Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Samarakis: Naked Among the Clothed

A favourite book cover:

Although I have had this book for over 15 years and although I read it ages and ages ago, it is only this year that I realised what the cover photo depicted. Perhaps it was the fact that earlier this year a stray goat wandered onto our field and we tried to look after it. A couple of days later it became obvious why the shepherd had never come looking for it. It was ill. It died. Another sad loss. I buried it, taking care to ensure that the grave was covered well enough with a pallet and heavy stones so that the dogs would not dig it up again.

When I next came to pick up the book by Samarakis, I seemed to see for the first time what was on the front cover. I already knew the boy was Peruvian. There was a note to that effect in the book. Now I saw that the baby goat must have just died, and the boy is desperately trying to blow the breath of life back into it. It suddenly looked like one of the most moving images I had ever seen. And still is.

I re-read the short story bearing the same title as the book. It was first published in 1954. What is striking is that nothing essentially has changed.

In the kafeneio the protagonist flicks through that day's paper: stories about the government deficit, a kidnapping, a rape and three suicides - two for financial reasons. Later in the paper the section about what used to be called high society, with reports of how elegant and chic the ladies were the previous evening.

"He ran his hand through his hair, and wiped the sweat from his brow. He was perspiring, although it wasn't hot.

"The war, the hydrogen bomb, the suicides for financial reasons, high society... What a panorama of life!

"Nothing had changed for the better since the war. Things were just as they were before. Once he had hoped, as millions all over the world had hoped, that after the war, after so much blood had been spilled, that things would change. That peace would come, that the nightmare of war would never again cast its shadow over the earth, that there would be no more suicides for financial reasons, that...


"In the mirror opposite he caught sight of his face. A very ordinary face. Nothing indicated the turmoil within."

Then on the next page, when the protagonist finally admits to himself that he no longer feels that there is any hope, there is my favourite passage:

"It suddenly seemed a terrible thing to be without hope. He had the feeling that everyone in the kafeneio was looking at him and others in the street were thinking and whispering to each other: 'That man there has no hope!' As if it were a crime. As if there were some mark on him making his guilt obvious to all. As if he were naked among the clothed."

Now, as then, the times have some of us thinking about the "dark face of life". Some. Not so many it seems. And we walk about feeling like the naked among the clothed.

Yet we do not completely despair. There is some hope - however dim. We know there must be, if only because there once was a boy in the hills of Peru who desperately tried to blow the breath of life back into his limp infant goat.

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