Ruin: Essays in Exilic Living is a searching and innovative collection that makes a significant contribution to Greek-American letters. While the volume’s narrative threads are engaging, the book’s chief interest is not story for the sake of story. Rather, when Kalfopoulou recounts events from the last six or so years of her life, and the life of the Greek and American nations, her narrative serves as a vehicle for meditation, for her probing exploration of Greek literature’s most pressing questions. They are the old questions of home and exile, of justice and oppression, of antiquity, liberty, and loss. In its engagement with neo-colonialism and economics, Orientalism, and empire, though, Ruin is also very much a book of twenty-first-century literature, and Kalfopoulou serves English-speaking readers as a worthy ambassador of the Modern Greek experience. In [End Page 182] her hands, the apparently mundane attains global significance—garbage on the street, immigrants sleeping rough, debt talks on the news, maintaining family connections by Skyping across oceans. Coming to the book in 2016, readers will find that the everyday difficulties of her life five and six years ago in an economy crippled by debt are all too relevant, all too timely, right now. No one reading after the summer of 2015 can encounter these moments without a shudder of recognition: reminders, as the first memorandum was in the works, that during the Occupation, Greeks survived by eating apple cores tossed from windows by Nazi officers, reminders of how ludicrous the bailout loan seemed even as it was being received, and also Kalfopoulou’s hauntingly prophetic line: “The Greeks are wary of George Papandreou’s assurances that Greece will be saved by the troika” (112). To read this book in the wake of the political upheaval of 2015 is to confront how tragically predictable it all was while the first memorandum was in the works.
While Ruin’s most obvious contribution is to offer English-speaking readers clear, accurate, and penetrating insights into the current economic crisis and to subvert (through parallels drawn to Occupy Wall Street and other global movements) ahistorical, prejudiced assumptions about the Greek nature of European financial trouble, the book is equally notable for its accomplishment as a work of lasting literary art. Whether they are dramatizing Kalfopoulou’s taxicab rides through an Athens on strike or her commutes on the New York subway or the movement of tourists in the Acropolis museum, past a “woman’s ridged marble shift” (58) or the demands of Christine Lagarde and the IMF that she still heads, the essays are consistent in their ability to expand the horizon of every tradition that the collection claims. Those traditions are at least three: Greek-American literature, American literature, and nonfiction, as well.
Ruin might not be even feel very Greek-American to many readers, since unlike books that are set within the large diaspora communities of New York or Chicago, Kalfopoulou narrates from Greece—from an unidealized Athens in all its gritty glory—or she narrates from America, from Brooklyn. There is no pandering to what American readers will find familiar, namely, Greek festivals and their baklava, or icons at church. There is none of the tired boasting about the accomplishments of ancient forefathers but rather questions, crucial ones, about what we are to do about that legacy, especially now that their riches only foreground contemporary Greece’s poverty. Kalfopoulou’s is a refreshing divergence from what Yiorgos Anagnostou has insightfully called a “narrative about ethnic socioeconomic success [which] constructs Greek America as a homogeneous collectivity in accordance with the script of American liberal multiculturalism” (2003, 280).
Because Kalfopoulou is not anchored in a Greek-American community, but rather moves perpetually between Edinburgh, Athens, New York, and elsewhere, each essay begins with mention of where on the globe the author finds herself this time and why. The movement quickly becomes a motif, becomes thematic, while it also remains incidental to the action, a matter of course, a mere function of being Greek in the twenty...