by Nicholas Gage
Random House, 470 pp., $15.95
When Constantine Karamanlis returned to Greece from exile in July 1974 to restore parliamentary democracy after the fall of the military dictatorship, one of the slogans that he made popular was “Lethe sto parelthon“—”Forget the past!” He was not asking the Greeks to forget the seven years of the dictatorship, which had just collapsed under the weight of its own crimes and follies: it was too soon for that. The past to be forgotten was the civil war that had raged in Greece, with a few deceptive interludes, through most of the 1940s. Beginning in 1943, when Greece was still under German occupation, the rival forces led by communists and nationalists had fought each other almost continuously until 1949. This unhappy past was now to be forgotten—or so it was hoped.
Karamanlis himself set the example. He legalized the Communist Party (KKE) for the first time since 1947. He allowed the communist leaders who had taken refuge behind the Iron Curtain to return home under an amnesty. Today Markos Vafiadis, the commander in chief of the communist rebellion from 1946 to 1949, lives quietly in Athens. One of his senior lieutenants, Kapetan Yiotis, leads the KKE in Parliament under his real name, Kharilaos Florakis.
After Karamanlis’s party was defeated at the election in 1981, the attempt at reconciliation was carried further by the new socialist government under Andreas Papandreou. He abolished the annual celebration of the victories that crushed the communists in 1949. He sought to replace it with a celebration of the wartime resistance at the Gorgopotamos railway viaduct, the destruction of which in November 1942 had been the only occasion when the rival guerrilla forces, led by the nationalist general Napoleon Zervas and the communist Aris Veloukhiotis, had fought side by side against the common enemy instead of against each other.
The first celebration of “Gorgopotamos Day” was held last year on the fortieth anniversary. But the right-wing opposition in Parliament opposed the legislation that established it, and virtually all the survivors of the nationalist Resistance refused to take part in the ceremony. The Greeks, it seemed, would not forget the past. Nicholas Gage’s memorable book about his mother, Eleni, goes a long way toward explaining why.
Nicholas Gage (born Gatzoyiannis) spent the first nine years of his life, from 1939 to 1948, in the village of Lia in northwestern Greece. The village stands high on a rocky spur extending from Albania into Greek Epirus, known to the wartime combatants as the “Mourgana salient.” I have never visited Lia, but I feel I know it intimately, not only from Gage’s unforgettable descriptions of his impoverished but once-loved home, but because I have lived in hundreds of such villages, all fundamentally similar, all characteristically different.
The site is bleak but magnificent. The view southward from Lia, some 3,000 feet above the sea, must be very like the view from “monastic Zitsa,’ immortalized by Byron in the first canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage …