NEW YORK – Americans – Hellenes and non-Greeks alike – cannot easily grasp developments in Greece, and they have great difficulty digesting the rancor and polarization that dominate its political scene.
It is impossible to do so without more historical knowledge than they typically possess, but while few are motivated to crack open history books, a historical novel like Sophia Nikolaidou’s The Scapegoat is an enlightening and entertaining alternative.
The story unfolds in two time frames. A contemporary Greek high school student was given a special assignment: to write about the notorious murder in May 1948 of CBS News Correspondent George Polk. He was found dead in Thessaloniki Bay, shot point-blank and with his hands and feet bound.
Polk was covering the Greek civil war and was critical of both sides. He condemned the Truman Administration’s unqualified support for Greece’s right wing government and was investigating corrupt practices. The prestigious Polk Award for journalism is named in his memory.
The book touches the monumental and the individual: the shedding of innocent blood, foreign interference in countries, parodies of justice, dirty politics – and the painful transition from adolescence into the adult world.
The English title refers to the urgency on both sides of the Atlantic to find a culprit at any cost, and the Greek title is Horevoun I Elefantes – from the title of traditional Greek story “The Elephants are dancing and the ants pay for it.” In this case, the ant was a communist journalist, Gregorios Staktopoulos, who was convicted of helping Polk’s killers.
“He entered the police station at 38 years old thinking he was following up on a complaint he had filed and left prison 12 years later at the age of 50,” Nikolaidou said.
One of the book’s themes is “this can happen to anybody. Nikolaidou said “When there is machinery in a country that has determined to frame you, no matter what you do, you are trapped….. that is one of the hair-raising dimensions of the story.”
YOUNG AND GREEK
She also wanted to paint a picture of the current struggles of the Greek people, and she does that through the story of Minas “a very intelligent high school student going through a personal crisis.”
He is disgusted with schooling that doesn’t inspire him and informs his parents he will not take his final or university entrance exams.
His mother is at her wits end, fearing he would not graduate and sought help from one of his teachers. An understanding man, he told Minas he could fulfil the requirements through a research project – the Polk Case.
“And as he begrudgingly takes it on, he begins to make a startling series off gripping discoveries – about history, love and even his own family’s involvement,” according to the book’s jacket.
Nikolaidou is not motivated by the desire to share her perspective on a piece of history, rather, she is interested in the interaction and clash of different historic periods.
She is also fighting her fear that people never learn from history.
In the Scapegoat, she explores how the events of the post-war era continue to speak to and impact Greece, “which is still a country where foreigners have a say in the issues of the present.”
“Two generations after the occurrence, a young man who encounters it on paper learns critical lessons about the functioning of his country in the past and the present…two parallel stories eventually become entangled,” she told TNH.
Nikolaidou is also fascinated by the idea of how generations inherit the sins of their parents, and how the same applies to groups and nations.
She agrees that the extreme polarization of Greece reflects the divisions of a civil war whose issues were not fully resolved.
The junta reopened wounds, and its fall created new opportunities, but there has yet to be real catharsis. “Many things are still under the rug.”
For example, most Greek-Americans have heard of the junta, but few are aware of what some call “the junta before the junta” – the authoritarian post war governments that used the Cold War as a cover to settle old scores or crush opposition. Thousands were imprisoned communists who merely protested that state of affairs.
“That is why the left in Greece has an – in quotation marks – ‘ethical advantage.’ It’s because so many innocent people were deemed communists even if they were not.”
During the Civil War Greece was the only NATO member that was a Cold War battleground, and The Scapegoat illuminates one of its critical incidents.
Nikolaidou told TNH that the translator, Karen Emmerich, “did an exceptional job.” She was impressed both by her translator’s mastery of Greek and her ability to convey the emotions and the spirit of the Greek text.
Nikolaidou liked reading and writing from early childhood, but she only became interested in history as she got older, although like her entire generation, she paid much attention to politics.
She has a younger brother and a younger sister and studied philology and classics at Aristotle University, where she earned her doctorate.
Amazon has been pre-selling the book, which one reviewer described as “intricate and suspenseful.” It will be released on February 3.