Hellenic Hush

johnstonp01pic1.jpg The unique selling point of Mavros is that he is half-Scots and half-Greek. It relates to my experience although of course I’m not Greek, but I’ve spent a lot of my life there and in some ways I’d like to be Greek… He lost his elder brother during the colonel’s dictatorship. He just disappeared one night and no one’s ever found him. This is why Mavros himself has become a private investigator specialising in finding missing people. He has a 100 per cent success rate in finding people, but the one person he’s never been able to find is his brother Andonas, who kind of haunts him.

Your raw material as a fiction writer is human character and emotion and everything else to do with being human on an observational level. A lot of authors end up being terrible eavesdroppers. I for a long time passed myself off in Greece as a Greek because I can speak Greek, and I don’t look that foreign. It obviously shows a certain sneaky aspect of my character. I think all crime writers have that. I suspect all authors have it.

In the latest book, The Golden Silence, there was a very strong metaphor of masks running all the way through, and that metaphor is linked with the metaphor of silence, because masks can’t speak, especially if they’ve been placed over dead people’s faces, as the Mycaenians used to do. More generally, there’s an issue of political violence. The point is a lot of these people who survived appalling treatment in various prisons and interrogation centres don’t talk about it, like my grandfather didn’t talk about what happened to him in the first World War. I never asked him what it was like to go over the top. There were things that just weren’t discussed. But the problem with silence is that in a free society silence is not allowed. Although, as the title suggests, silence may be golden, in fact it’s not.

There are a lot of similarities between Greece and Scotland. Obviously, the incidence of ancient Greek thought and culture led to the Enlightenment. People like Hume and so on were very well versed in ancient Greek works and the whole point was they were trying to move the Renaissance take on Aristotle and Plato to a different level. One of the main things that links the two countries is they both are obsessed or weighed down by the past. There’s an expression in Greek, ‘the weight of the past’, and it’s often used in a very negative sense. I think that applies to Scotland as well. One of the reasons I got so interested in Greece as a boy was it seemed to me that Greece was a country that has made it through terrible disasters but had kind of come through. Scotland was very much seen by people of my generation as a busted flush, and I very much wanted out. I wanted somewhere that wasn’t so depressing in terms of history and contemporary culture. We’ve had Braveheart, but let’s not forget Flodden. Let’s not forget Culloden. We practically handed the country over to the English. I’m not being nationalist, but there are aspects of Scots history that are very painful, a weight on contemporary society. But everything seems to have changed now. I know we were very ambivalent about the Parliament but it seems we have less of a chip on our shoulders now, about England. It seems that Scotland has its identity back.

To some extent [the portrayal of Greece in the book] could be Scotland, particularly in the beginning when the guys are fishing. I was playing around there a bit, hinting that the scene was very Scottish, subverting the normal view of Greece. The colour of the light up north is very like the colour around a loch. The longer I go on with this symbiosis with Scotland and Greek culture and history the more and more links I find.

When I was first in Greece I didn’t speak much modern Greek. On the island everyone knew I was foreign, because they knew who I was, but at the same time I spoke the language. I’m talking more about when I was in Athens, as I was often in the past and am now more or less full time. It links up with what I was saying about authors eavesdropping. I’ve taken it to a further extreme in Greece. I used to have a moustache, like most Greek young men do. I know I was taken for a Greek, because people would ask me in the streets for directions in Greek. I did a Greek equivalent of Desert Island Discs for radio a couple months ago, which was great fun. Someone phoned up and actually said ‘I don’t believe that guy’s not Greek.’ And I was going, well that’s very complimentary, I’ll send you the cheque afterwards. [Laughs] But honestly, the longer I speak to someone the more they’ll begin to pick up things that aren’t Greek. A friend said I most sounded like a Greek who’s spent a great deal of time in Australia or the States, or a Cypriot maybe. It relates to Mavros as well. The best detectives from Sherlock Holmes onwards are people who are in the margins of society, that can go into the society, they know how it works, they have connections, but in order to have the objectivity to separate the threads of an investigation, you have to be able to get rid of the rubbish basically. Mavros, because of his half-Greek, half-Scots nature is – there’s a Greek word, ksenos, which means ‘stranger, foreigner’ – and for people on an island, someone from Athens is a ksenos, someone even from another island; it doesn’t only refer to foreigner by nationality.

