Essays (3) “Why is Victoria Hislop so Dull?”

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by Richard Pine.

This is more of a note than an essay because I do not think the subject merits more than a brief expression of opinion; I find it impossible to be less than negative about Victoria Hislop’s work and yet necessary to say so. I write this as someone who shares with Hislop the outsider-ness which debars us from ever entering fully into the Greek spirit which we both admire and wish to espouse. This note should be taken as an extension of the ideas expressed by Jim Potts (in issue no. 2) on “Insiders and Outsiders”, expatriate or “displaced” writers in and about Greece. In essence, I do not believe that a non-Greek should attempt to write a “Greek” novel, and Hislop is an example of why not.

Victoria Hislop is a very successful novelist who has recently been awarded honorary citizenship of Greece “for her important services toward Greece, for the international exposure she gave to the historic site of Spinalonga and her promotion of modern Greek culture and history.” She spends part of the year on the island of Crete. Several of her novels are set in Greece; the first, The Island (2005), telling the story of the leper colony on the islet of Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete, was a best-seller and in 2010 was made into a very popular 26-part television serial drama for Greek television which has also been screened in nine other countries. Her work has been translated into thirty-five languages.

In May 2020 Hislop told Athens Insider magazine “I am an ‘insider’ but still an ‘outsider’ too, so I believe that I will always retain the same objectivity about Greece”, but also that “I will always be inspired by Greece”. I dispute that one can be both “insider” and “outsider”; an “insider” will have subjective causes and effects which are unavailable and probably unknown to the objective “outsider”. No Greek can be “inspired” by Greece in the same way that Greece inspires the visitor (this is the difference identified by George Seferis between “Hellenism” and “Hellenic Hellenism”), and it is my contention that those of us who love Greece and are inspired by facets of Greece cannot hope to love Greece from the inside because that would mean from the inside of ourselves: whatever is “subjective” about us, from our own insides, is irretrievably and irremediably foreign to the Greece which attracts us. A “Greek” novel is written by a Greek who lives it in a way unavailable to the outsider.

Hislop followed The Island with other Greece-related novels: The Thread (2011), Cartes Postales (2016), Those who are loved (2019) and One August Night (2019 – a sequel to The Island) and two volumes of short stories, One Cretan Evening (2011) and The Last Dance (2013). The Sunrise (2014) concerns another Greek theme, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

So why do I think Victoria Hislop’s work is dull? I have had the misfortune to read The Island, The Thread, Cartes Postales and Those who are loved and am left wondering how anyone with the very positive, even passionate interest which Hislop has expressed in Greece and the Greek people could write with such a lack of empathy, with so little engagement with the themes she addresses in her novels, of disease, warfare and love which are so deeply a part of Greek life and death. The essence of the successful storyteller is to bring the reader, immediately if possible, into the world one has created: to draw the listener around the fireside of the narration; Hislop’s narrative is not “come into my world” but “look what I have found, come and look at it with me.”

The Island, like its siblings, gives the impression of having been written by a sightseer. Indeed, Cartes Postales is precisely that: a terribly predictable ending (predictable, that is, from about page 10) preceded by a series of snapshots of “my holiday wandering in Greece”. One hopes that Hislop wrote it as a stocking-filler and not as an attempt at a love-poem to the country. To treat of the social and ethical issues of the Spinalonga leper colony with the eyes of a tourist (which is, in effect, what Hislop admits in her opening chapter – a version of “Oh look, how fascinating! I think I’d like to write about this… it must be awful…”) is not only to lose the opportunity for a heartfelt exploration of those issues but to seek the picturesque in leprosy and its affective hold on memory and the mind.

Whether it is physical leprosy or the anti-authoritarian condition which caused the Greek civil war, or the creation of other kinds of leper colony where the poets and musicians and leftist writers and thinkers were sent during both the civil war of 1945-48 and the military junta of 1967-74, there are lesions on the Greek psyche which cannot be diagnosed by the xenos, the outsider, however profound we believe our sympathy to be.

It is as if Hislop cannot understand, and certainly cannot share, the heartbreak of Greece, because none of us who are the xenoi can understand how a Greek heart breaks. She sympathises but she cannot empathise. It is a hard thing to say, but novels about Greece and the Greeks should be written by the Greeks: the drama, tragedy and deep humanity of Spinalonga is waiting for its Papadiamantis, its Theotokas, its Kazantzakis. (Indeed, Kazantzakis’s first wife, Galatea, writing as “Petroula Psirilotis”, did publish a novel [“Sick State”] about Spinalonga in 1916.)

