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Heroes and themes in the work of Manos Kondoleon
Books for children and adults: the two-way narrative
By Yannis S. Papadatos*
Manos Kondoleon is one of the most important writers in Greece today. One basic fact supports this view – which may seem oversimplified and is rather frequently found in the presentation of an author’s work – and it is the fact that, in addition to having written books for adolescents and adults, Kondoleon is one of the few authors who although he also has books for children to his credit, has succeeded, both through his narrative techniques which are constantly changing and evolving according to the theme, often fairly sophisticated in terms of Greek conditions, and through the polysemy of the subject matter of most of his books, in constituting a bridge between the reading material of people of different ages. Another point that also argues in his favour, apart from the fact that his work can be seen as a permanent writing exercise, in terms of an author’s themes and more general style, is his prolific output. He is one of the authors who in the twenty years of his career to date, has written a substantial number of books (novels, short stories, fairy tales, etc.) This does not of course imply that quantity is always indicative of a writer’s importance, but in the case of Kondoleon, it goes hand in hand with quality.
In this brief note, I would like to outline the most significant themes in Kondoleon’s books and the action and evolution of his heroes in three parts, through the ideological polysemy in his writing: the first part is related to the action of his heroes within the family context; the second to their attitude toward broader social problems and interpersonal relationships, especially toward fundamental issues such as the search for the new and its establishment as an essential component of the human presence. And finally in the third part, I would like to point out a special feature that appears frequently in Kondoleon’s novels in recent years is related to the reading process and the interaction between characters and reader.
Critics have called Kondoleon the pre-eminent “family” author. This is because he has delighted in the family’s special features; he has explored its problems; and he has drawn role models from all its manifestations. His works depict lower and upper middle-class families. Parents are working people and, as members of the typically over-protective Greek family whose dreams revolve around their children’s future, especially their education, their attitude tends to be oppressive (Mask on the moon, 1997). In some of his other novels – a rarity in literature for children and young people – we find the model of a family in which the various stereotypes in the ordinary practice of its members are overthrown ideologically and even shattered using humour as the dominant stylistic element (Aspasia’s brother, 1993). This novel in some way portrays a demythification of the prevailing oppressive model of the family either through the attitude of the parents, who may back down while expressing their criticism, or may appear, for pedagogical reasons, to cede their obligations to their children by assigning them problems to be solved, while at the same time creating an atmosphere of initiative and freedom, or through the stance of the children who in turn criticise their parents’ thinking. In these practices, some of which may shock us, even though they are not impracticable, as they allude to creative thought and practice and to natural everyday criticism, and to the degree that literature can contribute indirectly, one can decipher even “pedagogical” behaviour.
The experience of the family in the novel entitled No. 33 (1990) is of interest, as it records the events that precede a divorce. The relations of absolute equality implied by the vague line between an idealised but achievable happiness and the bustle of daily life in this particular family are easily disturbed when an unexpected problem arises. And it is precisely this problem that will ultimately lead the family members to the awareness of the drama. The solution, however, is not provided by the author; it is rather entrusted to the readers who are in possession of all the facts. And this, by the way, is a narrative innovation in serious novels for young people, introduced by Kondoleon, who experiments, as always, in a striking and substantial way. The model of a family whose members search in their own souls to draw out the true face of reality is also found in his novels Two of them and another two (1987), The trip that kills (1989) and Taste of bitter almonds (1995). In the latter especially, the discreet, calm, helpful and supportive presence of the parents, who suffer without showing it, represents the author’s “pedagogical proposal”, recorded here with a more advanced ideological viewpoint and condensed in the model of a compassionate family that may sometimes do the wrong thing, but is highly cooperative, real and helpful, based on the criterion of the children’s happiness. The result is to describe the family’s creative progress over time. It should be noted here that Kondoleon’s books depict the paternal presence on an equal basis, in contrast with most Greek children’s and young adult’s literature in which the giving presence of the mother figure dominates.
In short, Kondoleon, by recording the fluidity of the Greek family and its particularities in his books, avoids its oppressive child-centredness, and puts forward another model, idealised but necessary and possible under present circumstances.
The background of Kondoleon’s books is always a militantly social one, in the sense that the individual, group and global themes that concern him are related to the dynamics of the immediate but multiform reality, its problems and the idealistic way to solve them. The idealism in Kondoleon’s works also includes the practicable, the immediately realisable. He is a writer who, like a sensitive seismograph, listens to current events, easily correlates them with the timeless, and expresses those individuals and groups that take direct part in the events of history in the sense of setting them in motion. This way of thinking includes symbolic reclusiveness (I decided to kill Ermolaos, 1989), pagan power (Magic Mother, 1992), the omnipotence of the imagination and the element of magic through dimensions of universality and intercultural collective thought (Dominic, 1993) the individual revolution, love and compromises (The lights! he said, 1986), social criticism through tragic human nature and the insurmountable problems born of our era of decline, its dead ends and the loneliness that intuits the danger and thus indirectly becomes a life substance (Sometime in Mouseville, 1979, Ee from the stars, 1981, With data from personal interviews, 1984, And the ironing board sliced the television set in half, 1992, Taste of bitter almonds), but also a tragic figure from childhood (Love stories from childhood, 1992), the direct memory of childhood (Glove on a wooden hand, 1986) and the effort to come to terms with death (Ghosts in the garret,1996).
One aspect of these books is that the heroes, mobilising their interior powers and either by themselves or through collective action inculcate the hope that can be found in the last reserves of human resources with respect to metaphysical anxiety about their destiny, undiscovered facets of the soul, and innermost unconfessed dreams – explore existence, as Kundera might have said, in the sense of whatever a man can do at any given moment, but on the highest level, rising above corruption by the ordinary.
