A novel for children and teenagers
2010 YOUNG EUROPEANS LITERARY PRIZE (FRANCE)
Published in French, Grand père menteur, Paris: Syros – Groupe Sejer, 2009
In the winter 2008-09 it passed as a sequel in the Greek television
It has been produced as an audio book in Greek by Pathos Publishing
Anthony is an ordinary ten year old boy living in Athens. Single child, his parents both working long hours, his mother often away from home on her professional duties as an archeologist. Anthony is very fond of his granddad, his dad's father, who looks after him when his parents are busy with their jobs. He is an unusual granddad. A retired actor, he stimulates Anthony’s imagination by telling him unbelievable stories from his life that make Anthony believe that his granddad is a liar. However granddad, an artist of strong humanist beliefs, is being bluntly honest. For Anthony, it is just hard to believe when granddad tells how he had to escape from Greece to Paris at the time of the dictatorship because he was an activist or how he came to be on the streets of Paris with the rebelling students in May ’68 or even how he was sent to Africa by mistake during World War II. Nevertheless, Anthony adores and admires his grandfather. The only thing he cannot understand is why the old man never talks about granny. It's really mysterious. Granny is consistently absent from granddad’s stories, as if she had never existed. What's all that about? What makes granddad constantly avoid talking about Anthony's father’s mother? And how can he make his granddad lift the shadow that veils her existence?
Alki Zei’s novel is full of emotion, wisdom and humanitarian parables, reflecting her unique style of writing: a fine balance between irony and paradox, simplicity and perfection, humour and reality.
Exerts translated by John Thornley
AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT GRANDDAD ALTOGETHER
Tony was fed up with waiting for granddad. He’d never be on time: Tony knew that, but something in him didn’t want to accept it. Every evening when he was saying goodbye, granddad would say, ‘See you tomorrow, between five and five past five’, but he never showed up before half past. Now it was twenty to six, and still no sign of granddad.
‘Let’s see what excuse he’ll find this time,’ thought Tony. He knew granddad was the biggest liar there was. He was just like Baron Munchhausen in the story book. The Baron had become a celeb worldwide, just for his porkies. Granddad wasn’t a Baron though, and he certainly wasn’t about to become world-famous for his fibs. The funny thing was, the lies he made up often turned out to be true, so that Tony was grudgingly forced to believe him. But the one who always believed him from the start, whatever he said, was Larissa, the Russian daily help who came to their house, and went to granddad’s as well. Larissa adored him. She called him Mr Granddad, and he called her Lara, like the heroine of Dr Zhivago, a film with a Russian story that he liked a lot.
A few of the things granddad said had happened to him would appear in the newspaper the next day, or on the tv news. They certainly weren’t reported exactly as granddad had described them, but they were so similar that everyone believed granddad had actually experienced them. Like the time when he was really late, then finally turned up with a sticking-plaster on his head. For a moment Tony was convinced he’d stuck it on deliberately, to provide an excuse for being delayed. Yet underneath it you could make out some dried blood. Mind you, that could have been just red marker pen. You never knew with granddad….
Well, as it turns out, granddad has been hit by a police baton while taking an impromptu part in a student demo in the centre of Athens. So begins this fairy tale of modern life in an ‘ordinary family’ in Athens, a story that also takes in a very un-touristic visit to Paris, and a holiday of surprises on the island of Chios.
Granddad takes care of Tony after school, while his busy architect dad and archaeologist mum are working long hours, and Tony gradually comes to realise that old granddad, in his black shirt and black jacket with a white neck-scarf, isn’t some eccentric fantasist, but a remarkable person. Before he retired, granddad was an actor and teacher of acting who spent several years in Paris to avoid the military dictatorship in Greece. He even took part in the Events of May, the Paris demonstrations of 1968 that toppled the French government. Tony’s dad was only a child himself when granddad took him to Paris, so Tony can’t quiz him about the mysteries he stumbles on. Where on earth is gran? What happened to her? Who was grandad’s ‘other woman’? And what are the family secrets that granddad and even mum and dad are keeping from him?
In this touching story of a boy’s journey of discovery, we see how Tony, a rather fearful and narrow-minded little cynic, slowly begins to appreciate the extraordinary things his granddad has done, and the reasons for the affection he inspires. And as Tony learns some astonishing truths about who he is, he gradually begins to open himself to the rich variety of the world of relationships around him. In a gentle, understated way that will captivate a younger readership, but also will strike a chord of sympathy with older readers, the book explores the nuances of truth and lies, convention and creativity, parenthood and adoption, racial difference and brotherhood, prejudice and understanding.
And surely few readers – whether they are 11 or 111 years young – will be able to resist the bittersweet emotional pull of the novel’s final pages, as the inevitable happens…
…Tony didn’t know where to go or what to do without granddad around. He’d ask mum if they could write a card to little Margo, who’d be waiting in vain for a reply to her postcard.
He went out onto the balcony. Luckily it didn’t look out over noisy Alexandras Avenue, but over to the other side. On the horizon you could see Mount Hymettos; nearby there was a little garden with a massive tree, where birds were always perching. A bird flew down; it came and sat on the balcony railing. It was completely black, but with a white patch at its breast, like a little neck-scarf. It remained motionless, looking at him.
‘If I leave…and you see a bird flying around, it might be my spirit’ – that’s what his lying, fake, real, genuine granddad had said to him.
Tony was suddenly convinced that it was him. He waved to the bird with the neck-scarf; then the bird flew off, far away into the distance.