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with narrative discourse
by Meni Kanatsouli*
Readers who want to get an overall view of the works of Manos Kondoleon should read them in the light of his varying use of narrative persons and his successive experiments in rendering a multiple viewpoint of the events he describes. It is this particular aspect of his writing that many people consider the most significant feature of the novel, i.e. the relationship between the author and the narrator and that of the narrator with the story and the protagonists, in short, the question of viewpoint, that will be the subject of our discussion below. At the same time, in the case of Kondoleon, narrative discourse turns out to be the best field for his experiments.
The theory of narration has shown that the voice of the narrator influences the objectivity and emotional weight expressed by literary discourse in a different way and to a different degree. A first-person narrative is more emotionally charged than a third-person one, while the narrator’s identity with or distancing from the fictional characters of a literary work (internal and external focus) allow the author to vary the degree of objectivity. The possible combinations of these narrative styles are not, as Stephens proved with great success, conventions that merely contribute to the typology of the work, but conceal ideological intentions, apparent and otherwise.
Thus in No. 33, one of the books that we have identified as being for children and young people, when Kondoleon selects the four members of a family – the couple and their two children - to recount the story of a crisis in the couple’s life from four different viewpoints, there is an obvious intention lying behind the choice of this type of narrative. Each of the four characters gives not only his or her own version of the events, but very discreetly recommends that the readers also maintain an equal distance from all the parties involved. Readers are not encouraged to identify with any one of them in particular, which means that the subjectivity experienced by the different characters is what ultimately defines the truth of this novel; in other words, the objectivity of an action can only be relative.
In his book With data from personal interviews, the constant shift from the first-person narrative spoken by several people to the third-person of a distant narrator is not just a device, it is meaningful. The first-person discourse, which has the confessional tone of the heroes’ innermost desires and moments, personifies and subjectifies events and developments to a greater extent, but its main features are the directness and verbalisation of an implied discussion. Speech is directed to a hypothetical listener or one who is invoked and invited to take part in the plot of the story – perhaps the reader? – thus justifying absolutely the title of the book. However, in one of Kondoleon’s earliest texts, the short story “He and I or I and he” from the collection And the ironing board sliced the television set in half, we can see the embryonic form of this double lighting of a face by whatever constitutes its subjectivity and by what is regarded as objective: the hero lives between delusion and dull ordinariness; his true ego moves in the fantasy world, at which points he speaks in the first person. When he moves into the experience of daily life, he speaks in the third person. I would argue that the purpose of this change is not to make his discourse, and by extension, his viewpoint on things, more realistic; on the contrary, it indicates the distancing of the hero from his true self.
In Two of them and another two, the narrative experiments become almost a provocation, where an awkward movement could be a breach of etiquette: this is the story of a father’s life with his daughter. The curious thing is that the author Kondoleon used the most intimate way to narrate the daughter’s story. The first person narrative belongs to her, while the viewpoint of the father, with whom he would have more reason to identity, being an adult of the same sex, is rendered indirectly by the use of a third-person narrator.
I would argue that the narrative viewpoint of this story was an ideological decision; that it defines a view that cuts through his work as a whole. He doesn’t decide simply to talk about the female gender, but rather to adopt a woman’s way of looking at reality. He does not simply declare himself as someone who likes women, but tries to put himself in their minds and bodies in an attempt to understand their emotional and even biological state. This is a risky business, but his deepest intentions are sincere; and in other books he returns persistently to women’s discourse and to showing their intimate selves through it.
The short story “What the landlord knows...” (also from the collection And the ironing board sliced the television set in half) records the first-person narrative by the mother of a young homosexual, making more ironic and perhaps crueler her unsuspecting treatment of her son’s friend. Also in the first person is the narrative by Phaedra’s mother in Taste of bitter almonds, the sole personal narrative discourse in the entire book; the situations and feelings of all other characters are filtered through a third-person narrator. Although we recognise that the function of first-person narrative differs from one instance to the other, it is obvious in both these cases that the first person emphasises strongly the mother’s interest, anxiety, and emotional involvement with her child rather than concern for herself.
A special study has been made of the voices of mothers and daughters by young feminist literary critics; they have shown that in many cases the mothers’ words, since their interest is usually focused on their daughter, are expressed in such a way as to take priority over their own deeper needs, and ultimately themselves; in this way they become objects, at least for as long as the shaping and evolution of the daughter’s subjectivity lasts. Such a viewpoint not only creates reservations about the authenticity of female discourse in a literary work, but raises suspicions, especially when coming from a male such as the author of Taste of bitter almonds, precisely because of this suppression of the woman’s ego.
But the use of narrative discourse acquires significance on more than one level; and there are indications in Kondoleon’s other works that lead us to the conclusion that the character of the mother is not always lighted in the same invariable and predetermined way. The mother in the book With data from personal interviews is different from this, chiefly because in her first-person narratives, the sensuality she expresses is nourished not by her maternal instinct, but by her eroticism.
