conceived as a companion volume to ROUMELI, which deals with Northern Greece, takes us to the southernmost part of the Peloponnesus. Unfortunately, the world of rocks and rustics and supreme beauty it describes is now largely vanished, so it is therefore of great value to have a traveler's vision and memory of it as it was about sixty years ago. Always subtle and elegant, the story takes on a heightened aesthetic and intellectual intensity at certain points and in particular locales. For example, the opening paragraph of the book's final chapter describes the writer's arrival at Gytheio by means of an extended metaphor comparing entrance into a city with the act of coitus, and if any reader should miss this metaphor let me point out the author's use of such words as maidenhead and deflower. A further adornment of the metaphor, conceptual and literary, is provided by the revelation that the little island a few yards off the coast, now named Marathonisi and now connected to Gytheio by a causeway, but called Kranae by Homer, is in fact the island where Paris and Helen spent their fist night after the famous elopement. At another point the reader is invited to watch the dolphins scull down at exactly the imaginary line in the Adriatic where the filioque drops out of the creed. We are allowed to eavesdrop on a group of centaurs on the Pelion Peninsula, and a passing reference to Henry Miller and George Katsimbalis develops into a chain reaction of crowing roosters around the world and back again. There s an excellent chapter on the peculiar little village of Areopolis, the gateway to the Inner Mani, where the author attempts an interpretation of the ancient carvings on churches and houses. This marvelous book will be of interest to anyone who feels attracted to the beauties of Greece and its people, but also to those who enjoy supremely well-written prose.
on 29 March 2013
The subtitle of this book is a little misleading for it is hardly a travelogue, more of an excuse to roam - philosophically, mythologically, historically, anthropologically - with a hundred and one red herrings using the Mani as a useful backdrop.
The Mani is the central tine or peninsular of the Southern Peloponnese where the Taygetus mountain range dies down into the sea. From reading these pages you might assume this area to be all but continental in size; fortunately a map with a scale is included and it will be noticed that the Deep Mani, about which this work is chiefly concerned, measures barely 20 miles down with an average width of six.
Not everyone will find this opus their ideal cup of Lapsang Souchong. I am thinking in particular of Chapter 13 on Gorgons and Centaurs where I all but fell asleep and surely the proof reader by page 182 had really keeled over ! To be quite frank I cannot share with PLF the same enthusiam for the more abstruse elements of Greek mythology and folklore. Nereids, sirens, gorgons, dryads, oreads, tritons, satyrs and the Evil Eye leave me cold - I would rather be discussing aspects of the limited slip differential of a vintage Jaguar XK150 ! However, there are plenty of other interesting digressions; one of the most fascinating concerned Eastern versus Western iconography where it is explained that while the first looks to the transubstantial quality of Christ Western Renaissance art focuses more on His human nature.
What is mind-stopping, as always, with PLF is the quality of his writing combined with the breadth of his knowledge. It never fails to amaze me how this school drop-out became such a distinguished man of letters, an authority on Greece, a multi-linguist par excellence, apart from achieving fame as a war-hero. Read this book for the sheer verve of its descriptive passages, its incomparable prose combined with an erudition any schoolmaster could envy. We are all in his debt for helping us to think more deeply about the world that surrounds us. Everything ultimately is grist to his mill; my own materialism need not be damned - what is certain is that PLF is always worth five stars.
on 30 July 2012
I knew about this book for years, but was only prompted to read it when we went on holiday to the Mani last year, staying in one of the fabled tower-houses which Leigh Fermor writes about with such gusto. His visit to the region was in the early 50s, before there was a road down the peninsular. The Mani is the central rocky spine of the three great fingers which reach down towards Crete from the near-island of the Peloponese in western Greece.
Its terrifying mountain remoteness and harsh landscape meant that throughout history, this part of Greece was almost completely undeveloped. From ancient times, the Cretans, Hellenes, Romans, Turks, Venetians, Greeks, French, British, Germans, etc all just went round it, and it became a haven for runaways, bandits, pirates, ruffians, warlords and fighting men. It was never really conquered, being too difficult and 'not worth it'.
