|Threading Thessaloniki’s history - a report from the Athens News 5 January 2012|
A multicultural paradise lost - where Greeks, Jews and Turks used to live in harmony - is what Victoria Hislop has on offer in her new novel The Thread, a diachronic portrayal of Thessaloniki after the great fire of 1917.
Hislop’s account of the city’s inter-cultural melange is a colourful, literary tapestry that weaves historical events in the lives of individuals, often making for a captivating read.
It is a brand of fiction that seems tailor-made for dramatisation. After all, her novel about the leper colony of Spinalonga, entitled The Island, garnered huge ratings when it was dramatised and shown on a major private television channel in Greece, making the author something of a star in this country.
The Thread is not a historical novel, though Hislop uses the skills of her former profession, journalism, to weave critical moments of 20th-century Greek history through the plot. A key event is the Greek-Turkish population exchange, following the Asia Minor disaster, when Greeks left Turkey for Greece and Greece’s Turks left for Turkey. This dramatic exchange brings some of the main characters to Thessaloniki and the novel gushes with nostalgia for the contributions of the missing Turkish population.
Hislop’s references to the regret the city’s once-dominant Jewish population felt over the incorporation of Thessaloniki into the Greek state in 1912 also reveal some of the tensions between the ethnic-religious groups, as does the novel’s mention of the anti-Semitic references in the city’s rightwing daily Makedonia.
But those tensions are usually played down in support of the leitmotif of multiculturalism running through the narrative, with the insightful portrayals of the mostly female main characters.
Hislop does not take kindly to the indigenous Greek merchant class, represented mainly through the self-centred, profit-hungry and rightwing textile merchant Konstantinos Komninos. The merchant’s oppressed wife and son, who becomes an ELAS (Greek Popular Liberation Army) resistance fighter during the Second World War, however, are treated with empathy.
A more tender portrayal is reserved for Jewish tailor Saul Moreno, whose establishment caters to Thessaloniki’s westward-looking haute bourgeoisie, Christian and Jewish. He pays his large staff well, investing his profits back into the business and, in contrast to ostentatious Komninos, stays in his modest middle-class quarters.
The book’s clarity on the Greek identity of the Greek Jews is on target, with stress on the fact that Greece had been their home for centuries and that they fought for the country in the 1940-41 campaign.
If that sounds familiar, it may be because Hislop picks up where Mark Mazower left off in his Salonica, City of Ghosts, a book examining the three communities between 1430 and 1950, and one Hislop says influenced her deeply.
That said, The Thread - whose title refers to the profession of Katerina, a refugee from Smyrna who becomes a top seamstress at Moreno’s workshop - is a sensitive and often captivating account of how 20th-century Greek history shaped the characters’ lives.
In an interview with the Athens News, Victoria Hislop describes her passage from journalism to fiction, her fondness for Greece, and her new novel.
You have worked in public relations and as a journalist. How does one become a novel writer - and what is the writing process like for you?
Writing is something I enjoy probably more than any other activity and have done since I was a child. I have my diaries that date back to when I was about ten years old - so it wasn’t something that happened overnight. And I always won the writing prizes at school, even in primary school.
So, to be honest, I am not sure what you mean by “how does one become a writer” - I think most people who are writers always were writers. In professional terms, I believe we can get better and better as writers. It’s like practising at piano - the more you do it, the better you get.
Writing fiction for me is something more exciting than non-fiction. I describe it as the difference between walking and flying. Walking is great, but there is a wonderful freedom with fiction - you can really go anywhere you like in your mind, and create any situation, any character.
You’ve become something of a legend in Greece and, more broadly, a celebrity writer. How has fame changed your life and that of your family?
I don’t think it’s changed me. I still shop in the same places, eat in the same places. By now people recognise me on the streets in Greece, and that’s nice. But it hasn’t changed my family life.
How do you think human freedom is defined against greater themes in your book of history, and relations between generations, parents and children and the past and present?
In Greece, human freedom, in terms of family ties, sometimes looks very different from the British version - this is one of the biggest differences I see here. In the UK, freedom means providing the means and support (emotional and financial) to allow a child to find his or her own way, to fulfil their potential in every respect.
In Greece I see parents keeping tighter hold of their children and I am not sure this always makes for a healthy society. Having said that, the strength of the family bond can also seem very appealing.
You’ve said you were charmed by the coexistence of Greeks, Jews and Muslims in Thessaloniki before 1917. What do you think life was like back then - was it an idyllic multicultural society?
I am sure there were some problems - there always are, in any society - but from what I have read, yes, these three cultures got on well together. The balance was ideal. Only when the Muslims left and the Jews were then heavily outnumbered by the Christians, did their troubles begin.
When did you first come to Greece and how did your relationship with the country evolve?
I came over 30 years ago as a tourist, and I have visited every year since. I bought a house on Crete about four years ago and now I am learning the language. It’s a strong bond, getting closer all the time, like any relationship.
Your previous book, The Island, was a TV blockbuster in Greece. Why do you think it struck such a chord? Did it become an uncanny parallel to the isolation and scapegoating of Greece in the eurozone crisis?
Yes, oddly, it did. This might have been why it resonated so strongly here. I saw a cartoon in one of the large newspapers here, representing a boatman taking Portugal, Ireland and Greece over to a small island, which was clearly labelled “Spinalonga”. I think the Greeks do feel they are separated and stigmatised, although they really do have plenty of company in their moment of crisis.
What are the themes of The Thread? How did you choose and shape the characters, and which one do you identify with the most?
The theme, if there is one, is that the events of history (certainly within the framework of The Thread) are closely linked and that you cannot separate yourself from them. Greece in the 20th century was a very tough country to be in. And even if I had no idea how much focus there would be on Greece when I wrote the book, it seems now to provide an explanation to some readers of the origins of Greece’s deep economic problems.
I did a lot of research on the period of the population exchange, and, fortunately, there are a lot of sources in English. I worked in the British Library, and one of the key sources was the American diplomat Henry Morgenthau, who gave an incredible description of what happened back then.