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Literature

Petrakis’ Novels Chronicle the Greek War of Independence

March 30, 2021

Harry Mark Petrakis is justly renowned for his writing about the Greeks of Chicago.  He also has written two novels of equal authority and extraordinary power about the Greek War of Independence: The Hour of the Bell and The Shepherds of Shadows.

Although many Greek Americas enthusiastically celebrate the Greek War of Independence (1821-1833), many are not familiar with its particulars and indulge myths about its heroism while minimizing or ignoring its problems. In fact, the revolt involved bitter infighting among the revolutionaries, treason, assassinations, and other despicable behavior. The final outcome was not a democratic republic as envisioned by the most high-minded rebels but a mini-state headed by a Bavarian monarch imposed by what were then called The Great Powers. Some 800,000 Greeks would be citizens of the new state, but 2,500,000 other Greeks remained in various territories ruled by a foreign power. These territories included Crete, Greek Macedonia, the Pontos, Thrace, numerous islands, and the Aegean coastline of Asia Minor. It would take over a hundred years of additional struggles for Greece to achieve its current borders.

Petrakis’ historical research, which included on-site investigations in Greece, has made him familiar with the geography, tastes, and sounds of the early nineteenth century, allowing him to weave telling detail into every scene and character. At times the narratives become so engrossing that the books literally become page-turners as the reader simply must know, as soon as possible, the outcome of a momentous battle, an ideological conflict, or a romance. The individuals depicted, however legendary, remain recognizable human beings with shortcomings, not carboard cutouts shaped to embody or create a myth. By daring to deal with the failings of the Greeks, refusing to glorify war and rejecting any endorsement of mindless vengeance, Petrakis succeeds in capturing the genuine valor and the incredible sacrifices of the Greek people as they struggled for national independence. By addressing these issues candidly, his novels are all the more powerful, fascinating, realistic, and inspirational.

A feature of both novels are accounts of the actions of the independent warrior bands known as klefts who resided in mountain strongholds. The vast majority of them played a major role in achieving the ultimate Greek victory. He also shows that some were just self-serving thieves who only fought for Greece when paid and who sometimes fought for the Sultan.

Petrakis’ account goes beyond admiration of proverbial kleftic dancing and heroism to depict how these fierce warriors and others who take up armed struggle must commit acts and release emotions that would not normally be considered acceptable. When they return to civilian life, even though they may never speak of what they have done in the name of patriotism, the psychological costs can be bitter. Petrakis also goes against stereotyping by refusing to portray the villagers as docile sheep or ignorant peasants but as a cultural base that can create heroes.

When Petrakis first released The Hour of the Bell, he announced it would be part of a trilogy that would encompass the entire war. It is set in the early years of the revolt and features notable military victories. The Shepherds of Shadows carries the revolution into the troubled years of 1823-1825. The euphoria of open rebellion and initial victories has given way to a sense that the struggle is going to be very long and costly. The Sultan’s own forces have been defeated, but he has called upon Ibrahim Pasha to invade Greece with a fresh army of thousands of Egyptians. The outcome of the war is very much in doubt.

The Hour of the Bell [1]

The House of the Bell explores the genesis of the revolt and captures the national jubilation at rebelling against the Ottoman oppressor. Petrakis chronicles how difficult it was for young men to leave their villages to go to battle and how priests fretted about the fate of their villages and the consequences of the revolution for a Church headquartered in the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

From the onset, Petrakis refuses to indulge in simple-minded nationalism. The novel’s most powerful passages involve the massive Greek victory at Tripolitza led by General Theodoros Kolokotronis. The Greek troops slaughter every fighter and civilian on the Ottoman side, including women and children. The battlefield itself is so strewn with bodies that one cannot see the ground. Rather than feeling jubilant about his victory, Kolokotronis is despondent. He walks among the dead and fears that by making killing too satisfying and acceptable, the revolution risks destroying the very principles of human dignity it champions. With the enormous pain of the revolution visible everywhere, he is repelled by the murderous divisions within his own rebel forces and the indifference of third parties that seek their own national interests at the expense of Greece. He wonders what kind of nation can emerge from such passions.

Petrakis’ concerns are not just the usual predictable humanitarian laments for innocent dead civilians, what later militarists have labeled collateral damage, but weighty meditations on the costs of even a just military struggle.