I wanted to subvert the image of Greece as such a family-dependant place. In this situation you have a pair of torturers, the father and son. They have a very difficult relationship. The son has had enough of the father, but the father is this horrible torturer who used to work on people during the colonel’s regime and now is employed by a criminal gang boss to do similar things to get information from opposing gangs. I am suggesting there’s a direct link between extreme right-wing politics and crime.

Until ten or fifteen years ago, there was no way you could write a self-professed crime novel and have it seen as literary. Nowadays crime fiction has become more respectable – not respectable enough; ask any crime writer from Ian Rankin to Louise Anderson, they’ll all say they wish we were much more open in terms of how the media approaches crime fiction in this country. In the States, they may not be John Updike, but they are accorded a certain amount of respect. In France, in Sweden, crime fiction is very highly regarded.

There’s nothing wrong with telling a rattling good yarn that also includes material of an intellectual interest, apart from the fact that it’s very difficult to write. [Laughs] This book was a deliberate attempt to really concentrate on the plot, to the extent that you can separate plot from character and setting and the rest of it. I’ve made it as rattling as I could, without throwing the ‘weight of the past’ issue out completely. It’s meant to be a reflection of modern Greece. There’s been a huge influx of foreign labour into Greece because it is a relatively rich country. This girl, Kata, is 18, about to finish school, is the daughter of Greek Russians, i.e. former Soviet Union inhabitants who were of Greek ethnicity and now come back to the homeland. These people find it quite hard to settle in. They’re encouraged to come back, there’s a Ministry that looks after people coming back to the homeland. This girl, a beautiful, striking blond girl, goes missing and Mavros is put on her trail. It’s the tragedy of modern life. People coming back, who are Greeks, who are discriminated against to some extent, or at least are seen as not really being Greeks, but in a generation will be. We have the same thing with people coming into the UK from parts of the former empire; in Greece it’s weirder because there’s so much respect in principle for the religion and the language so anyone who has that is accepted, at least by the state, if not on the ground.

There are an incredible number of ironies about Greece’s civilisation. The Acropolis and the Parthenon were built by slaves. Women were basically completely shut off. There were foreign workers who had very limited civil rights. It was Apartheid, basically, including women, but what they did do, which I very much approve of, is that even in ancient Greece they got rid of kings. They clocked very early on that having kings and hereditary dynasties was a very bad idea. They had decided that the people who should run the state were the men. It may sound divisive, but the fact is that the men who had the vote also had to go out and fight for the city and maintain freedom. Your right to vote was based on the fact that you had a duty to fight for the city. It’s very hard to square that the cradle of democracy was also so savage. They ended up in the Peloponnesian war eventually, one of the most savage civil wars in history. But the Greeks were incredibly advanced intellectually, in terms of working out that the best way to run things was democracy. But that’s the point: there are a lot of levels of irony. Greeks are aware of this – educated Greeks, and to be fair the Greek education system, which my daughter is going through, is pretty good about grounding different levels of the Greek past. Socrates said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ and that’s very much a motto of mine, that if someone wants to search for these things in Greek culture, as in Scots culture, they will find all sorts of curious juxtapositions.

I say to some people that I’ve just written a book on the Greek criminal underworld, and they go, ‘well there isn’t a Greek criminal underworld.’ At which point my eyebrow goes into a large curve, because if you think there isn’t a Greek criminal underworld then you’re not living in the real world. Everywhere there’s a criminal underworld – we have one here, and why would there not be one in Athens? It’s a city of 3.5 million people. I researched that carefully, to the extent you can research something like that, because you don’t really get people to talk about it easily. The issues about the Russian gangsters and the Serb gangsters coming in, or Albanian mafia as well – there’s no question about it. It’s not unrealistic at all – ok, the whole concatenation of events around these individuals, but it’s a novel, I don’t see why I should have to apologise for that, as long as it works. But the basis is reality.

johnstonp01pic2.jpg It’s a classic crime fiction thing; the murk, the cesspit that our society is built over will sometimes break through. It’s also a true reflection of Athens. It’s an odd city, because everyone, more or less, has a connection with the country. Every Greek in Athens has got family land somewhere in the middle of nowhere, because basically everyone who lives in Athens has moved from the country to the city. It has all these little neighbourhood localities, all of which will have a street market at least once a week, with people bringing stuff in from incredibly far away; they’ll drive two, three hundred kilometres to sell their fruit and veg. Every time there’s a public holiday everyone goes back. It’s almost biblical, but frequently people will go back to vote in their native place.

