Overall appreciative essay of Alki Zei's work

by the literary critic Elisabeth Kotzia, in the occasion of the publication of Constantina and her spiders

Published in KATHIMERINI on 22/12/2002 (Athens)

Prose landmark

End of an era.  What we all know, because it is our living experience, Alki Zei imprints on her pages. With infinite generosity and on behalf of those who went through and described Greece’s political suffering which lasted forty years (1936-1974), she shares this knowledge with a much younger generation which is now experiencing a world incomprehensively violent, not because of the German savagery, the civil war or the 7-year dictatorship, but for completely different reasons.

Between Greece of those times and Greece of today many light years have passed.  The importance of Alki Zei’s new novel Constantina and her Spiders lies not only in the fact that it deals with contemporary problems but that it also faces them with the viewpoint, the dilemmas and the values of older generations.  The result is that fundamental questions are raised: every historical period, every generation, every social group suffers from its own nightmares and needs its own moral stature.  What is heroism, self-sacrifice, bravery, become tragically relative questions.  Every individual has the dignity of its own drama.  Let us be fair and modest.  Thirteen-year-old Constantina returns to Athens from Germany, to live with her grandmother until her divorced parents sort things out.  From the generous beauty of the city of Aachen and her cloudless – as she then believed – family happiness, she finds herself in the depressing district of Kypseli with her grandmother, a leftist fighter, incapable of comprehending anything but the heroic years of the Greek Resistance.  The blue pills that through various circumstances will come to her in her general confusion, without her realising it, will lead her to drugs.

I am one of those readers who cannot understand the difference between children's or adolescent literature and literature for adults.  Literature is one, and sometimes its texts are addressed to adolescents, even to children.  But they are not meant only for them; a literature that an adolescent and a child can read can certainly be read by a grown-up as well.  This is the reason why I think that Alki Zei belongs to our post-war literature and not only because of her novel Achilles’ Fiancée (1987) but also for her excellent Wildcat Under Glass (1963), Petros' War (1971) and the present Constantina and her spiders (Kedros, Athens 2002).

What is the meaning of these three works?  All three stories are seen through the innocent and naïve perspective of a child, lacking experience of life.  Nonetheless the narrator never makes any concession by adopting a condescending, didactic tone towards children.  Because the problems that the heroes of Alki Zei face are part of the insoluble problem of humanity before which every adult, in spite of his or her knowledge and experience, remains dumb: the disaster of fascism for Melia in Wildcat under glass, the hurricane of the war for Petros in Petros' War, the threat of drugs for Constantina.

What can a fanatic left-wing heroine understand of a world where the enemy does not stand in front of you pointing his gun at you but is inside you?  Where faces without eyes, bodies without heads, breasts with the nipples cut off are not the outcome of torture in the detention centre in Bouboulinas Street but the symbolic images used by someone who suffers.  With unparalleled humour, the independent-minded Constantina teases her grandmother by confusing Kolokotronis and Yiannis Ritsos.  The past which for many is still alive, for others is history, so that from her point of view protesting Constantina may be right: Kolokotronis and Ritsos belong to the same generation.

Alki Zei uses a narrative technique of low tones.  The dramatic story she tells is not directly revealed but is made clear for the reader by suggestion: the image of the wounded owl describes in a masterly way the emptiness covered with spiders’ webs, in which her heroes struggle to find something to hold on to.  They are victims and perpetrators at the same time and, while trying to save and be saved, they drag themselves and the others to destruction.