The Shepherds of Shadows [2]

In The Shepherds of Shadows, reflections of a similar kind will afflict Father Markos who mourns Turkish villagers indiscriminately slain by his own parishioners at the onset of the revolution.

Although frank about these terrible realities, Petrakis does not allow them to fatally mar the revolutionary vision of a better life that motivates the men and women of Greece. The romances featured at the opening and closing of the novel further affirm the positive values that revolution embodies.

The shepherds of shadows are Petrakis’ poetic image of the kleftic warriors that were such an essential military force in the war for independence. Contemporary military strategists might define the klefts as masters of asymmetrical warfare in which relatively small units of rebels in impregnable strongholds continuously jab at a nominally superior force until their foe is exhausted. Most of the klefts treat villagers as family, not subjects to be ruled by them instead of the Ottomans. Petrakis, however duly underscores that some of the klefts were professional thieves who would render service to the highest bidder. Some of them preyed on Greeks, poor and rich, as well as non-Greeks. Their number was less than the patriotic klefts but their presence was real and is duly recorded.

The first scenes of the novels are set in Kravasaras (today’s Vasilika), a village located ninety-six miles northwest of Athens. We are immediately made aware of the harsh conditions the revolt has spawned. Father Markos, the village priest, emerges as a gentle man worried about what these hardships are doing to the spirit of his parishioners. A crisis develops when Greeks from a distant village who have fled the Ottoman army arrive to ask for food and shelter that is simply not available. The desperate situation which was leading to an inter-Greek confrontation is only averted by the arrival of three klefts led by Manolis Kitsos, a youth reared in Kravasaras.

Manolis brings food with him and arranges for the displaced villagers to proceed to an area that can care for them. The villagers, however, insist on leaving behind a young woman named Maria. They disdain her because the child she lovingly suckles is the consequence of a rape by a Turkish soldier. Father Markos gives Maria his personal protection, and Manolis soon finds himself attracted to her. Through the course of the novel, their relationship blossoms into genuine love.

Another major character is Xanthos, an intellectual who is serving as an emissary from General Kolokotronis. His mission is to persuade as many klefts as possible to leave the mountains to fight in the formal army led by Kolokotronis. Xanthos soon discovers he must be wary of those who are just brigands out for personal profit.

Divisions also exist in the ranks of the clergy. Most, like Father Markos, support the revolution and serve their villagers who are often on the verge of famine. Some priests have opted to become warriors themselves. One of them becomes so fierce that he intimidates ordinary villagers and sometimes even frightens his own men. In contrast, a considerable number of priests in Constantinople believed the Greek cause would be better served by gradually reforming the Ottoman Empire from within rather than supporting a risky armed rebellion. Some of them also feel in immediate personal danger as Sultan might choose to hold them responsible for the actions of their faithful over whom he had given authority.

Xanthos returns to Kolokotronis with numerous pledges of support by kleftic bands, but he finds the revolutionary leadership is not unified. Men such as Markos Bostaris and Alexander Mavrokordatos often seemed more concerned about their individual and regional ambitions than the broader revolution. Partly to combat the influence of such leaders, Xanthos is sent with a small delegation to meet with the newly arrived Lord Byron, who has pledged to do all in his power to aid the Greeks.

Numerous commentators have extolled Byron for lending his prestige to the Greek cause, raising money, and calling for Europeans to fight alongside the Greeks. That view considers Byron an irreplaceable personality whose death by malaria at Missolongi was a serious blow to the revolution. Many other writers consider Byron to be no more than a well-meaning but ineffectual, and foolish artist playing at being a revolutionary. He is seen as an impossibly stubborn, sexually conflicted, and foolish aristocrat whose reputation is based on his dramatic death in a site distant from his native England.

Petrakis offers a far more insightful portrait of Lord

Byron. He is candid about every fault in Byron, but remains impressed by Byron’s passionate dedication to the principle of individual liberty and the rebirth of classical Hellenic values. The sequences in which Petrakis depicts the death of Byron captures the full measure of a very complex man. I don’t know of any literary critic or historian who offers a more profound evaluation of this most famous of all phil-Hellenes.

