[ bookreviews ]
Koumandareas (b.1931) is a three-time winner of the Greek National Book Award, but although he himself has translated works by (among others) Poe, Melville, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, his own books have not until now been translated into English. Judging by this spare, unsentimental novella, first published in Greece in 1978, that’s a pity. It’s been well translated - and it reads well, at least - by the late Kay Cicellis, herself a writer of note.
Koula is an attractively produced little volume, too, as with most Dalkey Archive books. Their wide-ranging yet select list includes such internationally known authors as Raymond Queneau, Robert Pinget, Boris Vian, Flann O’Brien, Ishmael Reed, Nathalie Sarraute, Josef Skvorecky, Louis Zukovsky, Gilbert Sorrentino and Gertrude Stein. From which one might perhaps expect a more experimental style of book, rather than this terse, unassuming, yet involving narrative.
Why should we read one more tale of love going wrong, an ill-advised affair without a future? Well of course, it’s all in the treatment. Here a young student partial to older women encounters the middle-management, middle-aged office-worker, Koula - to whose life of daily routine and urban domesticity two daughters and an indifferent husband have not lent any satisfactory meaning. Gradually and inevitably they drift into conversation (much of the action, such as it is, unfolding on the Athens underground) - then into casual meetings that turn into a relationship which, for Koula at least, becomes addictive. Gradually and inevitably also, this pair with little in common other than sex and their shared loneliness, will drift apart...
And that’s it: there are no unexpected dénouements, no tricky stylistic twist-and-turns. This is a plain though well told story, an old enough story in fact, but with some effective contemporary touches, such as the tube-station power-cut which prefigures for Koula the breakdown of an increasingly desperate and obsessive relationship. The author acutely yet economically analyses his characters and lays bare their pretensions and illusions. At his best, Koumandareas somewhat resembles a sort of Hellenic Hayes. And for anyone who might appreciate the work of that marvellously concise, unpretentious - and thus unduly underrated writer Alfred Hayes (1911-84) - it should be recommendation enough.