Book Reviews · 08/21/2017

The Parthenon Bomber by Christos Chrissopoulos

Translated by John Cullen


Other Press, 2017

Christos Chrissopoulos’s The Parthenon Bomber, a novella originally published in Greek in 2010, is about a criminal act and is structured like a case file. While the file includes information about the perpetrator (a troubled loner referred to only by his initials Ch.K), testimony from people who knew or observed him, a manifesto written by his ideological forebear (a real historical figure named Yorgos Makris, who advocated the destruction of the Parthenon for some reason or other that he seems to have been incapable of rendering coherently), as well as a description of Ch.K’s eventual fate, the reader is left with a feeling of a mystery only partially solved.

In the manner of troubled loners, Ch.K has left behind a rambling monologue in which he attempts to justify himself. This monologue (unverified, the reader is told) comprises the novella’s first section. It probably takes a certain kind of personality to feel oppressed to the point of obsession by an inanimate structure; the logic of his act, however, is discernible:

We’re all living on borrowed greatness…we live with our dreams as with a housemate, since “living together” signifies, more than anything else, living a particular lifestyle. … And while entire waves of the most savage crimes can leave us indifferent…one single, solitary incident suffices to upset the equilibrium of a life heretofore governed by the laws of entropy.

In other words, Ch.K believes that the Parthenon offers the Greek people a comforting conception of themselves, a dream of ancestral greatness that obscures their problems in the present. In this, Ch.K seems to be aligned with Makris, who, according to a contemporary, believed that “the national obsession with ancestry” was “…responsible for Greece’s intellectual and ideological decline.”

Chrissopoulos’s case file is a fugue that additionally makes use of a photograph, a news report, a transcript of a phone call between two unidentified people, and a soldier’s account of a hallucinatory night. But how seriously is the reader supposed to take these ideas? Chrissopoulos, interestingly, doesn’t really make this clear. Makris’s ideas inspire Ch.K, but Makris comes across, in a few telling details, as a somewhat absurd figure. He refers to himself, for example, as the Secretary-General of something called The Society of Aesthetic Saboteurs of Antiquities, which makes surprising the brevity of his apparent last words, addressed to his doorman, before throwing himself off of his apartment building: “I’ll be right down.”

The despondency in the section called “News” (“In the place where our most representative, our most precious symbol once stood, there is now nothing but empty sky and a pitiful spectacle…”) seems to confirm Ch.K’s diagnosis of his country, as does that of a security guard who recalls Ch.K’s outwardly reverential visits to the Parthenon, and the reader may start to sense that Chrissopoulos is setting up straw men for Ch.K’s benefit. Furthermore, the narrative does not mention dead or wounded (the explosion takes place at night, presumably when there are no visitors), which allows the reader to think of Ch.K’s act as bloodless, symbolic. On the other hand, there are dissenting voices as well—an acquaintance identified as E.Z., for example, whose description of Ch.K is memorable and not particularly complimentary:

He may not seem like the type, but he’s often scared by his own imagination, his own thoughts frighten him…His fear makes him use grand words. He puts his intentions into speech and hides behind it…His great expectations give him cover. And so sometimes I have trouble recognizing him.

Readers not overly familiar with Greece (this includes your reviewer) may wonder if they are missing something. But enjoyment of the novella is not dependent on an intimate understanding of Greek politics or culture. Chrissopoulos seems to make a point that is both particular and universal. All countries have national symbols, after all, and Greeks are hardly the only people who regard theirs as sacrosanct; nor, in 2017, with the ubiquity of a phrase like “Make America Great Again,” could those of us in the US claim immunity to collective dreams of vaguely-defined historical greatness. In The Parthenon Bomber, the Parthenon is the symbol that enables that dream. The haunting, penultimate section, narrated by a soldier who has difficulty distinguishing his waking life from his dreams, offers a suggestion of what people in thrall to a collective dream will do to preserve it. Ch.K’s “solution” offers no real answer, no alternative way of living. It is purely destructive (and, we learn, temporary) but thought-provoking.

+++

Christos Chrissopoulos is a novelist, essayist, and translator, and one of the most prolific young prose writers in Greece. He is the author of twelve books, was an Iowa Fellow in 2007, and has several literary won prizes including the Balkanika Prize (2015), the French Awards Prix Laure Bataillon (2014), the Prix Ravachol (2013), and the Academy of Athens Prize (2008). In addition to writing, he is the founder and director of the DaseinFest International Literary Festival in Athens, and since 1999, he has collaborated with the visual artist Diane Neumaier on several art projects and exhibitions.

+

John Cullen is the translator of many books from Spanish, French, German, and Italian, including Philippe Claudel’s Brodeck, Juli Zeh’s Decompression, Chantal Thomas’s The Exchange of Princesses, and Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation. He lives in upstate New York.

+

Michael Keane is a writer who lives in New Jersey. He is currently working on his first novel.