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Journal of Modern Greek Studies 21.2 (2003) 294-297
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Michael Kalafatas,The Bellstone: The Greek Sponge Divers of the Aegean. One American's Journey Home. Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press. 2003. Pp. 256. $29.95.
This is an unusual work of scholarship and a deeply personal book. The author, a Greek American, narrates his rediscovery of a 23-page poem by the grandfather that he never met, and the ensuing odyssey through which he tries to [End Page 294] understand, contextualize and come to terms with his grandfather's legacy. I do not use the word odyssey lightly, as Kalafatas takes the reader with him on travels into history and across several continents in his personal and scholarly quest. The poem, "Winter Dream" was written by Metrophanes Kalafatas on the island of Symi in 1904. It tells the story of the protests surrounding attempts to abolish the deep-sea sponge diving suit (skafandra), with its yearly harvest of deaths and paralysis from the bends. While the skafandra was the boon of captains and sponge merchants, it was the bane of the local population of Symi, Kalymnos and other sponge diving islands in the Dodecanese. Thus the bellstone (kampanellopetra) of the title refers to the tool for descent of the naked divers, who held their breath to comb the bottom for sponges, a less efficient but far safer—and more romantic—method of diving known as the "first technique." Attempts to ban the equipment were largely unsuccessful, and the scourge of the bends continued well into the twentieth century. Indeed, the author of the poem died soon after its completion, uttering, with his last breath, the Rosebud-like phrase "They have killed me." Was he the victim, perhaps, of the Symiot power elite, eager to dispense with a troublemaker?
While the story of Aegean sponge diving has been told by a number of authors, most prominent among them the anthropologist H. Russell Bernard, it has never been told with such passion, and with such flair for tying the disparate strands of the story together across space and time. "Follow the object," is the injunction of many current anthropology and cultural studies, and Kalafatas responds to this call, following sponges through their natural and social contexts. Thus he traces the use of sponges in the factories of the industrial revolution where they provided the wealth that led to the creation of a new class of wealthy sponge merchants who, in the words of his grandfather, "dress Western like the Franks, / they even wear gold chains. / They want their wives addressed Madame / No thought that it's all foreign" (87). Kalafatas also follows the sponges sent as tribute by Dodecanese islanders to the harems of the Ottoman Sultans, where, drenched in lemon juice, they made a most effective prophylactic when used by harem girls for whom pregnancy could often mean being stuffed in a bag and cast in the Bosphorus. And he follows them to the coast of Florida, where a new generation of sponge divers were infused with a passion not only for the deep, but for baseball and social justice—the American dream.
Kalafatas sets out to answer the question why there were so many deaths and why so many divers were left crippled. The answer leads him in many directions: the environmental conditions for Mediterranean deep-sea diving, the pre-payment system by which the divers were already indebted to their captains before they set sail, the greed of captains and sponge-merchants who ignored or suppressed the many protests and even imperial firmins abolishing the skafandra, and finally the Greek "poetics of manhood" by which challenging laws, whether human or nature-made, marks you as a true man. All these factors are given due weight, and more importantly, they help fill out a narrative that captures some sense of everyday life on these islands. Kalafatas makes particularly effective use of stories that depict the everyday and extraordinary struggles of Dodecanesian women, from their protests against the suits and against various...