Friday, 4 October 2013

Book Review: Swell by Ioanna Karystiani

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7260455-swellEverybody who knows me well enough, will tell you that I'm all but fit for a sea voyage. Despite all I decided to continue book travelling the seven seas for another week of my grand tour around Europe. This time, however, I'm more modest and content myself with an old merchant ship instead of a luxurious yacht. The freighter is one flying the Greek flag which makes her Greek territory according to Art 91 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), no matter where she's cruising. The novel which I picked for today's review is Swell by Ioanna Karystiani.

The writer Ioanna Karystiani (Ιωάννα Καρυστιάνη) was born in Chania in Crete, Greece, in September 1952. After her law studies she was a cartoonist for different Greek newspapers and magazines as well as a scriptwriter for the film industry. Her career as a writer began with a collection of short stories – Η κυρία Κατάκη (Mrs. Kataki, no English edition found) – published in 1995. Two years later she brought out her first novel The Jasmine Isle (Μικρά Αγγλία) which established her fame. More novels followed in the 2000s, but so far only Swell (Σουέλ: 2006) and Back to Delphi (Τα σακιά: 2010) have come out in English translation. Ioanna Karystiani lives in Athens and Andros.

The opening scene of Swell takes place five days after New Year 1997. A couple of seamen watch a white cat balancing recklessly on the railing of a Greek merchant ship anchored off the South Australian coast at Port Pirie. The cat called Maritsa is the constant companion of Mitsos Avgustis, the vessel’s seventy-five-year-old captain who has passed virtually all his life at sea. He’s a very skilled mariner and highly revered by the entire crew made up of Greeks, Russians and Romanians, but his family and the owner of the ship want him to retire. The reasons why Chatzimanolis jun., the ship-owner, wants to get rid of the captain are purely economic. The businessman wants younger and cheaper Asian seamen to run the ship. The problem is that he can’t simply dismiss Mitsos Avgustis because of a clause in his late father’s will. Captain Avgustis’s wife Flora, his two daughters and his son haven’t seen him once in twelve years and want him to be a part of their lives at last. They are bitter and reproach him with disinterest in the family, especially in his grand-daughter whom he hasn’t even met since she was born five years ago. His lover Litsa has kept waiting for Mitsos Avgustis in her house in Elefsina in vain for just as long as his family and yet she doesn’t hold it against him. The retired hairdresser would have good reason to feel resentful about having sacrificed her life to the married seaman, but she holds him in high esteem and loves him despite all that happened. When Captain Avgustis doesn’t succumb to temptations and threats, Chatzimanolis sends Flora to Kobe to persuade her husband to come back home to Greece with her and she makes a revelation which gives his actions and his stubbornness an unexpected dimension. Of course, Mitsos Avgustis again refuses to leave his ship and the swell of the sea. It needs a new crew member and an almost disaster in the middle of the Indian Ocean to make him rethink his attitude towards family and life on land.

Swell is an impressionistic novel with many flashbacks and recurring changes of perspective. In addition, Ioanna Karystiani unfolds the story of Captain Mitsos Avgustis and the people who are a part of it either in fact or in memory at a slow pace putting together seemingly unrelated episodes and memories. As the story progresses with the rolling swell of the oceans, it fuses and reveals a complete picture. The plot makes think of Homer’s Odyssey with two Penelopes doomed to staying at home and waiting, one cold and nagging, the other warm and loving. By and by all essential characters of the novel gain complexity and become truly alive through their actions and thoughts rather than through lengthy descriptions of their nature. Not knowing Greek and being limited to the German edition of the novel, it’s difficult for me to judge the author’s language and style. Undoubtedly they are rich and poetic although they may have lost power in translation as happens every so often.

For me Swell by Ioanna Karystiani has been a pleasure to read. It’s literary fiction as I like it. Thus my verdict can only be: highly recommended.

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