According to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stieglitz, “Today, with greater globalization, when the U.S. sneezes, much of the rest of the world, and Latin America in particular, gets the flu or something worse.” It’s in this context that Greece’s debt crisis arose. In just four years, the Greek national debt grew $92 billion. Greece received a $110 billion bailout. Many of the initial austerity measures—1% increase in VAT, large new levies on tobacco and alcohol—paled in comparison to what was to come. Building, banking, real estate, government investments all froze. Market confidence, often synonymous with public fear, increased amidst spending cuts, public sector wage and pension cuts. And it is in this context that Christos Ikonomou places his story collection, Something Will Happen, You’ll See, translated by Karen Emmerich.
“What kind of life can you live when you’re waiting for something bad to save you from something bad?” is one of the many inured observations made by one of Ikonomou’s characters in this series of stories notable both for their economic awareness and haunting plots. The media’s coverage of the debt crisis has really ignored the individual aspect, the family and the worker. Not so with Ikonomou’s collection. In what one may expect to be a politically minded collection with professional protestors making large philosophical pronouncements, Ikonomou’s surprises are delightful. Each story is replete with hunger, lightheaded optimism, and the calculus of poverty. One story, “Come on Ellie, Feed the Pig”, tells of a man who’s rarely home and when he is, he tells his wife to contribute earnings to the piggy bank, in a sort of endless penance to a nebulous god.
Ikonomou uses typical horror techniques and cinematic imagery: lipstick on mirror, home-alone showers, beady-eyed chain-smokers, an old man swallowing tacks, his son trying out the same, images of chains (albeit, readers find on, on tires, garbage raining down, mantras like “it’s low blood sugar for sure” leading one to believe she may pass out at any moment. Cooking and eating become scary for the reader. There is no escape in the apartment. The reprieve offered by a shower gives hot water and cleanliness that one knows, in time, will just turn cold. The horror shows the individual as the vulnerable nation, a class within itself. It shows the success of propaganda when other potential allies repeat the same anti-working lies spewed by the faceless investor. It shows through shades of terror and a feat of writing, how realism for the rich is a much different story than realism for the poor.
Ikonomou also shows individuals working the calculus of poverty—all the anxiety and arithmetic that goes into eating, and drinking and how to pay for survival. So many characters are struck by the necessity of adding up their bills, their needs, their fears, scribbling it down on palm or paper in a sort of cleansing of the mind that works to abate for a short time the specter of the bill collector or growling stomach.
In “And a Kinder Egg for the Kid”, it’s a few days before Easter and a man needs to feed his hungry son. The son is not accustomed to having too much food, but it’s dire now after sudden financial decline. The father goes to meet his daughter at the port. Probably in her twenties, she’s a career-woman coming home for the holidays. He strolls the city streets, looking for food, hoping for his daughter to arrive soon. On the walk, Easter decorations abound. There are a number of instances in this story that bring to mind, Dickens, O’Henry, and even a twisted It’s a Wonderful Life. The father moves like an apparition and at one point, watches over what he could have been. “They clinked plastic cups and laughed and clapped and danced the zeibekiko. He watched them with hatred and jealousy. He watched them without wanting to. As if he were a dead man who had been allowed to return for a brief while to the land of the living, to walk invisible among the living until he was pulled back again into death – a terrible punishment.”
He’s hustling around streets Ikonomou often names or lists. They look and sound like (and often are) the streets the other stories’ characters stumble through. For the stories that take place in the Athens suburb of Nikaia, it is easy for one to imagine the characters across stories walking by each other at the oft-mentioned Galaxy Supermarket. Many of the street names connote former glory or recent despair: Kondyli, Antioch, Ephesus. A former Depression-era dictator. Places no longer in Greece but in Turkey. Everything is what it shouldn’t be, what it once wasn’t.
One of stories reeling from workplace injury is “A Placard and a Broomstick”. A coworker protests the working conditions and inhumane work-injury (electrocution) of his friend on the night before Good Friday—reckoning with the brutality with that calculus of poverty.
