There is a thoughtful stillness around Alki Zei

There is a thoughtful stillness around Alki Zei

There is a thoughtful stillness around Alki Zei.  Watching her, you sense she has a history. You wonder about her childhood – was she lonely? sad? – but she tells you that it was a good one, and she was able to read Hans Andersen and many of the classics, translated into Greek. But, when she was a young woman she was involved with the Greek Resistance against the German occupation during World War 11. The civil war which followed saw her fleeing with her husband to the Soviet Union as a political refugee.  There her children were born, and she started to write for young adults.

 On her return to Greece, she asked a publisher if they had received a manuscript she had sent from Russia, and was told they had published it, but had not been able to tell her.  Almost immediately after her return she had to flee again, this time to Paris, because of her resistance to the military junta who took power in 1967. She was unable to return to Greece until 1974, and there she still lives, having become an outstanding figure in contemporary Greek literature.  She has won the IBBY prize for best book for teenagers in Greece with Tina’s Web, as well as the Bookworms Teen Readers’ Prize in France.  In 1992 she was honoured in Greece with the National Award for Children’s Literature.

Although she writes for adults, the greater part of her work is for teenagers.  She writes fearlessly about the contemporary problems facing childhood, which she says is a universal condition and not just in Greek society, and her stories are imbued with empathy and optimism, and a great deal of humour. She was the first writer in Greece to set her stories in the context of real political events, usually excluded in children’s literature.  We talk about The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which she loves and is excited about.  But we agree that it is a pity that it lacked any historical context for the reader.  She is not, however, a moraliser, and writes about drugs, divorce and identity problems with great compassion and understanding. Moving easily within the world of the young adult’s struggle to cope with the complexities of life, she is a consummate storyteller, and hopefully more of her books for young adults will now be translated.

In the words of the chief protagonist when she was born Tina was underweight, and according to her detested gran, she was shrouded in cobwebs, silent and looked like a little corpse. Gran makes a point of telling everyone she meets this, and hearing it is the first thing now that 13-year old Tina can remember. It makes for a decidedly uneasy relationship between them. When Tina and her parents leave Greece to go to live in Germany, she is delighted. But gran hates the Germans and rants at anyone who will listen about the time they invaded Greece and enslaved the poor country, and then they imprisoned her husband.  Life in Germany was blissful for Tina until her world fell apart and she finds herself back in Greece, alone, living with her gran.  Her parents have decided to divorce and remarry. In fact her mother is already pregnant with her new man.  And Tina had not seen it coming, had no idea all that her parents could just dump her like this ‘until we get things settled’.

Alki Zei’s description of Tina’s unravelling makes the heart beat faster and frequently puts a lump in the throat. She has an uncanny knack of getting right inside Tina’s head, and, to use a cliché, you feel her pain acutely. Isolated, friendless, homesick for her parents, she discovers drugs, and then finds she has the ability to lie ceaselessly and steal from her gran.  Eventually when Tina is sick, a teacher manages to reach her by introducing Marina, his girlfriend, who has her own tale to tell.  ‘She bent down and kissed me. Since the time I left Aachen, no one had hugged me or kissed me. Every evening mum and dad used to put me to bed. ‘Goodnight Tina’. ‘Sweet dreams’.  But here nobody ever has, not one single time.  And right there, Zei has touched the core of this story in a remarkable way.

What could have been a misery tale is robustly redeemed by humour – I laughed out loud several times – and some seriously sharp and funny characters, particular the three Demi’s, the longtime friends of gran, who shared prison with her during the occupation. There are stories within stories here, each one given its own shape and space.  Highly recommended.

Review for “Tina’s web” by Clodagh Corcoran in INIS MAGAZINE CHILDREN’S BOOK IRELAND, Summer 2007 issue