The resulting breed of truculence and resourcefulness, violence and pride was remarkable.
One outcome of this was the construction of houses in which families sought to out-do each other by routinely smashing their neighbours' dwellings in any way they could. Apart from periods of truce, such as harvest-time or weddings, and safe passage for doctors, women and children, any man seen out of doors at any time of day was fair game to be shot at, stoned or otherwise violently attacked.
It was always an advantage to have your house taller than your neighbours, so you could rain rocks down onto their rooftops. No-one would have an ordinary door into their house - rather, the entrance would be a tiny hidden ingress, giving into a narrow or low space, so that enemies could not storm in. Getting upstairs to the sleeping quarters or cool rooftops would be by rope ladders, which could be drawn up for safety.
These houses look like pretty English church towers from a distance, but were in fact hornets' nests of extreme personal violence, so that the little villages clustered on the dry rocky mountain sides were solidified personal warzones. Leigh Fermor found that the hostility and suspicion of one village for its near neighbour was of almost mythic proportion, and this within living memory.
The book is brilliantly written, by an Englishman who loved the Greeks, spoke their language and dialects fluently, took a heroic part in their resistance to German occupation in the last World War, and chose to live there once the war was over. His recent death led to an announcement that his house will become a cultural shrine and museum.
This is a truly marvellous book, written at the last moments when this ancient and remarkable way of life was just coming to an end. His visits along the inhospitable and rugged coast, with his wife, by rowing boat along the sea and on foot or by donkey up into the ravines and cliffs, gave him the chance to report on an astonishingly other-worldly way of life right on the edge of Europe.
Now, of course, there is a road which leads all the way south from Calamata down to the tip of the Mani, with some of the consequent trappings of hotels, tavernas, buses, tourists, art galleries, etc etc.
But you can still wander round the villages with their brutal tower houses - now often left in ruinous condition and uninhabited except for very old ladies who glare at you as you go by. And you can see where some of the old gods and goddesses held court - deep caves, hidden springs, desolate temples. And you can go freely into literally dozens of crumbling orthodox churches with astonishing frescoes of Christian divines. And you can try walking up the steep mountain paths among the olive groves, and imagine what it was like for farmers trying to screw a living out of the rocks when your neighbours were intent on shooting you at any hour of day. And you can see the tiny beautiful springs with their little grottoes of rocks and basins, now all too often dried up because of the scale of modern water-extraction from the mountains.
Do go to the Mani if you can. But if you can't, then read this terrific book. Then go.
on 7 September 2015
One summer in the first half of the 1950s Patrick Leigh Fermor and ‘wife’ Joan travelled by foot, caique and other modes of transport as they are acquired around the Mani peninsula of the Peleponese. The book is part travelogue, part history of the area and part a detailed account of the myths and culture of the Maniots. From my perspective it was part informative, part a further insight to an extraordinary man, part revealing of the area and peoples and part a dry academic indulgence on various aspects of arcane myth and practices. The chapter towards the end of the book on religious iconography is a good example of such dry academic detail. That said I am glad he wrote in such a manner as it is important such matters are recorded and such words and references are not lost as it ensures people like me can learn of matters that otherwise would be a closed book even if most is forgotten with the turn of the next page, or the link to the next Wikepedia entry. Let’s be honest I have read lots of PLF books and in so many ways they are wonderful but he can wallow in ridiculous self-indulgence and he was an egotist with few peers.
on 7 May 2014
Excellent book, well crafted word wise. I have been to some of the places, that PLF has been to. Interesting reflecting, that he had been there, so many decades before. I love travel writers and PLF is amongst the best. Find it very frustrating that his "critics" suggest, that he made it up, as he wrote the books, many years, after his journey. Have orderd part three of the trilogy and will no doubt, thoroughly enjoy it.