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The problem with historical novels
on 22 July 2014
**Contains a spoiler** (not very significant)
Like many others, I discovered Mary Stewart as a teenager, when the combination of romance, adventure and reasonably good quality writing had a lot of appeal. A number of her novels have a strong sense of place and this is particularly true of My Brother Michael, with its wonderful setting of Arachova and Delphi up on Parnassus. Even more poignant if you have visited the area.
As an adult one might look for more in literature, in terms of complexity of character, theme and plot, but I have never forgotten the pleasure Stewart's books gave me when I was young.
Simon has come back to Greece to find out what happened to his brother Michael, who was a British Liaison Officer during World War II, and had been sheltered by a Greek family in Arachova, near Delphi. When he was betrayed, the Germans killed the son of the Greek family as a reprisal, but Michael himself was murdered by Angelo, a member of ELAS, Greece's principal resistance movement. Angelo apparently modelled himself on the 'sadist' Ares, initiator and leader of ELAS.
The problem with this particular novel is that the historical setting plays a major part but it is completely lacking in historical veracity. While there were British soldiers being hidden in Greek homes when left behind after the Battles of Greece and Crete, the British Liaison Officers (who arrived later) were safely located with the resistance forces, well away from occupied towns like Arachova. Much more serious, however, is the picture given of the main guerrilla organisation ELAS, and its leader Ares. In towns and villages throughout central Greece, such as Arachova, 80-100% of inhabitants supported ELAS. The son of Stewart's venerable figure of Stefanos would almost certainly have been with ELAS (and his son would have been named Stefanos after his grandfather, rather than Nikos after his father). Mary Stewart talked of her 'love affair with Greece', but this love did not, it would seem, extend to its people.
The description of Zervas as an 'honest man' is interesting. It is well documented that the British, mindful of their long-term interests and casting around rather desperately for a counter-weight to the anti-monarchist ELAS, first paid handsomely and then blackmailed Napoleon Zervas of the organisation EDES to go into the mountains. EDES had been set up as a republican organisation but Zervas was only too happy to act on the suggestion of the British Military Mission to send a telegram of support to the King of Greece, much to the horror of his subordinates. The head of the Mission, Eddy Myers, said 'Zervas would have stood on his head if we had asked him to'.
The book does not appear to have been translated into Greek. Given the furor in Greece over Captain Corelli's Mandolin,it's hard not to wonder what the people of Arachova, and Greece, would think if they read Stewart's description of ELAS. The arch-villain, Angelo, is said to be a captain of a local Parnassus troop, who took part in the Gorgopotamos operation. Who is he modelled on? The most likely candidate is the young Demetres Demetriou (Nikephoros), who led the reserves at Gorgopotamos when the EDES troops failed to take the north end of the viaduct, and also the Parnassus troops when they successfully busted 70 men out of Livadia prison, when the town was occupied by 5000 Italian troops. (Myers wrote of Demetriou, 'The personal courage and levelheadedness in action of this officer made a big contribution to the success of the Gorgopotomos operation'.) Or alternatively, Giannis Alexandrou (Diamantes), who was also at Gorgopotamos and a by-word on Parnassus for courage and integrity, even today, with a museum in his birthplace Lilea dedicated to him. Or maybe Ares himself, probably loved as no other man has ever been, by his family, his friends, his comrades and the ordinary people of Greece.