The Battles at Sea

The dramatic events that unfold on the mainland are matched by sequences dealing with the war at sea. The sea story mainly unfolds through the eyes of Leonidas Kontos, a seaman from Psara, who is captain of the brig Odysseus. Petrakis describes how the Greeks bravely used incendiary platforms (Greek Fire) to destroy Ottoman ships. We observe how the superior seamanship of the Greeks allows them to defeat an Ottoman navy composed of more numerous, larger, and better-armed vessels.

Gripping sea sequences dealing with a terrible storm serve as a reminder of the formidable natural forces with which the Greek seamen had to contend. Petrakis further enriches this vivid section with a consideration of the superstitions that plagued the Greeks. Like Father Markos back in the village, Kontos feels victory will elude the Greeks if they cannot cast off out-dated ideas and behavior, many of which have developed in response to the Ottoman Occupation.

A tragic high point of the novel involves the effort of Kontos and others from Psara to position themselves against the Ottoman forces threatening their native island. They arrive too late. The island which was home to seven thousand inhabitants has been devastated in the same manner the Ottomans had devastated Chios the preceding year. Most of the young women and children have been taken to be sold at slave markets in the Middle East. Everyone else has been murdered, often in a sadistic manner. Only a handful of Psarans have managed to survive by hiding in the mountains. The tales they tell of the massacre are as gruesome as those told by the survivors of Nazi concentration camps. One half-demented man wishes to die rather than live with the memory of the atrocities he has witnessed.

The Ottoman forces now plan a full-blown invasion of the Peloponnesus. The Greeks are in military and political disarray. At one point Kolokotronis is even jailed by his Greek rivals. Only a rag-tag army led by General Yannis Makriyannis is left to oppose the professional soldiers of the Egyptian army. Among the advisors of Makriyannis is Xanthos. As the battle for Nafplion takes shape, Xanthos is awed by how profoundly the illiterate Makriyannis understands the highest ideals of the revolution. Given the gravity of the threat to the revolution, Xanthos resolves that he too must become a warrior. He is given military training by a kleft with whom he has formed a friendship.

Petrakis builds up to the battle with incredible control. Once the fighting begins, we get a blow-by-blow account of combat that has enormous visual and emotional power.  Peter Bien’s foreword to the novel captures the moment well. Ill-trained Greek farmers, armed with primitive rifles that need to be reloaded after each shot, face an army with professional cavalry, sophisticated weaponry, and infantry. Wielding their swords in brutal hand-to-hand fighting, the humble farmers miraculously prevail.

Xanthos survives the battle unharmed, but his closest comrade is severely wounded. Xanthos feels compelled to escort his friend back to his native village. Once among his family, his friend begins to heal while Xanthos falls in love with a humble village girl. Thus, the novel ends as it began, with the enduring values preserved in the traditional Greek villages of the nineteenth century.

The forces of Ibrahim Pasha are not totally routed, but the revolutionary capital of Nafplion has been saved. Pasha will still cause considerable damage throughout the Peloponnesos, but like the battle of Gettysburg, Nafplion has turned the tide of war. One year later, forces mainly composed of fighters from Mani will deliver a crushing defeat to Pasha at the Battle of Politsaravon.  A year after that, Greece’s European allies will destroy the Ottoman navy at the battle of Navarino.

The complexity of the novel’s plot underscores its broad scope. Equal attention is given to both the glorious aspects of the struggle and its horrendous internal rivalries. By daring to deal with the failings of the Greeks, avoiding stereotypes, and refusing to glorify war or vengeance, Petrakis succeeds in capturing the genuine heroism and the incredible sacrifices of the Greek people.

The Petrakis who wrote The Shepherds of Shadows was an even wiser and more skillful artist than the author of the admirable The Hour of the Bell. A third, possibly even more spectacular third novel had been contemplated by Petrakis. For a number of reasons relating to aging and the time needed for reliable research, he was not been able to do so. What we have in hand, however, is quite marvelous, incomplete as the revolution itself, but quite marvelous. Harry Mark Petrakis has brought the Greek War of Independence to life in a manner unprecedented in American literature.

______________________________________________________________________

[1]Harry Mark Petrakis. The Hour of the Bell—a novel of the Greek War of Independence against the Turks. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.  1976. First edition, 362 pages. Also available in Greek and as a paperback from Southern Illinois University Press.

[2]Harry Park Petrakis. The Shepherds of Shadows. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008. First Edition, 326 pages. 

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