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on 17 August 2015
I mainly read nonfiction, so it was almost magical to read Lawrence Durell’s prose. Bitter Lemons of Cyprus (carefully chosen to coincide with my Greek vacation) has transported me for a week to a mesmerizing corner of Greece that no longer exists, or rather only exists in people’s memories.
And that’s because this 58 year old book takes you back to the last few years when Greeks and Turks coexisted on the beautiful, God(s?)-blessed island of Cyprus. The author set off to write another one of his wonderful (if formulaic) travel literature books about a Greek island he settled and explored for a few years, surrounded by local Greeks and wandering Brits. The book, however, quickly evolves into a 250 page dirge for a world that is forever gone. The love of the author for Greece comes out of every sentence. It is a love of the land, the people and, primarily, the past.
This strength of the book is, alas, its fatal weakness. Because the love is for a Platonic ideal of Greece that only exists in the mind of the author. And from it pours scorn for the Cyprus the author chose to settle in. The scorn ranges from downright contempt for what he deems to be the backwardness of Turkish Cypriots to a mix of love, admiration and exasperation aimed at both his (mainly) Greek hosts on Cyprus and the crumbling Empire he represents.
By the end of the book, the whole setup sadly descends into a tragic farce of contradictions. The author fully recognizes that the Empire has preserved an unworkable museum on a Petri dish. He can see for himself the injustice of forcing a proud people to live without a promise of a future, how the British occupation of the land might be preserving a peace among Greek and Turk, but denies everyone a transition to the twentieth century, be that something as important as a local university or as trivial as a public swimming pool.
The farce intensifies when toward the end of the book Laurence Durrell engages in serial incantation of Patrick Lee Fermor’s name to invoke Greek-English friendship, lionizes John Harding (who according to Wikipedia “instituted a number of unprecedented measures including curfews, closures of schools, the opening of concentration camps, the indefinite detention of suspects without trial and the imposition of the death penalty for offences such as carrying weapons, incendiary devices or any material that could be used in a bomb”) and I thought it had climaxed with the image of an English officer boarding a plane to Cyprus clutching a copy of the Iliad.
But even this gets topped (in my eyes at least) when the author does not see the irony in the fact that his friend Antonis is grateful that his son will be off to get educated in England, rather than join the insurrection against the British. The fact that, in the absence of local alternatives, the best and the brightest are plucked from the island to join the services of the Empire does not seem to jar with the author’s sensitivities.
Now, I personally have a rather unique privilege: I come from a family whose formally educated members are mostly “first generation educated.” Some of us did not make it past third grade most were the first in their immediate family to ever get a formal education, a couple halfway made it there but then dropped out and at least a couple hold multiple degrees from Harvard. And I know that we’re all the same, except in our ability to generate income. We share dignity, dreams, love and folly. The author uniformly treats the lesser-educated Greeks and Turks he meets in his travels as non-deserving of their blessed land, “Cyps” he calls them, and while he laments this attitude among his peers, he fails to see it in himself.
Much as we Greeks have made a horrible mess of things in Cyprus and in many other places besides, you come to realize that the love the author has for Cypriots is the love a slave owner can truly and honestly sometimes feel for his slave. The language itself descends to one of loyal “subjects” of the Empire and “terrorists.”
I was gravely disappointed.