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The best books about the Greek islands

The best books about the Greek islands

Sail away with a reading list that hops from Homer to Patricia Highsmith

Sail away with a reading list that hops from Homer to Patricia Highsmith

Tim Martin | September 13th 2018

If you’re going to a Greek island, read “The Odyssey”. Go on. Or read it again. I hardly like to start a set of recommendations by demanding that you get your hands on one of the most famous books in the Western world, but there it is: you can’t expect to get around Odysseus’s island-hopping, bed-hopping, reality-hopping story, and you can’t beat it. It’s like the Alps. And it still makes fabulous reading under an olive tree two-and-a-half thousand years later.

Which version? Well, last year’s translation by Emily Wilson – the first complete English version by a woman – offers a fascinatingly fresh perspective on the poem, importing this ancient adventure to a whippy modern idiom while keeping a beady eye on centuries of inherited power dynamics in translation. “Tell me about a complicated man,” her translation begins, with the air of someone about to scrub the grime off an old painting. It’s fabulous stuff.

If you prefer your reading less than two millennia old, however, here are a few more to consider:

Madeline Miller Circe
Sorry, it’s actually the Odyssey again. Wait, come back! This superb feminist take on one of the poem’s most notorious characters – the enchantress Circe, an island-dwelling witch with a fondness for turning sailors into pigs – manages the rare trick of being simultaneously a mature work of fantasy and an unbeatable beach read. Just as she did in her previous book, a retelling of the Iliad’s story of Achilles and his lover Patroclus, Miller smilingly turns an ancient legend on its head, presenting the half-human Circe (scientist, immortal, goddess, single mum) in an unforgettable new light as she strives with gods, monsters and omnipresent bloody men. I can’t think of another recent novel this deft in its appropriation and transformation of myth. Miller also writes wonderfully evocative prose; you’ll finish the book with an intense feeling of sadness that Ryanair doesn’t appear to offer flights to the (fictional) island queendom of Aiaia.

Yorgis Yatromanolakis (tr. Helen Cavanagh) History of a Vendetta 
Much writing about the Greek islands, particularly by foreigners, is heavy on romantic enthusiasm for an uncomplicated peasant life but hasn’t much to say about the people who have to lead one all the time. Not a great deal of the opposite view tends to make it into English – still less of it about the islands – but here are a couple of novels to adjust the perspective a little. 

First, try this extremely strange novella by the Cretan writer Yatromanolakis, which approaches an early 20th-century family feud in the island hills with the coolly evaluative prose of an ancient historian, full of measured digressions, half-buried politics and peculiar travellers’ tales. To give you a taste: “When, for example, someone commits a murder and the victim does not fall crashing to the ground but instead rises high and defying the law of gravity hovers overhead for quite a long time, then the murder is absolutely just and can be called an act of divine justice.” Veering between the earthily direct and the wildly surreal as it tells its story of a murdered moneylender and a crippled dreamer with a talent for manipulating time, it’s a quiet brainwarper. And secondly…

Alexandros Papadiamantis (tr. Peter Levi) The Murderess 
…a book that, taken injudiciously, might very well ruin your holiday. Written in 1903 and not translated to English until 80 years later, it’s a crabbed and unsettling piece of work that squats in the corner of the mind long after its hundred or so pages are over. “The Murderess” is set on the island of Skiathos, where its author was born, and follows the life of Hadoula, an elderly woman and so-called healer who decides to relieve the island’s women of their sexual and social burdens with a campaign of guerrilla infanticide. “Girls have seven lives, the old woman reflected. Not much makes them ill and they seldom die. Should not we as good Christians help in the work of the angels?” Papadiamantis was a significant writer in the development of modern Greek literature, but there isn’t a great deal of his work in English. This unforgettable little novella of stranglings, drownings and pursuit, set half in murky hovels and half in the sun-smitten heights of the mountains, is a great place for the strong in spirit to begin.

Patricia Highsmith The Two Faces of January
I have a soft spot a mile wide for Highsmith’s Jet Age chillers, which set their scenes in enviably glamorous sunspots of the Fifties and Sixties (Tunisia, Mexico, Rome) and turn them into choking hot-boxes of lust and paranoia, thronged with nerveless travellers, psychopathic sojourners and fugitive crooks. This Cretan horror is one of the best. In a story that has echoes of Highsmith’s better-known Ripley novels, an itinerant tour guide and scammer falls in with a runaway conman and his wife in an Athens hotel, beginning an imbroglio that leads to Knossos, death, blackmail and murder. It’s mean as hell, with some great local colour, and Highsmith’s forbidding lack of interest in conventional morality is, as always, quite inimitable.

George Psychoundakis (tr. Patrick Leigh Fermor) The Cretan Runner 
There’s a lot of Crete in this list, I fear, but this hectic record of extraordinary bravery deserves a place anyway. Psychoundakis was a runner for the Cretan resistance in the second world war, carrying messages between partisan bands and British commandos under the noses of the predatory German occupation. It’s a real-life ripping yarn, to which Psychoundakis’s direct tone and vivid expressions contribute substantially (“‘Aaa!’ we cried. ‘You cuckolds! If only we had our aeroplanes and our troops here!’”). His friend Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the many “wandering English” to be found covertly picking their way through the prose’s rocky terrain, did the translation himself after the war. 

Honourable mention:

John Fowles The Magus
A number of people mentioned “The Magus” when I said I was writing about the Greek islands, so I picked it up again. Gosh, how times change. This wildly trippy Sixties psychosexual occult nightmare, now somewhat dated in its sexual politics and transfixed to the point of obsession by its sunsoaked setting, is a book – like “On the Road” – that seemed to make luminous sense when one read it at the age of 20 and makes next to none now. It is, as they say, a book of two halves, as the 20-something British cad Nicholas Urfe ditches his lovely girlfriend and scampers off to teach on a remote Greek island (based on Spetses, where Fowles once taught), only to encounter a Prospero-like tycoon/enchanter and a beautiful pair of twins who involve him in a strange masque-like game. The first half is a moody neoclassical dream, full of weird Marienbad-like happenings and hints of the ghostly surreal; the second part is an absolute head-scrambling mindfuck, half Punchdrunk theatre and half Jungian freakout, as Urfe comes to pay an extravagant price for being what is after all a fairly average sort of rotter. Read again, there’s something oddly forward-looking about the whole semi-sensical enterprise; it can’t be long before “The Magus” gets turned into one of those endless TV series, like “Lost”, that people only pretend to understand. In the meantime, well, it’s got a great island. You might very well enjoy the ride.