From Baroque



Her story begins 50 years ago in a suburb of Athens. What can I say about her? She has large eyes and thin lips. She likes scented candles, dark chocolate, and Antonioni’s films. When she’s angry or afraid, she shreds a paper napkin. Like most people, she wrote poems as a teenager, which she later burned.

She’s been born five times.

On October 10, 1966, in a maternity hospital.

On July 31, 1992, on a steamboat—leaning against the railing, flirting with a very special man.

On October 9, 2002, when she brought their child into the world.

In 1995 she was born again, giving birth to a novel.

On March 29, 2015, she was born for a fifth time in a recovery room, with part of her left breast missing.

That same evening she called me into the hospital.

“I’m fifty years old,” she said, “and one day, perhaps soon, I’ll die.” I started to protest. “No, wait, don’t interrupt,” she said. “I want to become the subject of a con­trolled experiment, in which whatever we live is a story, and whatever stories we tell are life. You’re the only person who can narrate everything I’ve lived through.” Then she added, characteristically, “If not you, then who?”

By my next visit, she’d started to have doubts.

“Why put you to all that trouble? I’m a golden mean, a golden mediocrity.”

“Oh, come on,” I answered. “There’s no such thing as a model character. I’ll write your story, but I’ll write it backwards. Instead of getting older, you’ll get younger.”

“Why should I get younger? Are you trying to free me of responsibility?”

“On the contrary. Who was it who said that we’re ‘boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’? Well, I’ll let your boat flow with that current.”

“But what kind of thing will it be? A novel or a biography?”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing that from you!” I scolded. “Aren’t you the one who swears on the novelistic potential of reality? A writer writes a book just because. What do you want from me, a contract?”

“I don’t understand,” she said, and her thin lips grew thinner.

I stood up from her bed and took a few steps back, in order to absorb the bizarre sight. A creature who always offered me the material of her life without complaint now lay pale and laggard on the bed, hair flattened by the pillow.

“You don’t need to understand. Just do your job, which is to live. And I’ll do mine, which is to write.”

I pictured her conscience, a river flowing upstream. Anyhow, I’m not trying to convince anyone. The book can be read like a sandwich: a reader with a big enough mouth can grind up paragraphs from all the Chapters together, and get a taste of her life. Someone else might start from the end, from the Chapter in which she is conceived. If we roll the dice and get double sixes, we can go straight to Chapter 12.

For the past few years we’ve been talking every day. One day she might show me her diary, or letters she wrote. Another day she pulls out old photographs. We move from the third to the first person. She makes a passionate claim on “I,” “me,” “I am.” Once I spoke to her in the second person singular. Other times she addressed the people close to her. Towards the end, we spoke together in the first person plural, the voice of political rhetoric but also of integration. She’s an ideal protagonist: I can invent her without inventing her, because she exists. But her existence wouldn’t mean much without her invention.

People may say my protagonist and I are the same person. Try figuring that one out. We’re busying ourselves with trivialities instead of living our lives. We should live like wild pigs, like flowers in the field, like flies. Until the animals swallow themselves, the field sucks in all its vegetation, and we become one.


18. Scratches

“I knew it!”

Mom took off her sunglasses and flashed me a look of triumph. Then she went back to sifting through the lipstick-stained cigarette butts, and I remembered the series Hart to Hart, with the rich amateur detectives who solve mysteries for fun, and each episode ends with the couple clinking champagne flutes on the deck of their yacht. It also seemed like one of the problems Dad and I used to solve in The Key to Practical Arithmetic: in the ashtray of a car are five cigarette butts with lipstick, and three without. How many women have kissed the driver?

Sunday afternoon. Dad was sleeping and I was the lookout. Mom had searched every inch of the car, under the floor mats, in the glove compartment, the space beneath the seats. Now she was plucking the cigarette butts out of the ashtray with tweezers and putting them in a little plastic bag, the kind I packed my sandwiches in when I went to class. If she’d let me put the School of Humanities at the University of Ioannina first on my list of schools, I wouldn’t have had to take part in this humiliating process.

Mom’s face was black and peeling in places. She had gone to Giannouda’s salon for a chemical peel and now wore enormous sunglasses and a kerchief over her head even at home. Sometimes I would catch her looking in the three-panel mirror in the bathroom, pinching the skin over her cheekbones. She was very beautiful. Dad used to say that when she was young, she was more beautiful than my sister and me put together. Then he would feel bad and say, “But you gals are good lookers, too.”

Mom said that after the peeling was over, her skin would be as soft and smooth as a baby’s. Twice a year she took me with her to Giannouda for a facial. Heavily made-up girls in white aprons squeezed my blackheads with a cotton ball and then spread a clay mask over my face. I felt awkward there, didn’t know how to hold myself, where to put my hands. I didn’t know how to be beautiful. All I cared about was filing down my canines, which were sharp, like shark’s teeth.

“Watch it, someone’s coming!” Mom cried. We both fell flat on the floor mats. “Is that your idea of standing guard?”

“Oh, now it’s my fault? You’re the one who called me over to look!”

“I really don’t want your father to catch us red-handed!”

I climbed back out of the car. I started walking back and forth in front of the ornamental well out in front of the building with my hands in my jeans pockets. I murmured a Siouxsie and the Banshees song that was basically written with my family in mind:

This is the happy house

We’re happy here in the happy house.

To forget ourselves and pretend all’s well.

There is no hell.

I was torn, split in two. Half of me was with Mom, who felt deceived, and the other half with Dad, who felt free.

Dad was my god. He knew world history and math. He could sing all the arias by heart. He fixed anything that broke and arranged the screws and nails in the storeroom, by size, writing on the outside of each box what was in it, in his calligraphic hand. Now he was a mysterious stranger. He invited a lipstick-wearing colleague, much younger than Mom, into the car, and the two of them went off somewhere.

“We’re done here,” Mom said, leaning out the lowered passenger’s side window. I walked ahead and she followed behind, speaking in monologue. “What an idiot I was, I asked about those scratches on his back, and he said, ‘It’s nothing, I must’ve had an itch.’”


I really didn’t want to think about some strange woman clawing at my father’s back.

“I’ll show them.” Mom was walking like a little girl, with rickety arms. She stopped outside the elevator. “I can’t go up. Bring me my cigarettes. We’ll walk down as far Agiou Ioannou so I can clear my head.”

“You’re going out like that?”

“Right now I don’t give a damn.”

I went up on tiptoe. I felt a painful pride in my parents. They were acting in unprecedented ways, like characters in a novel. My sister didn’t notice a thing. She was watching Yannis and Maria on TV, starring Pemi Zouni, a young actress she liked. Dad was still sleeping. I grabbed the cigarettes and went back downstairs.

“They think they’re going to get away with it,” Mom said, grabbing the pack out of my hand. “But I’ll show them who they’re dealing with.”

“What are you going to do?”

“They thought I was born yesterday, or just fell off the turnip truck. But you watch, I’ll show them!”

She wasn’t interested in the two of us talking. She wanted to talk, and wanted me to listen. Like when she got a slipped disc, or had kidney stones, and needed someone at her side. Without a witness, pain wasn’t pain.

Madame de Sévigné described to her daughter the kidney stones of a certain Madame de Brissac, how she played the whole thing up, clenching the sheets, pleading for pity. When we read the letter at the Institute Française, at first I felt a kind of spiteful mirth at all those who can’t button their lips and swallow their pain. But with great surprise I discovered that I couldn’t keep reading, my eyes had filled with tears. I would have liked my mother to suffer discretely, the way I did. But she too had been marked by her childhood. When she was still in grade school, my grandmother had sent her to spend two winters on the island of Syros. It was a sad story. My grandfather had died when Mom was just a baby, and my grandmother couldn’t manage with two children and the farm, so she packed my mother off to my grandfather’s brother. On Syros they made her work hard and eat with the servants. Ever since then, Mom had been a hurt little girl.

We turned onto the avenue. Passersby gawked at the woman with the scorched face.

“Mom, I think we should go home.”

“You go if you want. I need to calm down a bit more.”

But she didn’t calm down. In the middle of the night we were awakened by her cries. She had forgotten the oil on the stove. The house smelled like burned plastic, and the smoke, oily and thick, rose to the ceiling. Mom was the first to reach the kitchen, then my sister and me. My father followed behind in his baggy underwear. We were all coughing, opening windows to let in fresh air. Suddenly Mom stretched her black, peeling neck forward and started roaring like a bull. The tentacles of smoke seemed to be rising straight out of her nostrils. She dashed for the fruit basket and started launching oranges and apples at Dad, hitting his shoulders and chest.

“You’re a liar! A coward! I found her cigarette butts!”

My sister grabbed my hand, asking if some stranger had broken into our house and set it on fire.

“No,” I said, “no one set our house on fire.”

I pulled away. I didn’t want her looking at me with those clear eyes.

I don’t remember who opened the door leading from the kitchen to the living room. The smoke from the oil coiled around the couch, grey tongues licking the ceiling. Mom kept circling the coffee table lighting one cigarette after another. Dad fell to his knees and did precisely what she was accusing him of: he became a coward and a liar.

“There’s nothing going on,” he cried, ”it’s all in your head.”

My throat stung, I couldn’t stand still. It wasn’t really my throat, but the unusual sight of my father, the sounds coming from his mouth. My temples went numb, like in Styra the summer Grandpa died. I turned on the faucet, splashed water on my face. Mom lit a cigarette with trembling hands. My sister tugged at my shirt, asking me what was going on.

“Nothing,” I said, “go back to bed.”

I sounded like a grownup.

I stopped in the doorway. Dad was sitting on the couch with his elbows on his knees, his face buried in his hands. His back rose and fell rhythmically. In the dim light of dawn, the scratches showed as clear as day.


15. Earthquake

Do you find it humiliating for us to describe critical moments in life that derive their meaning from loneliness and chaos? Permit me to say—that’s not how it is. On February 24, 1981, at almost 11, our girl had pushed the door closed, pretending to be asleep. Under the white knit blanket she had lifted her nightgown and was rubbing her ring finger between her legs. She was hoping to achieve what the first issue of Erotic Harmony described as “silent fireworks” or “electric discharge.” In the distance dogs howled.

Her father was in the living room. Her mother was spreading an egg white mask over her face. Her sister was in the other room putting her Little Matchbox Babies to bed. Our girl was wavering between the muscular tube of the vagina and the clitoris, the only organ of the human body that, as she’d read, had pleasure as its sole purpose. She began with the tube we just spoke: an irregular spongy fold sucked in her finger again and again like a vacuum cleaner. Then she turned her attention to the clitoris, a velvety sheet that unfolded unhurriedly like the leaves of the philodendron in the kitchen.

She knew that inside her body slept a flesh-eating plant, a warm, embodied purpose, something strange, at any rate, that she both did and didn’t want to awaken. How did she know? Because she had imagined it while watching those leaves unfold, the white of the egg thickening into meringue, the cat creeping through the grass, belly low. An envelope was made for letters, a glass for water, a flashlight needed batteries to turn on. But what if you’re the letter, the water, the battery itself? The animal inside the animal?

At first nothing happened. Then her mind got lazy. Contortions of receptivity began within her, strange pulses, rhythmic insertions of emptiness within emptiness. She fell into a tunnel that kept constantly digging itself deeper. There she encountered everything she didn’t understand (the nth power, irrational numbers, vector quantities, Newton’s second law of motion). A bird flapped its wings, but where? Inside her, behind her, above her, around her? As soon as she formed the question, the bird disappeared, together with its fluttering. I’m sorry, I won’t do it again—give me, give me. The darkness heard her and gave her vortex within vortex within vortex. Take this oscillation, take butterflies, take dying doves and melting marble. Take horses, buffalos, entire armies.

“Earthquake!” her mother shouted from the bathroom.

At first the earth spoke quietly, murmuring, as if it were sick and asking for help. Then it started to growl and thrash. The room went wild, the light fixtures, the artwork on the walls, the bookshelf. A few books fell onto her. The wood of the balcony door creaked like bones. The house writhed. Our girl writhed.

“Everyone come!” Mom howled. “We all need to be together!”

The earth groaned once more and went silent. They all charged into the hall, beneath the chandelier that shook its crystal this way and that. Dad came from the living room, her sister from the bedroom, her mother from the bathroom. And our girl came with two hearts, one regular heart and another between her legs.

“Grab your coats and head for the stairs!”

Mom looked like an opera singer. The egg white mask had dried on her face, her lips couldn’t move. Her voice came straight out of her throat.

It was as if Mom had three children, because neither Dad nor the two sisters objected, they just threw their coats on over their pajamas and ran down the stairs two at a time. The girls sat on the low wall around the apartment building. Their mother threw the white blanket over their shoulders. Our girl thought: What would that blanket say, if it could speak?

Neighbors wandered around the carport holding transistor radios up to their ears. They had all come down, even the woman from the top floor who never opened her shutters.

“She’s as pale as a ghost,” someone said. “She must’ve been very scared.”

“Nah,” someone else answered. “She’s just never seen daylight before.”

Our girl thought: How courageous is it to live constantly in a cave of your own making?

The phone lines were dead, Agia Paraskevi sunk into darkness. Mom went to check on her sister in her curlers and robe. She took a shortcut, passing through the apartment building where the pain in the neck lived. She came back holding their older cousin by the hand.

“We’re going to your grandmother’s. To the estate. We’ll be safe there.”

Her aunt, uncle, and the baby would come in their own car to Vrilissia. They would all sleep outside.

“It’s cold out,” the two sisters said.

“I mean in the car,” their mother clarified.

All of Athens had come out into the streets. Our girl thought: Wrapped in their blankets, they look like ancient Greeks gesturing in the Agora.

Our girl thought: Maybe the Earth got tired of holding us on its back?

Our girl thought: I have springs inside me. Where does that tunnel go when we die? What are we really made of, in the end?

Their grandmother had come out into the street to wait for them. The grownups turned on the TV, the kids fell asleep on the double bed. At every aftershock everyone ran outside. The dogs howled like wolves. The sky went red.

The next day there was no school. On TV they saw firemen, government ministers, cranes’ pincers searching the ruins. The reporters talked about the Halcyon Islands, about the twenty dead and five hundred wounded, about the University of Uppsala. The stations all showed the destroyed hotel “Galaxy” and a house in Kiato, where the third floor dropped all at once to the ground. Dad was worried about their weekend home in Melissi. Mom shouted, “We’re lucky to be alive!” Our girl looked around and sighed. In her grandmother’s room everything breathed: curtains, sheets, bedside tables.

Those days the important thing was to be alive. Dad and her uncle had stopped arguing about PASOK and soccer. Mom didn’t ask the girls to straighten up their rooms. At school, the history and literature teacher who wore girlish clips in her hair, Ms. Baskourelou, spoke of the earthquake of Atalanta, which shifted the northeast side of the Parthenon in 428 BC. Our girl looked at her hands and legs and at the thing between her legs and was happy that everything was where it belonged.


Amanda Michalopoulou

Amanda Michalopoulou, a native of Athens, Greece, is the author of eight novels and three short story collections. Her work has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in Harvard Review, Guernica, PEN Magazine, World Literature Today, Words Without Borders, Asymptote, The Guardian, The Brooklyn Rail, and Best European Fiction, among others. She is a winner of the Book Critics’ Award for her novel Jantes (1996) and the Academy of Athens Prize for her short story collection Bright Day (2013). Why I Killed My Best Friend, translated by Karen Emmerich, was longlisted for the National Translation Award in the U.S. Patricia Barbeito’s translation of her novel God’s Wife is forthcoming by Dalkey Archive Press (December 2019). She has held fellowships and residencies from the DAAD and LCB in Berlin, the Shanghai Writers Association, the Edward Albee Foundation, Art Omi: Writers, the Bellagio Rockefeller Foundation, and the International Writing Program in Iowa.

Karen Emmerich

Karen Emmerich has translated over a dozen books of Greek poetry and prose. Her translation of Eleni Vakalo’s Before Lyricism won the 2018 Best Translated Book Award for Poetry, and her co-translation with Edmund Keeley of Yiannis Ritsos’s Diaries of Exile won the 2014 PEN Poetry in Translation Award. Her translation of Ersi Sotiropoulos’s What’s Left of the Night won the 2019 National Translation Award for prose. She is also an associate professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, where she directs the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication.

Copyright (c) Kastaniotis, 2018. English translation copyright (c) Karen Emmerich, 2019.