A theme for a Greek

Petros Markaris and the Mediterranean detective novel.

Foto: Tomada del periódico El País.

It is not the first time, and will surely not be the last, that Cuban Leonardo Padura (Havana, 1955) and the Greek Petros Markaris (Istanbul, 1937) share a space in the presentation of some of their books. Two years ago they were invited to the Lea Festival, in the Greek capital, Athens, and a while later they shared the same table at a Paris festival. This year the reunion took place in Turin, one of the cities of the Italian Piedmont, where the International Book Salon, the most important held in that country, was held during May. Obviously, the repeated coincidence was not by chance because both writers reveal more than one point in common in terms of their conception of the contemporary detective novel, a field in which they have achieved the international approval of the public and critics.

But compared to Padura, whose work is known and appreciated by Cuban readers despite the always dissatisfied demand for his published books, Petros Markaris remains unpublished and almost unknown in Cuba, like many other contemporary foreign authors with a scarce diffusion among us. And although this sort of formal presentation of Markaris cannot repair that shortage, at least it will serve as an introduction to one of the most powerful – and in many cases uncomfortable – voices of contemporary Greek literature, especially now that the country is in the headlines as a consequence of a crisis it has not been able to overcome and that jeopardises its future.

 

There is no doubt that Markaris’ detective novels are inscribed by their own right in that renovating current of the genre that has made the social theme its centre of attention and that, according to critics, has had among the countries of the Mediterranean zone some of its most important exponents, especially with the Spaniard Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, whose novels starring detective Pepe Carvalho reflected some of the social transformations that occurred in the Spain of the post-Franco transition.

 

What is certain is that in the last 20 or 25 years this literature has not only transformed the map of its presence in the world, but has also known how to get rid of the worn-out and already debatable label of lesser literature that it had been bestowed as a shameful stigma. Its authors were not only able to win over the public’s favour but also started obtaining the recognition of the critics and the Academia.

 

According to Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, as a result of the social vocation consciously developed and strengthened by this current of the contemporary detective genre, these novels have been able to reflect in a much more precise way the chaotic and alienating spirit of our times. And they have done so fundamentally from the periphery, since while the great producing centres were almost always located in English-speaking countries, with honourable and noted exceptions like France and Italy, today the centre seems to have moved to diverse regions of Europe and Latin America, and it is written in other many languages. Authors from Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Sweden or Greece have faced the genre perhaps with a much less ludic sense, but more committed to their realities. As Leonardo Padura has said, “all of us really don’t write detective literature but rather we use that literature to speak about society, in addition to telling a story,” something that according to his conception is one of the requirements that most complements literature. And surely the Greek writer will also agree with this affirmation, because undoubtedly his literary production is fully inscribed in that renovated conception of the genre.

 

Modern-day Athens has very little in common with that city presided over from a hill by the impressive perfection of the Parthenon and that, in its moment of greatest economic and cultural splendour had a theatre where dramatic works and plays were performed, which are still referents for modern theatre, and an agora where citizens discussed their problems, without imagining that they were inventing democracy. Today’s Athens looks more like the hectic, impoverished, crowded and almost ugly city described by Petros Markaris in any of his novels. A city with a beautiful face toured by tourists, that recalls the greatness of the old Greek culture, and another less favoured through which inspector Costas Haritos walks and curses during the hottest days, and where the majority of the citizens must face the advent of the crisis in diverse ways.

 

When Markaris began his detective series starring inspector Costas Haritos, he was not an “inexperienced” writer. After studying economics in Vienna and Stuttgart, he worked as a translator from German into Greek; he signed theatre works and scripts for cinema and television, especially for the TV series Anatomy of a Crime. When writing his first novel, Markaris decided that his inspector Costas Haritos had to be a common and ordinary person, who throughout the series would allow him to deal with some of the problems that affected his contemporaries and the dark details of his society.

 

As Markaris himself has explained, he had doubts when making his protagonist a police officer, because in Greece that type of person used to be associated to the fascist repression during the military dictatorship. But inspector Haritos is able to cross that barrier, not just because he likes things well done and to work conscientiously, but also because his author was able to endow him with humanity. It is true that along the way he lost the few dreams he had at some time and now makes do with guaranteeing some wellbeing for his family: university studies for his daughter and a peaceful home that he perhaps does not find with his wife Adriani, whom he withstands with fondness. He also has an old car that is about to collapse and suffers like everyone the bottlenecks that are so frequent in his chaotic city. His last refuge and his secret passion is the old Greek dictionary Dimitrakos, which he consults once in a while, almost like an oracle where he can find the possible answers to all his queries. In addition to helping the portrayal of his character, this habit of the police officer contributes to guiding him through the twists and turns of the investigation in the diverse police cases.

 

The four last novels written by Markaris are dedicated more directly to the theme of the crisis in Greece. Inspector Haritos himself, who despite his modest income does not participate in the corruption that contaminates society and observes without understanding the way in which the physical and moral ruins of modern Greece grow around him. He feels he can do nothing to change that course and, without barely daring to judge, resigns himself to carrying out his job and observing everything with an increasingly more disenchanted and sceptic viewpoint.

 

For the series of inspector Haritos, Markaris has received international recognitions like the 7th Pepe Carvalho Prize in 2012. According to the jury that gave him the award, the Greek author “is one of the clearest representatives of the so-called Mediterranean detective novel, a form nearer to the great themes of the detective novel: corruption, manipulation of power, differences between justice and the law or the meanness of the powerful.” Undoubtedly, a rather common and correct image of our times that gives us the more realistic and renovated aspect of contemporary detective novels. (2015)

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