At night to keep himself from falling asleep he did arithmetic on cigarette packs. He divided 24,000 by Petros’s age to see how many volts there had been for each year of his friend’s life. He multiplied Petros’ age by 365 and divided that into 24,000 to figure out the volts per day. Then he calculated the hours and the minutes and the seconds. That’s how he spent his nights.
Ikonomou does something spectacular with his close third-person in short vignettes. With his well-placed caesuras, third person feels like first person.
All in all, this collection feels written for American audiences. As it does with many “debtor” countries, America has a long history with Greece. Between 1893 and 1914.immig, one in every six Greeks left Greece, mostly for America or Egypt. For two decades, America experienced an influx of 25,000 Greeks annually. Suddenly, though, in 1924, a strict new quota capped Greek immigration at 100 a year. America was a refuge until it was a forbidden place. After World War II, America had a hand in the quashing of Greek communism, supporting a right wing military regime in 1967. One response to this U.S-supported junta was the Revolutionary Organization 17 November, a Greek terrorist group that targeted Americans.
Thus, the title story, “Something Will Happen, You’ll See”, when referenced in its context, speaks to predatory reach of American capitalism. This story also gives readers an impressionistic image of modern Greece.
The sky was full of stars and the moon was out but Niki didn’t need any light to see – even with her eyes closed she knew where everything was. The cement factory the slaughterhouses the British Petroleum plant the church of Agios Nikolas. The fishing docks and the boatyards in Perama. In the distance was the industrial island of Pstittaleia and then Salamina with its densely clustered neighborhoods: Paloukia Ambelakia Selinia. She grabbed hold of the railing and felt its rough metal scratch her palms. From where she stood she could see the memorial to the battle against the Germans at the electric plant in 1944 which was now surrounded by palm trees and she could see countless unnamed alleys and streets lined with bitter orange trees and mulberry trees and apartment buildings built side by side whose balcony awnings were torn by wind and blackened with age.
Ikonomou’s characters attempt escape the decimation of their country through: TV, protest, blind faith, cigarettes, alcohol, burning belongings, and walking for as long as one can stand. One person even paints a mustache on her face to trick death into believing she is a boy, instead of one of the many females in her family that tragically died young. Some try focusing on the foreign and exotic or reciting fairytales to escape memories. They are afraid to drink and even more afraid not to. Readers watch characters who do things they know they shouldn’t. These tools of escape are often symbols of failure. Dissatisfaction with TV and media runs through many of the stories.
“You should have called the stations,” one protesting pensioners suggests to another, only to receive a disheartened shrug. In another story, TV is a preventer of suicide. “‘If you’re down or have something on your mind,’ he said, ‘just turn on the television. It’s the best medicine, just take it from me. TV. For people like us, for poor people, there is no other medicine.'”
The collection’s finest story is the only one that brings readers to a time that’s otherwise only alluded to (the early twentieth century). “Go Out and Burn Them”, half of which is made up of letters, is about a man whose wife has just died. The local politicians are celebrating a new recycling program, as if that’s all the poor city needed. In “Go Out and Burn Them”, the terse widower wants to burn everything. He wants nothing to remain, no waste, no garbage around building up. No memories of anything. He even wishes to recycle himself, that’s the only really useful purpose the new program could have. Maybe the next version of him could be better. In the rounding up of things to burn, his daughter finds the letters her mother kept from her childhood, letters to family that left to go to America.
These haunting narratives and their conversational titles have the poignancy to sink into a reader’s memory and life. Like Jose Saramago, Ikonoumou wields a catholic willingness for allegory. The collection may feel foreign perhaps, in location, and in its subject of the working-class, but not in content. The occupation of each character (or lack thereof) is quintessential.
However, unlike much of contemporary American fiction, no characters are professors or writers or students of writing. Therefore, the author cannot simply philosophize in exposition or dialogue, it must come through in character and with this Ikonomou affirms the individual’s ability to work towards finding solutions. While Ikonomou offers no specific easy fix, the characters he creates resist and persist with inspiring tenacity.