Hislop cannot, of course, be faulted for the fact that she is the xenos, the foreigner. It’s a subject with which I am only too familiar – the fact that, however devoutly one wishes to belong, one remains an alien, at best a guest, but someone who cannot ever speak the same language, share the same emotions, experience the same grief. The best we outsiders can achieve is to honour the honour which is at the heart of the Greek spirit.

In Brian Friel’s play Translations, an Englishman, engaged in the occupation of Ireland, wishes devoutly to “become” Irish and join the community, but recognises the impossibility; he says “Even if I did speak Irish I’d always be an outsider wouldn’t I? I may learn the password but the language of the tribe will always elude me, won’t it? The private core will always be hermetic, won’t it?” To which his Irish guide replies: “You can learn to decode us” – which is not the same thing. The “private core” is not so much “hermetic” or secret as immanent, part of the DNA, the fabric of the man, the woman, the house, the society.

Hislop’s The Thread takes us to a different kind of ground: the fate of Salonica/Thessaloniki, a city which, until 1913, was a mixture of Jewish, Greek, Bulgarian and Ottoman cultures, from which the Jewish element was expunged by the Nazis and which even today is struggling to be Greek. Hislop misses the point, in that she seems incapable of realising the characters she puts before us. Like a playwright, a novelist must hear the voices, the mots propres, through which his or her characters become human beings rather than two-dimensional playing-cards. While Hislop may have grasped the idea of Salonica’s history, she cannot bring it to either the life or death that are its systole and diastole.

Those who are loved is a stereotypical “human interest” story of a family riven by the political emotions and emotional politics of civil strife. It might in fact be set anywhere – Greece, Ireland, Spain (and Hislop has written a “civil war” story about Spain, in The Return, 2008). But it has been done before: after Kazantzakis’ The Fratricides, Alexandrou’s The Mission Box or Haviaras’ The Heroic Age, who needs Hislop? Harsh words, but one cannot help perceiving Those who are loved as the work of a professional novelist whose love of Greece has led her to clothe a universal grief with Greek garments.

Perhaps “dull” is the wrong adjective. Uninteresting. Pedestrian. Superficial. None of these words will do justice to Hislop’s inability to engage, to create a world in which we not only believe but of which we can become characters, citizens, identifying with what is written because we live it. She is not alone: Louis de Bernières, in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994) and Birds Without Wings (2004) attempted – with rather more success than Hislop, I think – to portray, respectively, Cephalonia in the second world war and Anatolia in the 1922 campaign, but he remains an outsider and does not claim “insider” status.

What can the philhellenic outsider-writer achieve that is meaningful and persuasive? The historian can address the emergence of modern Greece with empathy, as does Roderick Beaton (another recent honorand of Greek citizenship) in his Greece: biography of a modern nation. The sociologist or anthropologist can give a “portrait of a Greek village” which is both objective in the assessment brought to bear with non-Greek eyes and empathetic in its intentions (I am thinking of those classics, John Campbell’s Honour, Family and Patronage or Juliet du Boulay’s Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village or the more recent Memories cast in Stone by David Sutton). The literary scholar like Philip Sherrard can give us an understanding of both ethnos and ritual, poetry and history in his many books and in his brilliant essay “The Other Mind of Europe”.

And that is perhaps all we can be: essayists, people who try but, if insidership is our aim, are bound to fail. If I can put in a nutshell my reasons for doubting Hislop, de Bernières and so many others, it is because fiction demands so much more than the essay: it demands the truth of poetry that can only come from within – a “within” which we don’t have because we were not born in the house. However much we may adopt that house as a home, we will always fumble for the key each time we want to open the door.

Unlike a Greek writer describing Greek passions, Hislop is – and I do not and can not blame her for being a British tourist – unable to find the vocabulary, the syntax, the cadences and nuances, the demotic code that would unlock those passions. At best, it’s a well-learned katharevousa. Her books come too easily to convince. Of the difficulty of reading Greek writers, and the reward to be gained thereby, there is much to say, on another occasion. And on the absolute necessity of translating Greek writings into languages through which they can reach wider readerships.

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