For the patriarch
The glowing endorsement on the front of this collection of short stories is from Patrick White and at first glance I thought ‘What? Did he speak from beyond the grave?’ but my confusion was short-lived. This is a new publication of Angelo Loukakis’ 1981 volume. The original won a prize in the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards that year and was on the HSC syllabus from 1986 until 2001. So it is possible that many people reading this review will be familiar with this set text and I am interested to see if anyone comments on it. Set texts can have the life analysed out of them but if you are lucky you remember them fondly and might want to give it another go. I have been meaning to re-read Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown for a while now.
Short story collections are difficult to review because each story is its own little gem. Also, you don’t want to give away the punch lines. I will try my best not to spoil them for you because these are very rich short stories. You should read them slowly, read them twice or thrice, like a poem rather than a novel where, no matter how literary or engaging, readers tend to want to press on and find out what happens next. They are worth savouring and the effects that Loukakis uses are subtle. He catches you out or leaves you thinking. That is why re-reading is so worthwhile.
The story which gives the collection its title is told through letters home from a young Greek Orthodox priest who has been sent to Australia, to a congregation who cannot yet afford to build him a church. He starts to read a history of the church during Byzantine times and at the same time to describe the new world for his parents. One recurring theme in these stories is the heartbreaking distance from home and the challenge of communication. There are stories from a time of letters sent by sea mail, of relatives who do not have telephones and the very real sense that once you leave you are never coming back – it is too expensive. But then there are stories of going back and realising that things have changed, as in ‘Petra’ where the narrator is frustrated by his elderly relative’s firmly held belief that Australia must be the promised land. Otherwise, why did his father ever leave? She does not understand and he cannot explain.
The collection tells stories from Australia as well as Crete and the old country, stories of first and second generation Australian Greeks and non Greeks. Different classes and genders, ages and ideas are represented. Helen the biscuit factory worker in the tenth story, ‘Family Assorted’, is an attractive, no-nonsense woman who values her hard-won independence and will not be told what to do by any man. By contrast, there is the poignant life of the widow Kyra Sophia who goes ‘Shopping’ and buys lace doilies for her mother, achieving a moment of social contact through buying fish and lace but avoiding the Community Hall because that is not for her. While Helen enjoys her sexual freedom, Sophia is distressed by her daughter’s shameless behaviour, leaving her alone. The range of characters and situations in the collection works together to create a real sense of a world, the world of inner city Sydney, which Loukakis wants to capture.
There are some annoying typos and misspellings in this collection such as pancratist (p. 19) instead of pancratiast, one who competes in the pancratium or wrestling arena. I found them irritating because I felt that surely someone would have checked the text before it was re-issued, but there they are.
This is a very good short story collection. ‘Splendid stories,’ as Patrick White himself once said.