From oral history to fiction
From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #59 (Autumn 2016).
The Cleaner of Kastoria
Lulu, 2016, £8.99
Some years ago Jacqueline Paizis embarked on research for a doctorate about the role of women in the Greek Civil War of 1946-49. She dropped the research, but years afterwards, listening to the interview tapes she had recorded, she decided to use them as the basis for a novel. It was a fortunate decision; most doctoral theses are turned into ridiculously expensive books aimed at university libraries, where they are read, if at all, by others working on similar specialisms. A novel like this will, hopefully, get the rather broader readership it deserves.
The novel is set in Greece in the early seventies; the military dictatorship of the junta is at its end. There are various references to the heroic student rising at Athens Polytechnic in 1973 which helped to put an end to army rule. But an atmosphere of intimidation prevails; phones are tapped and the main character’s daughter is sacked for daring to talk to her union rep in her workplace.
The central character, Dina, is a grandmother who earns her living as a cleaner. It is unpleasant work, physically hard and often degrading, clearing up for people rich enough not to have to do it for themselves. But though cleaners would not normally be thought of as skilled workers, Dina takes pride in her skills and is much in demand. Her relations with her customers are complex; they are not portrayed as caricatures, some being wholly obnoxious while others are depicted much more ambiguously. There are a few cross references to the London night cleaners’ unionisation campaign of the early seventies.
But Dina has a past; in the late forties she had fought with the Communist guerrillas of the Democratic Army [DA]. In a couple of flashback chapters and many other references we see how those experiences, seemingly in a quite different world, continue to inspire her commitment to the struggle for a better society.
Her memories of the war are two-sided; all the horror is there, the bloodshed, loss of loved ones, the appalling suffering caused by napalm, which the Americans were supplying before using it much more extensively in Vietnam. But there was also the idealism and the comradeship; her memories are often positive. Paizis quotes from one of her interviewees: “We never forgot those times, the excitement all mixed up with fear and I don’t believe there’s a woman who doesn’t sometimes wish she was back in the mountains. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t mean the horror, the killing. But maybe you will think I’m romanticising it.”
In particular it is stressed that during the fighting women took part on a basis of complete equality. Dina recalls: “In the DA we had women soldiers who were officers, lieutenants. I was a lieutenant. Women soldiers who commanded platoons; women who fought at the front line and they didn’t fight any worse than the men. We had all the respect that men had; all their consideration. They never behaved in a way to devalue us, nor exploit us as women. No man could put a hand on any woman because they knew they would be punished.”
Dina continues to frequent Communists; they are the ones putting their heads on the line and animating the resistance to the regime. But she is also deeply critical of Stalinist rule in Eastern Europe – she believes Stalin was “just another dictator” - and is distrustful of the role of the KKE (Communist Party). And as Paizis reminds us in the introduction, those who crushed the guerrilla struggle and who backed the military dictatorship have their successors in today’s fascists of Golden Dawn.
The story itself sometimes looks like
a romance, a bit predictable – but beware – there are some twists. There are no happy endings for the likes of Dina - but there is always hope for a future which new generations can make.
And of course the Greek civil war was not a “civil war” at all – a key role was played by Britain and the United States: Attlee and Truman both had Greek blood on their hands. Dina’s story is very much a part of our story; it deserves a wide readership.
To buy the book go to here