Antonis Samarakis (1919-2003) was modern Greece’s most widely translated writer after Nikos Kazantzakis. He published four collections of short stories and two novels beginning in 1954. His novel, To Lathos (The Flaw) has been translated into over twenty languages. Graham Greene called this novel, “A real masterpiece. A story of the psychological struggle between two secret police agents and their suspect told with wit, imagination and quite outstanding technical skill.” Arthur Miller wrote that, “The Flaw is a powerful work. I only wish some people who profess democracy would read The Flaw and see what it is they actually support. We are living in a time when words and their substance are very unrelated—to the point of meaninglessness. And this is not only in the question of Greece.”
Samarakis’s short stories were equally well received at home and abroad, and the collection THE PASSPORT AND OTHER SELECTED SHORT STORIES – in translation of ANDREW HORTON (Cosmos Publishing) brings together eight of his finest stories including “The Last Participation”,“Mama”, “The Knife”, and “The Passport” which he wrote during the period of the Dictatorship of 1967-75 when he was denied a passport to travel abroad.
“Have you heard? Something terrible has happened at the Kalogreza mine,” the woman shouted to her from the street since she could see her ironing by the open window.
“No, I haven’t heard a thing. What about my Yannis?”
“I don’t know about Yannis. My sister-in-law just called and told me all about it. Supposedly all the workers in one tunnel were killed immediately by the explosion.”
Upset by the news, she left the hot iron on the pants, even though she had been taking great pains to get the crease right since Yannis always complained, “Mama, how did you manage to mess up the crease again? When will I be able to congratulate you on a job well done?”
She dropped the iron and ran to the window. “What other news? Tell me, I can’t stand it!”
“I don’t know anything else,” the woman from the shop replied. “I only know what I heard on the phone. The 2-10 shift was blown sky high. The tunnel collapsed and crushed them. What shift does Yannis work?”
“2-10,” she said in a trance.
Suddenly a voice called out from the corner shop that some customers were waiting.
“I have to go now,” said the shop owner’s wife. “Don’t worry. He might have escaped.”
She hurried to the iron and unplugged it. The cloth had been burnt but what difference did it make now? The only thing that mattered was that Yannis – her Yannis, was on the 2-10 shift tonight, Saturday night.
She grabbed a shawl. She glanced at the photograph of Yannis’s father; she paused a second – should she speak to him, tell him the news or should she keep silent? The father watched her calmly and with a smile as if nothing had happened. Calmly and with a smile just as he had been when he gazed at her when the Germans took him from the house in August, August 11, 1944. Yannis had begun to crawl; he couldn’t say more than a few words like “dada” and “mama” and “bow wow”. Then their Yannis became her Yannis: his father never again crossed the doorstep. He was lost, gone with the others to Germany, Buchenwald someone said. Dachau said another. It didn’t really matter because as soon as people were snuffed out, they were snuffed out for all time.
She had to change twice to go from Perama to Kalogreza. She had to take the trolley from Perama to Piraeus, the metro from there to Omonia, and a bus from Onomia to Kalogreza.
Once before she had gone after Yannis, not because he was in any danger. It was a year and a half ago that Yannis’ uncle – his father’s first cousin – was passing through Piraeus. His uncle had lived for years in America, Detroit to be exact. She had rushed to tell Yannis that his uncle would be in Piraeus for only a few hours so he should meet his uncle because he was Yannis’ godfather and he was sure to have a special gift for him. It had been ten years since he had last visited Greece and even then he was in a hurry. The result was that Yannis knocked himself out to get to the Macedonian on time and his uncle presented him with a fancy bottle opener. Yannis had told her what it was called but she couldn’t pronounce it because it was a tongue twister.
Now she was on her way to meet Yannis with a deep ache in her heart. She didn’t know what to expect.
In her haste to leave, to reach him quickly, to arrive in time, in time for what? – she forgot to take a handkerchief. She needed it for her running nose, for her tears; she was deeply upset that she hadn’t taken a handkerchief because it seemed to her that everyone on the trolley and metro was staring at her when she wiped her nose and eyes with the corner of her shawl from time to time.
“If I had wings like a turtledove…” She repeated over and over to herself these words from the song she had liked in her youth before there was a photo of her husband in the house, when her husband was there himself. She felt that time stood still and that she’d never reach that wretched Kalogreza. And as the metro passed Monasteraki headed for Omonia, she absent mindedly called out, “If I had wings like a turtledove.”
“Come on, lady, save your love songs for the bedroom!” commented the fellow next to her who wore a bow tie and clutched a stuffed black bag as if it were a baby.