In this overview of Kondoleon’s work, seeing together all these different types of male and female discourse in the first or third person, with a stronger internal or external focus, the principle of dialogicality, as formulated by Bakhtin, takes on substance. For Bakhtin, life is dialogical by its very nature. Living means to become involved in dialogue, to ask, to listen, to reply, to agree. To define ourselves, we need others, which is why dialogicality represents the apotheosis of otherness. Thus for Kondoleon, writing means listening to others, feeling the diversity of their pulses, their subjectivity, and ultimately defining your own subjectivity through others.
Kondoleon very consciously reveals his own subjectivity to the reader by inserting the person of the author, invested with his own narrative speech through the myths he creates. The mask of the author is illustrated in his work, sometimes with brushstrokes – in Aspasia’s brother, for example, the hero of the story talks about his dad the author – sometimes in letters that the author ostensibly addresses to his readers, as in the novel Ghosts in the garret, and sometimes in the form of parenthetic insertions, as in No. 33, in which the author introduces himself to make visible his domination over his fictional characters, although he denies it at the end. In any event, in this latter book in particular, I would say that this manifest absence of any suggestion of the role of the author does not do justice to a work written in such a modern way.
The author’s game with himself, the game of his two substances, the one that constitutes the reality and the other that makes him part of the myth-building structure, in other words, whatever is defined in the theory of literature as meta-myth-building, essentially conveys to the reader the relationship that is developing, a long-term and integral relationship between the world “inside” the myth-building and the one “outside” of it. Essentially, it urges the reader to try and understand that literature is a structure that is not a direct reflection of reality, but has been artistically modified.
The author affirms his intervention in the literary game in a variety of ways. In his later works, it becomes clear that he has carefully refined his ability to express it to precisely the degree he wishes. Mask on the moon is a continuation of the story that stopped at the end of Data from personal interviews, and the intertextual approach to these two books suggests indirectly the existence of the author as he is seen through the gradual maturation of his craft from one book to the next. Moreover, Mask is not one story but two, in which one encompasses the other until the latter begins to unfold, and then they move forward together. It tells of the class project undertaken by two secondary school students to explore the life and artistic activity of a significant actor. The story of the dead actor increasingly dominates the action of the novel not only to contrast two different sequences of events, but mainly to juxtapose two literary genres, the play and the novel.
Kondoleon extends his literary experiments so far that they have even infiltrated realms such as children’s literature which has traditionally been characterised by a more conservative spirit, and avoided innovation. The use of many alternative beginnings or endings to a story has started to appear in texts by children’s authors (known in the international literature as “computer games” or “choose-your-own-adventure” books) and Kondoleon is one of the pioneers of this technique in Greece. In Ghosts in the garret, for example, the introduction to the book is proposed in two forms and the reader, indirectly, is led to participate actively by accepting one or the other.
I don’t want to conclude this brief presentation of the author, within the scope defined at the beginning, without having made some reference to his ability to use realistic and imaginative style of writing with equal success. The books we have already discussed should be considered realistic, since we know that the main feature of realistic works applies to them, i.e. a hypothetical event is narrated as though it were real or some events occur that embellish the narrative with ostensibly real actions. To extend Culler’s definition, if the main claim that a text puts forward to its readers is trust in its verisimilitude and its correspondence with history or human life, then this text can be considered realistic.
I’d say that the multi-prismatic view of events in Kondoleon’s stories, shaped by the subjective viewpoints of many different characters, reinforces the conviction about the realistic representation of events. The many subjective views define objectivity with much greater precision and clarity, as the latter can only be based on the multiplicity and equal weight of the various viewpoints, on polyphony.
But he has also written texts that reveal an author experimenting in other directions as well. If the basic feature of a work of fiction, according to Todorov’s definition, is that it obliges the reader to regard the world described in the book, in which its characters live, and to vacillate between a physical and a metaphysical explanation of the events he describes, then Kondoleon’s Dominic is a work of imaginative literature.
At the beginning of the book there is nothing to make us suspect that it concerns a non-real world; people are getting on with their everyday lives, everything reflects an image of ordinariness. But Dominic’s father falls ill causing his son to embark on a long voyage in search of the medication that will cure him. The places he visits and the strange beings he meets gradually introduce doubt, or hesitation, according to Todorov, in the reader. Is this really a voyage in search of the truth as represented in the strange language of dreams? Is it the search for symbolic truth, as revealed to the hero of the fairy tales, as he passes from one to another phase in his life, or is he being initiated into another reality? Or is it perhaps very simply the search for the truth of the ordinary, rendered in a poetic way?
Kondoleon’s writing, realistic or imaginative, is in both cases a vehicle for the literary convention of conveying to the reader, each in a different way, the illusion of reality. Because the work of the serious writer is to introduce his reader to a literary universe that will bring enjoyment and personal development. Kondoleon keeps pushing out his literary limits. He strives, he retreats, he doubles back, he surprises. And he certainly draws his reader into the enjoyment.
(Magazine Eli-trochos / 17-18/ 1999)
*Meni Kanatsouli is an assistant professor of Pedagogy (Elementary Education) at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki.