Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Suicide of Nikos Kerasiotis

On September 25, 2008 there was a demonstration outside the New York Stock Exchange protesting the massive Wall Street bail out. One of the demonstrators carried a banner saying: "Jump You Fuckers". As far as I know, no one jumped.

The crisis that began on Wall Street only hit us here in Greece hard much later, and it hit hard first in the construction sector. Masses of people who had been earning a living on building sites lost their jobs. One of those was Nikos Kerasiotis, aged 34. He lived in a tiny two-roomed cottage next to the river four or five fields below us.

At about 10.15pm on September 8 2011 Nikos shot himself in the head with a hunting rifle and died instantly.

I don't want Nikos to be treated as just another statistic. He was a friend, and in this dry, Greek valley with only 14 or 15 households, he was the only real friend we had. He was the only person who came round for coffee or sometimes for a meal, not often, but when Flora - my wife - passed him occasionally on the road, she would invite him up and sometimes he would come. He never came empty-handed, even after he lost his job. The bottom drawers in our fridge are still full of all the apples he brought with him the last time he came to see us, and above them the six cans of beer we never got round to drinking.

The really sad thing is that on any measure of what constitutes a good person, he ranked way up at the top, which must sound like the sort of thing anyone would say of their friend at a time like this, but in Nikos's case it is true. In this backwater of rural Greece where there is so much nastiness and back-biting and mutual hostility, Nikos kept himself way above all that. He was a tall, strong man who had had special forces training during his military service (still obligatory here in Greece), but he never seemed to allow himself to become aggressive when he was wronged. And in a society where corruption is rife, he struck me as incorruptible. Certainly in this little valley outside the city of Volos, there was no one who could be called virtuous apart from Nikos. The best among us has now died, so unnaturally, and unnecessarily.

Why did he do it? It is painful to hear people say - as I heard them today - that he was crazy - psychologically ill. There is something shockingly cold and cruel - almost violent - in pigeon-holing Nikos in that way. However disturbed he may have become, that fatal shot was the result of a long history that deserves respect - a history that must surely have become unbearably painful.

Nikos grew up in much the way that his father must have grown up, spending a great deal of his time in the forest helping his family make charcoal (karvouna), managing huge earth-covered piles of smoldering wood - kaminia - that could never be left unattended for months on end lest the fires get out of hand and the whole forest go up in smoke. As soon as was legally possible, his parents wanted him to work full-time at the kaminia, and so he was taken out of school despite the protests of his teachers who insisted that the unusually bright boy ought to be allowed to continue his education.

I first saw the family one summer about 12 years ago. I had ridden up the mountain for the first time on my motorbike, hurriedly looking for a children's camp that I was supposed to start work at. Somewhere near the camp high on the mountain I took a wrong turning, went up a dirt road in the trees and suddenly came upon a soot-covered couple busy outside the rudest of shelters made from branches covered with old plastic sheeting. I could have asked for directions but I am ashamed to admit that the sight was so unlike anything I had seen before that I quickly turned the motorbike round and sped off back to the main road.

As it turned out, Nikos's family had close ties with the children's camp - they were lending the camp a donkey to help ferry supplies - and soon I got to know them.

Nikos must have been about 20 or 21 then. When I sat down to have coffee with him and his parents in the forest he didn't seem at all bitter or frustrated. I imagine the frustration set in years later, when Nikos moved to find work in the city (Volos) following the retirement of his father and his decision not to continue the charcoal business (where conditions, in any case, had already been undermined by the influx of cheap Albanian labour).

Nikos found work, first in a factory and then on the building sites of Volos, and with that came his first taste of economic independence. The city must have been both liberating and tormenting. The torment seems to have been most acute around the issue of women. Back in the sexless forest I imagine Nikos became accustomed to celibacy, and I imagine him feeling he was saving himself for the woman of his dreams. Among all the smoke and the soot, shoveling earth, packing charcoal and watching over the kaminia, I imagine Nikos dreaming of the tall, proud woman who would become his wife.

Nikos never found that proud woman. A few weeks ago he told us of a day he had just spent working picking pears. While he was in the trees there was an attractive woman from a nearby village packing the pears neatly in boxes. When they met in one of the breaks, Nikos - who had a car - asked her if she wanted to go for a ride with him after work. "I wouldn't give you the honour," she said (the word "honour" sounds old-fashioned in English and not the sort of thing a village girl would say, but the Greek equivalent - timi - doesn't sound at all out of place). In retelling the story, Nikos made it sound more like a joke, but I bet those words were a dagger to his heart.

There seemed to be lots of other stories along the same lines. Just this morning one of the local shepherd's sons - with whom Nikos spent more of his free time - told us another. When his village - Pouri - had its annual festival this year, Nikos invited the shepherd's sons to go with him. They walked into the village cafeteria, where there happened to be a large gathering of the local girls. As soon as they saw Nikos they started laughing. I know that he had spoken in the past to at least one of them and asked her out, and had been refused with the excuse that the girl wouldn't go out with a karvouniaris (charcoal maker).

Now I have never spoken to the shepherd's four sons (aged between 17 and mid-30s) about this, but it seems clear that if a man comes down from the hillsides around here to the city, and is a cheerful bloke with money in his wallet and untroubled by high romantic ideals, he can find female companionship sufficient at least to satisfy the needs of the flesh. The shepherd's sons, despite their father being a ruthless blaspheming tyrant, are a very cheerful bunch who are clearly not having to struggle with celibacy. From what he told us, Nikos went out partying with them a number of times, but could never quite join in the fun. He had his romantic dream and I am sure he didn't want to ruin it.

Nikos just might have made his dream come true, despite all the idiotic prejudices in provincial Greece, if he had been more able to communicate with women. Growing up in a forest with a younger sister whose greatest affections were for the family mule can't have helped. Women seemed to remain for Nikos another species whose behaviour was unfathomable. Hence his tendency to rush clumsily at things when he met a woman he found genuinely attractive.

I doubt though that the romantic problems on their own would have pushed Nikos to commit suicide. While he was in work there must have been an apparent chance of making enough money to rise above the ridiculed status of the karvouniaris. But after being made redundant and having to scrape around for a little money picking pears here and a little money digging a cess pit somewhere else, he must have felt trapped in poverty, and lumbered forever with the status he had been ridiculed for.

Because Nikos had somehow picked up a good working knowledge of English (and it was amazing that he managed to do that without any formal lessons and without anyone to speak to in English) we suggested he go abroad and look for work. From what I gather, he did seriously consider the idea, but somehow could never muster the courage to leave. He did go to the capital - Athens - to look for work, but either he didn't find any or things went wrong in the big city, and he returned to his tiny cottage by the river (where, by the way, there is only water on the very wettest days of the year).

Now I am left with an awful sense of guilt at not having seen the signs and not having done anything. On the last couple of occasions that he visited us he did keep mentioning guns and referring back to his experience in the army as an outstanding marksman, but those references always seemed to crop up in the middle of discussions of political corruption and economic collapse here in Greece. It made me worry a bit that I might someday see news of an assassination and then see footage of Nikos in handcuffs. It never crossed my mind that he might be thinking of turning the gun on himself. But it should have crossed my mind. It was obvious that Nikos was being far too hard on himself. No one criticised him more severely than he himself did. Fit and tall with fair hair he was a "fine figure of a man" as they say, but he would always say he was unattractive, and flail his long arms around in the air to emphasize the point. He did occasionally allow himself to speak angrily about how his parents had wasted a large sum of their life savings buying him a car without speaking to him first (and choosing a car that really was useless for someone like Nikos) and also speak angrily about his sister (with whom there were disputes about family property, apparently), but at the end of the conversation the impression was always that he blamed no one more than himself.

Turning against himself I imagine that he had allowed the condescending laughter of the stupid girls of the village to play incessantly in his head like a broken record. Perhaps there was no way out, but someone should have tried to help him find a way out. I don't think anyone did. The last time he visited I suggested going hiking together (something he had never done before). I meant it, but looking back, the suggestion probably didn't sound very serious, and to get him to agree I would have had to really insist and encourage him. I didn't do any of that.

