Thalia Pandiri


An award-winning fiction writer and critic, Christoforos Milionis was born in 1932 in a village near Yiannina, in an area of northern Greece close to the Albanian border that was ravaged repeatedly by warfare: the successful resistance to Mussolini's invading troops in 1940; the subsequent defeat by Hitler's army; the brutal Nazi Occupation, with guerilla troops of freedom fighters in the mountains surrounding the author's home; the violent civil war that came on the heels of World War II. Milionis writes about a homeland destroyed, a community whose few survivors have scattered far from home, a past lost forever but always waiting in another dimension to ambush the narrator. In one story, the shadowy apparition of a fellow-villager the narrrator knew as a child appears mysteriously among the ruins of his abandoned village, in a video shot decades after the man’s death. In another story, an old cassette player has been harboring a forgotten tape from the narrator’s student days. Suddenly, amid the friends’ conversations and music-making, his mother’s singing invades the tape with an old folksong in her local dialect, communicating with her son from another plane of existence. The ghosts of the past pursue Milionis’ characters even into an affluent, secure present, lurking in the most unlikely places.

In “Computer Virus,” the author/narrator is haunted by  the CIA-backed military Junta whose putsch on April 21, 1967 launched seven years of a repressive dictatorship.  The first few years were particularly brutal, under the leadership of George Papadopoulos, an army officer who began his political career as founder of the government-backed Youth Organization under the fascist dictator John Metaxas (1936-41). He was drafted and served in the Greek army during the Second World War but soon became a Nazi collaborator, and after the war he was the liaison officer between Greek Intelligence (KYP) and the CIA. The first move of the dictatorship was to declare a state of emergency. Under the pretext of national security, articles of the constitution were abrogated and military tribunals instituted.  For “behavior threatening national security” any individual could be arrested without a charge, detained for months to be interrogated and often subjected to brutal physical torture, jailed, sent into internal exile. The less fortunate and less well-connected were liquidated. What constituted subversive behavior, even treason, might be nothing more violent than telling a political joke or making a pun like the one the narrator’s friend Manolis makes in this story: papakia, “ducklings,” plays on the dictator’s name. A neuter plural diminutive, it suggests a term that was used scornfully of Papadopoulos’ hangers-on and informers: papadopoulakia.  Manolis’ coinage alkimakia (the same neuter plural diminutive formation), referring dismissively to Papadopoulos’ Youth Organization Alkimoi is also subversive. The adjective, “stalwart,” first appears in Homer’s Iliad to characterize the Zeus-descended heroes of the epic. By borrowing the term, the Junta in effect lays claim to a glorious legendary past. But the neuter plural diminutive form sounds like the name of small wild birds or animals, particularly because it occurs in the context of a restaurant menu, and this image lingers even once the reference becomes clear.

Ridiculing the photograph of the dictator in public was a dangerous act.  So too was singing a song by the very popular left-wing composer Mikis Theodorakis. Even humming the melody was forbidden. All of Theodorakis’ music was banned: it was against the law to play his works, write about them, buy or sell them. 70,000 records, the entire stock held by the record company that manufactured them, were destroyed by order of the government. The verse Manolis sings-consisting of four girls’ names-is from a poem by the left-wing poet Kostas Varnalis, set to music by Theodorakis. By singing it in public he makes his friends potential targets of the omnipresent secret police: if they do not turn him in, listening to the music implicates them in his seditious offense and could get them arrested for treason.

Milionis’ short stories have earned him popular acclaim and recognition in Greece: His collection Kalamas and Acheron won him the First National Short Fiction Prize in 1986; in 2000 The Ghosts of York, in which “Computer Virus” first appeared, earned him the Fiction Prize of the influential journal Diabazo. His work, translated into Russian, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Hungarian and (to a lesser extent) English, has also found a sympathetic European readership. For a Greek audience, Milionis’ stories ring true. His deft use of different linguistic registers--regional dialect; the archaizing high-flown language of a conservative upper-class intellectual of a certain generation and political allegiance; the mangled bureaucratese of some officers of the army and the police; urban slang--allows him to limn a character or a setting without much fanfare and without authorial intrusion. A line of a familiar poem or a verse of a popular song is replete with “thick meaning” for his source-language audience. Place names conjure up associations: an epic battle of the Second World War or the Civil War, the utter destruction of an entire village by Hitler’s SS, brutal attacks on “enemies of the nation” in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Athens during the civil war or under the Junta.  Everything that makes his work familiar and vivid in the original makes it hard to translate.

I grew up and have lived as an adult both in Greece and in the United States, and consider myself bicultural.  Milionis writes in a language that is wholly and viscerally familiar to me, and about a reality that I have lived, or that my parents lived. Part of me thinks he cannot and should not be translated, that transplanted out of their native earth his stories lose their savor.  But part of me also wants to communicate to my “other” culture, to American readers, what Milionis has to say. The reality he portrays is as much a part of me as the marrow in my bones.  I lived through the Papadopoulos years in Athens. I remember the terror that gripped us when two friends unexpectedly dropped by our home, their presence turning us into “an illegal gathering of more than five individuals.”  Who was watching? Who might report us to the secret police? Would they come to arrest my father? Arrest us all? Our response may seem paranoid to an outsider, but Evangelos Averoff, a former conservative minister, was given a five-year prison sentence for hosting a small cocktail party in his home, just such an illegal gathering of more than five. Averoff was so well-known, and so notoriously not a left-wing subversive, that he was soon pardoned. Others fared less well. Students received twenty-year sentences (from military tribunals, of course) for distributing leaflets; lending a “minor” a biology textbook translated from Russian netted a three-year sentence. The “chain of terror” by which the Junta ruled Greeks for seven years should not be forgotten, and the lessons to be learned from Milionis’ story need to reach a larger audience.

“Computer Virus” (“O Ios tou Kompiouter”)  was first published in the short story collection, The Ghosts of York (Ta Fantasmata tou York). Kedros: Athens, 1999). Reprinted and translated by permission of the author.