After that she became silent, but she was so disturbed by the man’s remark that she failed to realize the metro had passed Omonia and the next stop. She finally got off at Attiki.
She came out onto Patission Street stopping often to catch her breath because she had suffered shortness of breath for years. But she had to find Yannis as soon as possible. He was waiting for her.
She counted the change in her pocketbook to see if she had enough for a taxi. 11.60 drachmas in all.
There was a taxi stand at Platea Amerikis so she asked how much the fare cost to Kalogreza.
“I’ve got eleven and a half drachmas,” she whispered to the taxi driver as if she were doing something wrong.
He told her it was impossible; it was a double rate to go so far.
She stood there trying to decide what to do.
“Alright, what if we go ahead and my Yannis pays?”
“Yannis?” said the driver.
“My son!” she replied as if it were very strange that anyone would not know Yannis.
“In that case it’s okay,” agreed the driver and opened the door for her.
She was ready to step in when she stopped.
“If my Yannis…?” she asked herself speaking her thoughts as she left the taxi wrapping her shawl around herself more tightly.
At the thought “If my Yannis…,” she felt a chill through her chest and down to her feeet. “Never mind. I’ll go by bus, she said and walked into the night.
It was so peaceful when she arrived at the lignite mine that for a moment she thought she had made a mistake, that the phone call might have been about something else, not about an accident at Kalogreza where everything was so quiet and glistening with the frost of a winter night. But inside the grounds, she saw many people including police discussing in front of the guardhouse, and she saw cars with flashing red lights, and she saw women and children. How did it happen she had not seen them at first?
She walked closer, her heart becoming a tight knot.
She stood near a badly wounded worker whose wife embraced him while
he tried to explain everything.
“My Yannis?” she asked, stepping between a sergeant and someone in a business suit who smoked continuously.
They asked her for his last name. There were five Yannisses on the 2-10 shift. When she told them his name, they did not answer. They, all those strangers, only turned and stared at her while she watched the wife of the worker who had escaped embrace her husband even more tightly.
“My Yannis…?” she asked again and fortunately the sergeant grabbed her in time before she collapsed.
No, she could not stand to spend the night without her Yannis. Her hope now, her only hope was to meet him at the morgue. If she were lucky, she would meet him there, she would embrace him, rock him in her arms, keep him warm, just as the wounded worker’s wife was doing.
When they told her that Yannis might have gone there, that they might have taken him there, her heart sank.
If only there had been a miracle and her Yannis had escaped from the depths of the cold earth! If only the earth had not devoured him, so alone, unmourned, uncombed, unblessed. If only she could find him there to take him home and wash him, change him, dress him up in his Sunday best, in the grey-green checked jacket and the pants she had just ironed with the crease done just right for the first time. As for the burned spot, she knew how to mend it, fo fix it as good as new so that nothing showed. Then she would take him tomorrow, Sunday afternoon, dressed in his Sunday best, just as he had dressed as a boy when they took him for a walk on Sunday afternoons. This time she would again take him for a walk; this time, however, she would return home alone. Tomorrow, Sunday, at nightfall, alone, so alone, tomorrow and the next day, alone forever.
He wasn’t in the first group, her Yannis wasn’t among the eight survivors. They had written down the names of the eight. The sergeant had the list and he read it to her,giving the names one by one, clearly, as if it were a roll call. There were ten more on the shift, eighteen altogether. Of the ten who had not escaped, four were already at the morgue. The remaining six were at the end of the tunnel bound up in the womb of the earth like embryos without life and without a future.
“It’s obvious that your son isn’t among the living. He’s among the … among the others. You should see if he’s one of the four at the morgue. You see, they hauled them away so quickly that I didn’t have time to jot down their names. If he’s not among the four, it goes without saying that he’s among the six down below buried when the tunnel caved in. Who knows how many days it will take us to get the bodies out; three? five? ten? Perhaps never.”
“From Kalogreza?” asked one of the two guards at the morgue, the tall one who was searching for a station on a small transistor. “We have them over there. Second hall on the right, first door on your left.”
She stood staring at him, and then at the others as if she was waiting to be shown the way since she had never been in a morgue before.
“Go by yourself!” said the tall one. “Why do you look at me that way? We’re doing our job; we took care of each of them, covered them all with sheets. That’s more than enough if you ask me, considering the rotten pay we get from city hall. They pay us only enough to cover them, not to uncover them as well.”
Worked up about his salary, he turned his transistor up full blast and ear splitting rock music echoed in the empty room.
“Turn it down,” complained his partner.
