The Eye of Xenos: Letters About Greece
Richard Pine with Vera Konidari
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Richard Pine is known to the readers of this newspaper for his lively columns on life in Greece. As director of the Durrell Library of Corfu, he has also published numerous publications on the writings of Lawrence Durrell as well as on Irish theater, particularly the works of Wilde and Friel.
He is of English descent, has completed both RTÉ and TCD and has been based in Corfu full-time for 20 years. He is passionate about life on the island and the wider Greek world. Nonetheless, he proudly claims to be identified as “xenos”, foreigners or outsiders, and uses this opportunity to openly comment on his adopted country. For the English euphemism “Candid Friend” there is probably a salty Greek expression that comes very close to it.
In 2015, Pine published Greece through Irish Eyes, and its new collection again hints at apparent similarities between the two countries: a history of struggles for independence from the disgruntled rule of a larger neighbor; a traumatic memory of the civil war; a border issue (in the case of Greece with Macedonia) that will not go away.
Both countries face condescending and biased national stereotypes (Pine goes very well with the “Balkan” inventions of imperialist writers like John Buchan). In more subtle ways, there are cultural resonances in both countries ‘approach to history, storytelling and dramatic staging – immortalized in Theo Angelopoulos’ great film The Traveling Players, in which the Greek experience of the 20th constantly strives to achieve a finished performance.
But Pine is equally attuned to the differences between Greece and Ireland. Although both countries suffered from austerity measures after the economic crash, Greece’s condition remained critical. “Austerity,” notes Pine, was a way of life in Greece before the word was given its new meaning: “First, the severity of the landscape, the climate and the geography; second, the facts of history which force a livelihood on the great majority of the people; and thirdly, the economic conditions under which his “independence” was exercised ”.
Fortunately, post-crisis politics did not make it possible for an Irish party to emerge that corresponds to the neo-fascist Golden Dawn in Greece. Ireland does not suffer from Turkey’s diplomatic and territorial aggression under Erdogan. And Ireland is not, like Greece, facing the devastating effects of wave after wave of refugees, putting unbearable pressure on the country’s fragile economy and ecosystems.
While tourism and the exploitation of beautiful countryside (a concern of Pine) are vital to both countries, in Ireland it is part of the economy rather than – as in Greece – a devouring presence at the center. And while criticism may be voiced of aspects of Irish public services, the picture Pine paints of the nepotism and corruption found in political office, public broadcasting, museums and the ubiquitous informal economy, among others, suggests one deeply rooted Greek malaise.
Step too far
Self-criticism is not just the privilege of the Xenos, and Pine quotes some stern Greek commentators who are equally keen on their country’s ongoing crisis. One of them, the writer Vangelis Hatziyannidis, refers sardonically to the Greek tendency to “spend more time planning the past than planning the future”.
It is a sentence that will be remembered. The final section of the book prints Pine’s columns (in Greek and English) for the Greek magazine Kathemerini, including those that resulted in the termination of his contract when he denounced controversial plans to “develop” a pristine peninsula in Corfu, as well as open connections to the political interests that support it. The Xenos had gone a step too far.
But his argument holds that “although the Greek people allowed an incomplete and inadequate system to develop. . . Their strength lies in their everyday culture ”. For all his fierce criticism of the Troika’s post-crash Greece policy and dislike of the “megalithic” aspects of today’s EU, Pine’s sensitivity is intrinsically European.
And with sad irony, the Brexit catastrophe underscored his outsider status, as he is burdened with this new liability in Europe, a British passport, despite his long stay in Ireland and Greece. While Boris Johnson’s England is shrinking to a self-parodic and corrupt hinterland and fantasizing about delusional “sovereignty” and a long-forgotten imperial role, “Planning the Past” has become a syndrome that is more relevant for Richard Pine’s country of origin than it is imaginatively adopted and interpreted .