In the novel Dominic, the semiotics of symbols, culminating in dreams and magic, contrast the victory of love and self-sacrifice with fear, individual freedom and self-confidence with human dignity, memory with vanity, patience with adversity, hope with defeat, faith with renunciation, love with death. The protagonist here gains strength having the tragic dimensions of the hero of an ancient tragedy. Through adventures and dangers (to save his father who has been injured), and by overcoming his human frailties, although not his finite nature, he arrives, still innocent, at vindication, at the acquisition of knowledge and at moral fulfilment. The novel Taste of bitter almonds (a girl falls in love with a young man who along the way discovers that he is a carrier of AIDS), which is in essence a study of death, alludes to the need for life and hope in order to win the new through the overview and the dynamics generated by primary sensations. Because what is important is the continuation of life through the personal experience and mental pain that find support and solidarity from others. The main character in this book has some features of the anti-hero who bears a heavy burden stemming from the overt or underlying racism of the broader social environment. The effort to transcend it creates a tragic ideology expressed on both the real and the imaginative level. Simething similar occurs in in Kondoleon’s most recent book Mask on the Moon, in which a literature teacher and two of her students, in their investigation of the life of an actor who committed suicide, are led toward self-knowledge, ultimately demonstrating the indistinct lines between life, art, love and death.
The other aspect of his books concerns issues that touch upon ecology, science fiction, parent-child relations, divorce, and drugs. Here, on the superficial level, whether they are expressing their individual desire or the desire of the group, the characters reject the present reality with its ecological dead ends, the decadent ideology of the times, the decline of relationships, and artificial dilemmas of power; they shatter it, and after becoming integrated ideologists, signal a generating dynamic in the sense of a “positive” result against any dominant role models.
Consequently, after the dual interwoven reasoning of individual fulfilment and the vindication of the protagonist and his social participation, the work of art becomes a serious factor in the deeper transformation of awareness, establishing the presence of perpetual youth and the epic nature of childhood which from another viewpoint lends meaning to the transformational pedagogy required in our era.
One last element that remains to be discussed is the reader’s relationship with the characters and the reading process. Kondoleon’s heroes, since they are real, everyday people, have the privilege of conversing with the reader. First of all they “communicate” with each other in his books. Apart from the common social, emotional, and ideological facets of the different characters, there are some who play a leading role in books for children or adults at different moments in their life (e.g. the actor Lucas Alexiou in the novels With data from personal interviews and Mask on the moon). Self-referentiality and intertextuality, features frequently found in this author’s writing, assist in this “conversation” and therefore in the reconciliation of the hero and the reader. The reader in turn, by setting the works in motion, at the same time sets himself in motion.
Kondoleon’s work has a feature that is not found all that frequently in serious writing: and that is the cinematic structure of many of his novels, i.e. the rapid succession of images and atmosphere, the breathless multi-character narrative, also the changes in the field of space-time, which are also characteristic of the internality of structure of a screen play. These features, at least in his most recent works, are recognisable and create a complex and multisemantic interaction between the text and the reader. This can be seen mainly in his books: The trip that kills, Dominic, Magic mother, Taste of bitter almonds and Mask on the moon. Especially in the latter, the theatrical event, as another special voice in the novel, largely determines this interaction. The reader, watching a theatrical event, (his heroes are extremely theatrical in his other novels as well) which is at the same time a real incident in a continuous interaction with the movements of the protagonists, places himself on the alert or rather in a mood for the constant realisation of the elements of the reading process. Diagramatically, we could say that in Kondoleon’s novels there is one circle that represents the actions of the plot, and another, concentric one of the plot features that have to do with cinematic art. These two circles have a common ground which expands or shrinks according to the readers’ “expectations horizon” and their relationship with the theatrical event or their on-going interactions with the text, to the degree that this becomes real. Because it is on this common ground that the imaginative converses with the real, and it is there finally that the process of engagement is enacted as a parallel dynamic energy that interacts creatively and at the same time is developmentally and critically controlled according to the essential progress of the novel’s heroes. And reading this story, following ordinary paths either as the need to coordinate with it or recalling its signifiers, creates a framework of values which includes potentially a realised and simultaneously evolving humanity.
I would say in conclusion that Kondoleon is an author who is constantly evolving in terms of his subject matter and style, and does not rest on his laurels (he has frequently won awards and his books been translated into other languages). His writing, whether it is for young readers or adults, has the same significant value. He proves that literature is ultimately a single entity (who could have predicted that the works of Jules Verne and other classics written for adults are being read today exclusively by children) and it looks as though, within a two-way process, what is read by grown-ups will turn up in what is being read by children. This is why, as I pointed out at the beginning, various age groups are “bridged” in Kondoleon’s work. And perhaps also because he writes, as the British children’s author David McKee once said about himself, for adults who were once children and for children who will one day grow up...
To conclude, Kondoleon is exclusively an author for young people in general. The renewal his work has engendered primarily in literature for children and young people ranks him, in terms of both subjects and style, as one of the main representatives of the 1970s generation, one of the modern writers whose heroes, by seeking fundamental values through a reality in which there are strong outdated elements, at the same time expresses a youthfulness that perpetually seeks outlets for expanding the limits of its freedom. Kondoleon, writing about the “universal reader” as Sartre would have said, appeals to his freedom. In this way, the world theory in his work is related to the individual or universal outlet for humanity and the world. And having the conquest of self-knowledge as an essential prerequisite, with significant structures in family happiness, the individual or collective struggle by the characters and the overcoming of adversities, the final deciphering of a world which leaves bleeding marks on all figures, Kondoleon finds optimism and vision which in his work (whether for children or adult readers) are acquired only through the reproductive elements of an eternal childhood.
(Magazine Elli-trohos 17-18/1999)
*Yannis Papadatos is a critic and educator