Some people were a bit taken aback by [the passage describing torture with fishhooks], but I think as a crime writer you owe your readers as many new things as you can come up with in terms of violence. I did try to make it consistent with savagery, obviously there’s a symbolic aspect to it, because Greece is surrounded by the sea and fishing’s always been vital. One of the women is sophisticated on the surface but there’s all this tension underneath. In fact that applies to all three of the women in late middle age who were involved in the resistance against the colonels when they were young and to some extent got tortured. Each of them has reacted to this life-changing experience in a totally different way. One of them’s become an incredibly successful actress, almost a representation of how the country would like to see itself, the national star. But she is still damaged by her experience. Another one who has a very direct link to the criminal underworld who has almost gone to the other side, rather like Stockholm syndrome for hostages, she’s kind of fallen in love with the dark side. Another one, who the title really refers to, has lost her voice completely and can’t explain or testify to what she went through. These three women I really enjoyed writing, and personally I found them very interesting. And of course that’s another take on the nature of society in Greece because in the 60s, up until the end of the colonel’s regime really, women were not put forward in Greek society. There were a few famous Greek women, but they tended to be Greeks who’d escaped from the stifling repressive paternalistic society which the colonels, being very traditional, reinforced big time. Now, there are women who are incredibly empowered. Greece is very healthy from that point of view, it’s happened very quickly. These three very different women, especially the two women who are very powerful in their specific fields, are a deliberate attempt on my part to problematise the historical issue of how women were treated in Greek society, how they could empower themselves. One of them empowers herself in a very unpleasant way. The interesting thing about the empowering of women, which I theoretically and politically completely approve of, one thing that empowered women tend to forget is what in the long term this effect is on men. It may well be an extremely healthy effect, and it may well emasculate or demasculate them to some extent, which is a very good thing in a macho society like Greece, but the wrong situation is it can make them even more violent and unpleasant and macho. The motto in ancient Delphi was ‘nothing to excess’… we need to find some kind of middle way. Excessive anything, whether it’s feminism or macho culture, or excessive love for anything, over the top football supporting, whatever it may be, excess in general is dangerous and disruptive to society. Although if we’re all totally controlled it’s not a proper life either.

My partner overheard someone the other day talking about my Quint books, and she was saying ‘Paul Johnstone’s Quint novels, yuck, they’re very depressing’. And those books are really pretty ameliorist – they’re trying to show that there are progressive ideas that we can apply to society but of course they have a cost, and inevitably some people find that deeply depressing. I think there is forward movement in human life, it’s related to evolution, everything moves on and develops. It may not develop in the right way, and a classic example is what is happening in the Middle East, where Muslim fundamentalism is seen by people in the west johnstonp01pic3.jpg as largely a backwards step. I’m not sure if we’re entitled to have that view, because a lot of these countries have been brutalised and overpowered by stronger countries – no names, but we’re in there definitely, as are our friends across the Atlantic. It may well be that these countries have to be allowed to develop themselves. Everything is about economics. Saudi Arabia is fairly fundamentalist and it’s very well off, that’s how it’s survived. A poor Muslim state like the Taliban’s Afghanistan is not going to survive. Either they’re going to do something idiotic and get invaded, or eventually people will just rise up because if you’ve got nothing to live for you’ve got nothing to lose. I still think progress exists. You see it in all sorts of senses in the world. I’ve been going to the Western General hospital all my life, and it’s got better, but it’s not as good as it should be.

The Golden Silence and Paul’s earlier Greek novels, The Last Red Death and A Deeper Shade of Blue are all available from Hodder & Stoughton (all £6.99 PBK).


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