Dominating one of the walls at the Ellis Island Museum is a larger-than- life-size portrait of a Greek Orthodox village priest from Crete sent to serve the needs of Greeks in the Utah of 1916-1918. The priest is Father Mark Petrakis.
A hundred years later, his son, Harry Mark Petrakis is universally honored for his renderings of the lives of the Greeks of the Great Migration (1880-1924) and his outstanding novels dealing with the Greek war of independence. As recently as December 6 of this year, Petrakis was the featured speaker at the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the union of Crete with Greece. The event was sponsored by the Pancretan Association of America and the United Cultural Committee of the NY-NJ Cretan chapters.
Although Petrakis is quite proud of his Cretan heritage, he is not a regionalist and his audience is not limited to Greek Americans. He has been twice nominated for the National Book Award. Some of his novels have been national bestsellers, and his work was been adapted for mainstream film and television.
In a recent interview with Petrakis, I asked him about Cretan influences in his work. His immediate response was “Nikos Kazantzakis.” He proceeded to speak about Kazantzakis’ universalism, intense emotions, integrity, and profound regard for humanity. He also cited Kazantzakis as inspiring the conclusion of his Hour of the Bell, a novel dealing with the earliest years of the Greek war for independence.
Petrakis states that, “I began working in the winter. I was soon overwhelmed by the complexities I had to deal with. I feared the novel was beyond my capacities.” He then recounts a nap during which he dreamed about a sequenced in one of Kazantzakis’ works. A teacher is told to hush by a student who wants to listen to a thrush at the school window. Petrakis awoke and immediately began to make notes.
Hour of the Bell, which took another three years to complete, ends with a revolutionary fighter lecturing to Greek schoolboys. He is told to stop talking by one of the student s who points to a thrush on the window sill. The revolutionary immediately understands that, “The thrush was Greece, its song an unfoldment of the lovely, eternal, and inextinguishable land. The thrush was Greece… he knew by the grateful and consoling tears of his soul. And he would hush so they might listen.”
Petrakis regrets never having met Kazantzakis, but he is pleased to have known Eleni Kazantzakis in her later years. He has written about that relationship in his Song of My Life to be published this coming year by the University of South Carolina Press. Petrakis proudly notes that that critic Kimon Friar once wrote that his work was a leaf on the tree of Kazantzakis, a formulation that placed the work of a Greek American in the context of a Greek literary tradition of storytelling.
The single Petrakis novel that features Cretans is Days of Vengeance, which is set in Utah during the earliest years of mass migration. Petrakis was born after his family left Utah, but his father often spoke of his years in Utah. This was a time when there were numerous posters declaring: No Niggers, No Greeks. He also spoke of incidents such as the one when a Greek improperly accused of rape would have been lynched if a hundred armed Greeks had not surrounded the jail. Petrakis, a stickler for historical accuracy, also consulted Helen Papanikolas, the major historian of that region and era.
In Days of Vengeance, Petrakis doesn’t hesitate to examine the full range of the Greek character. While the fierceness of Cretan culture led to winning labor battles for a better standard of living, it also seeded horrendous vendettas that also found expression in America. Similarly, Hour of the Bell has a grisly account of the Greek slaughter of all Turks and their allies at Tripolitza. His source is not some ivory tower moralist, but the troubled memoirs of the Greek commander, General Kolokotrones.
Petrakis, now aged 90, says he no longer has the stamina to write novels, but he still has some good stories to tell and some historical moments he wishes to revisit. He doesn’t write about contemporary Greek America very much. He believes that task belongs to younger writers who are as familiar with their world as he was with Chicago, the setting of much of his work.
Petrakis says his greatest challenge has always been to capture the full emotional and intellectual range of his Greek characters. He cherishes their warmth, generosity, individuality, and dignity. He also recognizes that they can be pompous, resistant to change, stubborn, and addicted to bad habits. In Stelmark and Song of My Life, he bravely records follies that nearly destroyed his own life. Candid as he has always been about the shortcomings of the Greek character, the dominating spirit of the work of Harry Mark Petrakis is a profound admiration for the songs of his beloved thrush.