“What for? Do you think we’re disturbing the customers?” He then tried to finish with her: “As for you and me, we’ve said all we have to say. Second hall to your right, first door on your left.
She went on alone. She felt completely empty inside. “Hey, lady!” shouted the tall one to her as she was entering the central hall. “Open the door and go right in. Don’t bother to knock. Got me?”
She opened the door the guard had told her about, second hall on the right, first door on the left.
She waited for the door to creak – surely the doors of the morgue would creak like all others. But the door opened softly, without a single noise.
There were many tables in the room. High, long, narrow tables. Only the four from Kalogreza were laid out on them. “They must be uncomfortable,” she thought. A miserable room with yellow light, dull yellow.
She went forward. Which one should she look at first? She paused as if deciding by lot. Finally she went to the one near the wall.
No, the first one was not her Yannis. Slowly, as if she were ashamed, she drew back the sheet, uncovering the head. She didn’t need to see his face; the hair was enough. Blond, almost bleach blond. Her Yannis had dark brown hair.
No, the second one was not her Yannis. He had a moustache, whereas Yannis had none.
The third? He resembled Yannis, but the face was badly mutilated; she couldn’t say yes or no. The body was the same height as Yannis. She left the head and went to the feet. She pulled away the sheet and grabbed the left shoe – they all wore the same type of boot. She pulled hard, but it wouldn’t come off. It finally came off; she used all her strength almost falling over backwards with the effort. Then she took off the sock. No, not her Yannis. Yannis was missing his middle toe, damaged when he was ten by a firecracker on Easter Saturday.
She didn’t have to spend much time on the fourth corpse; he too had a mustache.
Then her knees began to give way but there were no chairs in the room. With difficulty she managed to get onto the fourth man’s table and sat by his feet. Just as she was comfortable, she saw the third man’s foot which she had left bare.
“He’ll catch a cold,” she reasoned, and slid down from the table and went to put the sock and shoe back on and pulled up the sheet nicely as well.
She heard a clock strike… from a nearby church? She counted the strokes; one, two, three… ten, eleven, twelve… “Midnight,” she thought, but at that instant she heard the thirteenth.
“I didn’t know clocks struck thirteen,” she said out loud. “When did they make the change? Ah! Things are changing too quickly in our little Greece!”
She sneezed and said, “Please excuse me!”
She was used to saying this when she sneezed with others around. Now she had others around her in the room; she had the four miners stretched out on those long, narrow tables. There were no others, on other corpses in the room. Only the four from Kalogreza.
No, her Yannis was not among the four. She had uncovered each of them. She had examined each carefully since the light was bad. Yannis didn’t happen to be among the four; he remained trapped in the earth. Her Yannis, a piece of coal in a coal bed.
She didn’t know how long she had been in the room with the bodies. Half an hour? Maybe longer?
She mounted the third man’s table. Strange, she could no longer cry. She had run out of tears, only a running nose – but she did not have a handkerchief with her. She started to wipe her nose with her shawl but felt ashamed. She felt all four were watching her since she had left their faces uncovered. She lifted the sheet, searched his pockets and found a handkerchief, dirty and mended in two spots.
“His mother must have mended it,” she said to herself. She blew her nose and put the handkerchief in the pocket of her daygown. Oh! How she had worked to wash, iron, and mend Yannis’ handkerchieves! His mama… Their mama…
The longer she remained with the four men, the closer she felt to them, continually closer. They had no one else there. Their mothers weren’t with them. Or were they…?
At first it seemed like a dream with many people surrounding her writing continuously in notebooks. But it wasn’t a dream at all. When she opened her eyes – she had fallen asleep on the table – she saw a group of men, six or seven, coming towards her with notebooks.
She slid down from the table almost ripping her gown on a nail.
“Anybody here?” one of the group said loudly.
Then they gathered around.
“We’re reporters,” one said. “We’re here about the Kalogreza disaster,” said another. “What are you doing here?”
“Me? I’m their mama.”
“Yes, their mama.”
“Do you mean they’re all your sons?”
“They’re all my boys.”
The reporters wrote hurriedly: “Unprecedented tragedy. Mother loses all four sons.”
“Their names?” asked a reporter.
She pulled her shawl around her shoulders; she went to the first of the four bodies and stared into his eyes.
“My Yannis,” she said.
“My Yannis,” she said.
She moved on to the third and lifted up his right hand, which had slipped off the table.
“My Yannis,” she said.
Then she brushed aside the hair of the fourth young man which had fallen across his eyes. “My Yannis.”
Text in this post: © Andrew Horton
Published with the permission of Andrew Horton