Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Cretan Runner

I have just finished two excellent books by Greek authors: The Boundless Garden, by Alexandros Papadiamandis and The Cretan Runner, by George Psychoundakis, at left. The Boundless Garden came highly recommended, and it did not disappoint. I definitely will be commenting about it in the months to come. But The Cretan Runner came as a surprise. I bought it only because of Patrick Leigh Fermor's Introduction (and I would discourage buying the new edition if it does not contain that section.) Generally, I am not terribly interested in wartime memoirs.

This, however, is an amazing book. And George Psychoundakis was a remarkable man. In 1941, he was a 21-year old Cretan shepherd, whose village of Asi Gonia was remote even by the standards of Crete in that day. Theirs was among the poorest of the families, living in an earthen-floored one-room hut, all looking to George for their very survival. As the Nazis over-ran Crete, Psychoundakis joined the partisans who retreated into the mountains. Here they joined forces with a scattering of British soldiers and spys stranded on the island to form one of the most remarkable resistance movements of the war. And it was in this context that Psychoundakis became the lifelong friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

By our standards, we would have called him uneducated. He had, at best 2-3 years of occasional schooling. And yet, this young shepherd could recite--completely from memory--an epic poem of his creation that took 2 hours in the telling. And this is not a book about Psychoundakis, but one written by him. He was unjustly and falsely imprisoned by the Greek government after the war. Before this mistake could be rectified, he spent a number of months in prison. During his imprisonment, he wrote this account in 5 notebooks. A few years after the war, Fermor returned to Crete and found Psychoundakis, who entrusted him with the manuscripts. Fermor immediately realized the extraordinary work he held in his hands, and worked tirelessly for its publication. With few and minimal revisions, the book was published in 1955, largely as Psychoundakis penned it in prison. In later years, he translated the Illiad and the Odyssey into the Cretan dialect.

Fermor describes his first meeting with Psychoundakis:

He wore a black Cretan shirt, his clothing was in tatters and his patched boots-the semi-detached sole of one of which was secured to its upper with a thick strand of wire--were coming to bits on his feet. When he took off his fringed headkerchief to untwist one of his messages, his forehead was shade by a raven-black shock. A small, carefully tended moustache ran along his upper lip. He was small in stature and as fine-boned as an Indian, looking little older than sixteen, though he was actually twenty-one. He was lithe and agile and full of nervous energy. His eyes were large and ark, and his face, in repose, thoughtful and stamped by a rather melancholy expression which vanished at once in frequent fits of helpless and infectious laughter that almost anything seemed to provoke.

When my answers were written and safely stowed by George in their various caches, we lay about talking under the bushes till it grew dark, drinking from a small calabash of raki which Elpida had brought with her from the house, and cracking almonds with a stone. It was plain that George was enraptured with the excitement of our secret life, in spite of the appalling trudges that kept him for ever on the move in those merciless mountains. When the moon rose he got up and threw a last swig of raki down his throat with the words 'Another drop of petrol for the engine'', and loped towards the gap in the bushes with the furtiveness of a stage Mohican or Groucho Marx. He turned round when he was on all fours at the exit, rolled his eyes, raised a forefinger portentously, whispered 'The Intelligence Service!' and scuttle d through like a rabbit. A few minutes later we could see his small figure a mile away moving across the next moonlit fold of the foothills of the White Mountains, bound for another fifty-mile journey.

Psychoundakis's tale is told so earnestly, guilelessly and simply that one sometimes looses sight of the real horror of their situation. The Germans were led to believe that the Cretans would welcome them, and when the exact opposite turned out to be the case, the Nazis turned on them with savage fury, killing entire villages in retribution for partisan activity. But the natives were on their home turf, and effective German control never extended far outside the major towns. Psychoundakis recounts many tales of eluding German patrols, hiding out in caves and monasteries that they knew so well. On one trek, they disguised an Englishman as an old peasant woman, permitting them to walk alongside the Nazi soldiers looking for the very same man. Another escapade resulted in the capture of a German general.

Early in the account, he describes the torching of a German airplane by 3 village teenagers. In time, their names became known and the Nazis threatened to wipe-out their village unless they turned themselves in. The older two eventually did and were sentenced to death, and the youngest (age 16) was captured and put in prison. Psychoundakis describes their execution:

So, after a few days, in a street in Archontiki and under the eyes of all the inhabitants, these two martyrs to freedom and death-deriders stood before the firing squad--naked, hungry, barefoot and in chains. Their last moment was approaching. Their bonds were removed and their executioners, with rifles levelled at their bare breasts, were waiting for the word 'Fire!' The leader of the German party read out the sentence and asked if they had any last words to say. Daskalakis asked for a glass of water which they gave him, and the question was repeated to Vernadakis, who said: 'A glass of wine and permission to sing a matinada.' [this being a Cretan 15-syllable rhyming couplet, usually with a sting in it.] Saying which, naked, barefoot and utterly exhausted as he was from thirst and hunger (for, during their confinement in Ayia jail they had been given neither food nor water, he mustered all the strength of his soul--and what greater strength is there?--and took to his heels. Straight away the firing squad began shooting after him as he ran. But neither the rifle bullets not the bursts from the sub-machine-guns could touch him. He ran like lightening from lane to lane until he was out of the village. Then, as it was difficult to run further without being see, he climbed up into an olive tree and stayed there until night fell. When it was quite dark, he climbed gently down and, slipping through the sentries, fled far away. Later he escaped to the Middle East when he volunteered for the Air Force.

While they were chasing Vernadakis through the village, Daskalakis remained motionless in his place although he too had a chance of taking to his heels and escaping. 'Run for it!' several onlookers shouted, but he refused, saying the Germans would avenge themselves on his kinsmen. It would be better for him to die, he said. In a few moments the Germans were back again, and they opened fire on Daskalakis with fury. He fell at once,l quite transformed and unrecognisable from the bursts of the German machine-guns.

Finally, the character of Psychoundakis himself comes through in this account:

Alas, when I got back to my village, a great disaster awaited me. During the night, unknown people had come and stolen all the sheep my father possessed, about sixty of them. I ran from one village to another trying to find them, but all in vain. The sheep had vanished forever. I was miserable, for sixty sheep meant salvation to a family, especially in those years. What was I to do now? Should I, too, take to stealing, as the custom is in those villages? No. It didn't even pass through my head. Kill the people who had stolen them? Nor that, either. Take them to court? That too was impossible....So I left God to punish them, which He did after His fashion and in His own time. I resumed my peaceful way of life as before.

This, my friends, is what they call a good read.

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