I am also ashamed to admit that I never actually went to his cottage to visit him. He invited us over once when he rebuilt the roof and wanted to show us his handy work (or we suggested going over to see it - I forget which), but after that he didn't invite us again and I never took the initiative to call on him. It did cross my mind, but I always doubted whether he would want me to call, because of my own stupid hang-ups, but also because, despite my fondness and admiration for him and my wish for us to be friends, there was always this feeling that we were worlds apart. I never stopped to think that he might need someone to call, because now that I think about it, I don't think anyone ever called on him.

On Thursday evening I went by on my scooter at about 8.30 pm. After coming over the little stone bridge I was only about 100 yards from his cottage and it would have been easy to make a right turn and call in on him. I did look up at his cottage. There was no light on and I didn't see him. I just carried on on my way up the hill to our house. About two hours later he shot himself.

Sunrise over the valley where Nikos lived.


James Hadley said...

This is a moving elegy for a decent man, and for this reader, at least, an eye-opener on social attitudes that seem to belong (and should) to another age. I found it profoundly affecting. A great, intelligent piece of writing. Thank you for sharing this.

Torn Halves said...

Thank you, James.

Eleni Pi. said...

a profound insight and a post-mortem eulogy to the person that seems now more than ever to capture the hazy old Greece I am so missing. A writing masterpiece that can and should be used in classes for students of various levels. THANK YOU. From the bottom of my heart for making me feel the appropriate melancholy of a human as well as a societal loss. God bless his soul.

Torn Halves said...

You are right, Eleni, that as well as being a terrible personal loss, it is also a loss to the community around here. The strange thing was that whenever you met Nikos on the dusty road he was always so cheerful. And if there was anyone here who could have taken a lead in sorting things out in this chaotic valley, it was him.

Christina Markoulaki said...

I am deeply touched by what you have written and I totally agree with the previous comments of the other readers. Nikos deserved this kind of long- overdue 'honour', a concept that was of special significance in his life.

Torn Halves said...

Thank you, Christina. I am not sure about the idea of honour. Partly for me I felt a pressing need to create something to focus on that was not horrifying, because although I was not the one who found Nikos, I heard the graphic description of the scene, and the appalling violence of it is utterly, utterly shocking. How a man who - as far as I know - never hurt anyone, and who couldn't even bear to let his tomato plants wither and die when he had to go and work on the other side of the mountain, could suddenly ...
There is something here palpably beyond words - something that makes all the words suddenly seem futile. It is horrifying (and that word itself suddenly seems lame). And yet it is only with words that I feel I can stop the horror from blotting everything out. Everything.

Christina Markoulaki said...

You are shocked and that is understandable and more human than a lot of things we have seen lately. Through you, your readers and I have had the opportunity to experience some of the devastation caring people like you feel. You have also managed to provide us with a lot of food for thought about societal attitudes and prejudice. Simply because of this, I think that you have offered something valuable to the blogging community and to Nikos, especially. All of us think about him today because of your initiative to put your thoughts in writing.

And that has made a world of difference....

James said...

Just want to add, I agree with wholeheartedly with Christina Markoulaki. You have used the power of words in the best possible way.

marthaann said...

I am Martha Ann kerasiotis. And was curiously looking up the kerasiotis river and instead found this story. I lived in that area for one year both my grandfather and his vicious daughter became deathly sick. I did all the work you can imagine but I was still considered a whore because it was raging jealously and backstabbing. I was so moved by this story I read it to my 93 year Los mom and we both agreed they are still the same in Greece in the villages. I never went back to visit Greece. I earned to run a farm but I ran for. The social morales of those idiot villagers and never got over it. This pure man was a victim of his birth and lack of communication.

marthaann said...

Read this to 93 yr old mom we agree nothing changes in the rural villages my name is Martha kerasiotis having lived in that area f almost a yr in the 70s all I was considered was a whore. I ran f my life he should have