An Interview with Sergios Gakas
Sergios Gakas is the author of Ashes, published by MacLehose Press back in July, a dark, noirish crime novel that really breaks the mould. Published in Greece in 2006 and set just before the Athens Olympic , its treatment of the corruption at the heart of Greek public life has proved eerily prescient. He took some time out from writing his next book to talk to us about his memorable characters, his crime-writing influences and his thoughts about Greece’s economic and political past, present and future.
Paul Engles: Where did the idea for writing Ashes first spring from?
Sergios Gakas: It was while I was working on a production of Euripides’ Andromache with a well-known Greek actress. She said to me, half in earnest, half in jest, that she wouldn’t feel like a real star unless her fans started behaving so badly towards her that she would need a bodyguard! That night I jotted down a few words on a sheet of headed paper from the provincial we were staying in: Famous actress – bodyguard – lover from the past – cards and alcohol – a Greece that’s falling apart. The rest came as I wrote.
Paul Engles: Ashes, published in Greece in 2006, is all about state corruption, going back to a stock market crash in 2001. Did you see the current economic crisis coming?
Sergios Gakas: I belong to the minority of Greeks who were against Athens holding the Games in 2004. We argued at the time that hosting the Olympics would lead to an enormous financial deficit that the country would be unable to cope with.
I’d like to point out here that Greece is a country which, after the military dictatorship (1967-1974), has been ruled by two political parties, PASOK and New Democracy, and is highly dependent on foreign financial interests. So, by setting the novel during the run-up to the Olympics, I tried to set a stage consisting of profoundly corrupt politicians and business people, the editors who supported them, the horrendous squandering of both national wealth and of EU subsidies, and the absolute impunity of all guilty parties in numerous scandals.
But I didn’t foresee the huge crisis facing us now, at least not on this scale. That would have been difficult, in view of the fact that both our governments and the international financial institutions had beeen cooking the books. Imagine that our current prime minister, as recently as 2009 fought the election with the slogan “There’s plenty of money – the financial crisis can’t touch us”!
Paul Engles: Will this be the only case for Colonel Halkidis, or will he get another outing, or a series of novels?
Sergios Gakas: I have begun a novel featuring the same heroes, Piertzovanis and Halkidis. At the moment it looks like it’s going to develop into a story that will take them on a tour of Greece – but not on the tourist trail. At the moment I am trying to “create” the requisite femme fatale.
Paul Engles: The dialogue in Ashes is sharp, snappy and very enjoyable. How did your work in the theatre help your writing in this regard?
Sergio Gakas: My work in the theatre has clearly played a part. But I think reading crime novels by the great noir writers and watching noir films has been more important.
Paul Engles: Has the Far-Right violence you describe in the novel become more prevalent during the economic crisis?
Sergios Gakas: Yes, I suppose it has, particularly state-sanctioned violence. You’ll remember that the police attacked half a million peaceful protestors back in June, with the excuse that there were a handful of troublemakers.
Violence on the part of the far right – usually targeted at the poor and a few innocent migrants – has also increased. Several members of the far right, anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi organisations have very close ties with the police and operate under their full protection, particularly in the poorer areas of Athens. One grain of comfort here is that the only party which represents these views in parliament has very little popular support.
Paul Engles: Which of the novel’s two main characters would you prefer to have a drink (or two . . . or three . . . ) with?
Sergios Gakas: I think after about the third drink I’d be able to have a nice discussion about women, poker, even football, with Piertzovanis. With Halkidis I’d probably drink less and stay sober enough to follow all the stories he’d be telling about his job until I’d get him to come up with Fred Vargas’ line: “I wonder if by being a cop, I’ll finally end up a cop.”
Paul Engles: Many people on internet blogs etc have been intrigued to hear that a Greek novel in translation is being published? Are there any very good Greek authors at the moment that we are missing out on?
Sergios Gakas: There are several writers of crime fiction in Greece, all kinds of crime fiction. A year and a half ago, ELSAL was set up – that’s the Greek Crime Writers’ Club, which now has 34 members and has organised a number of events already. In June it brought out Emergency Entrance , a collection of short stories by 19 of its members. It’s a useful sample of crime fiction in Greece today. Also, the publisher Kastaniotis has brought out four volumes of Greek Crime – representative anthologies of short stories.
Paul Engles: Jeff Park, who reviews crime novels on BBC Radio, said of your novel: “Noir is misused but this is really noir”. Could you let us know your influences in writing a novel that is so decidedly noir?
Sergios Gakas: My influences, as far as I am aware, are many. In no particular order: Beckett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Taibo, Cortazar, the circus (it plays an important part in my first novel), several ports, Amercan cinema, Melville’s films and the Marx Brothers.
Paul Engles: Colonel Halkidis’s cocaine addiction can be seen as the driving force for much of the action in the novel. Was it interesting writing from the perspective of someone so visibly falling apart?
Sergios Gakas: I have no idea how the mind works under the influence of cocaine, so I tried to discuss it with as many people as I could to get a sense of it. To assume, when writing, the position of a policeman, who, just to get through each day, takes cocaine, seemed relatively easy because it enabled me to break the rules; I didn’t worry that some critic would come along and say, “Well, you haven’t handled that very well, and I know from personal experience what goes on inside the head of a coke-fiend.”
Paul Engles: What other novels have you written? Are they crime novels also?
Sergios Gakas: My first novel, Casco, which has been translated into French and Italian, is of the same genre as Ashes. Simeon Piertzovanis is the hero, along with a circus artist and a raven-haired woman with green eyes. A few of my short stories have also been published in anthologies.
Paul Engles: From your novel, it is clear that you follow politics quite closely. What do you think will be the solution to Greece’s (and Europe’s) current problems?
Sergios Gakas: My engagement with politics is largely emotional. My parents suffered a great deal during the German occupation and the Civil War because of their desire for freedom. For me, the political struggle is mainly a struggle for the freedom of all people. Sadly the future of freedom in Greece is at best uncertain. Greece is effectively bankrupt. Most Greeks are no longer capable of dreaming because some people – who have profited immensely over the past few decades – persuaded them that owning a 4×4 SUV and a holiday home on some island is more important.
Our government has been reduced to an office for hammering out deals with large multinationals and banks, and its ministers don’t even dare show their faces in public for fear of being booed. Though admittedly no expert, I imagine that the only solution would be for Europeans, and Greeks with them, to insist on their basic political and economic rights. It seems very likely to me, and I hope I’m right, that the next few years will be marked by uprisings, small or large-scale. I can’t see any other way for young people to fend off the nightmare of unemployment and poverty.
On a personal level, until then, I will take comfort in the thought that even if the current financial crisis forces me to give up smoking, I will at least be surrounded by people who will support me, if only with a smile, but most importantly, I will know that the poor of Africa, of Latin America and of Asia are suffering much more than we in the West, and I will still feel guilty about that . . .
Translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife