The Call of the Earth, a novel by Evangelos Averoff-Tossizza. Translated by Andre
Michalopoulos. Published in 1981 by Caratzas Brothers, New Rochelle, NY. Hardcover, 305
Although this book is explicitly called a novel, it is said by its author to be based in part on real events, and to factually describe these events. Besides this unusual mixing of fiction and non-fiction, there is so much hidden underneath the surface of this book that one must dissect it very carefully and fill in its context in order to begin to understand both the book and its implications.
We may start with a very rough background: Up until the early 1800s, there was no such thing as “nationalism” Europeans identified first and foremost with their local area—their village or immediate region. With the birth of the idea of nationality, political leaders built modern states on the basis of the new principle.
But there was—and still is—one main problem: What does one do when one finds large numbers of people (in the areas one desires to rule) who are either not of the same “nationality” as you, or who have as yet a still fuzzy notion of their own “national” identity? The answer: One tries to convert them to one’s own “nationality”—or else one ends up 100 years later with a Basque or Kurdish independence movement.
Once upon a time, the Aromanians were neither Greeks nor Rumanians. Their attendance in Greek schools and churches for several centuries gave them a culture which shared certain aspects with the Greeks. Their linguistic inheritance gave them a language which shared certain aspects with the Rumanians. In the 19th century, when their fellow subjects of the crumbling Ottoman (Turkish) Empire were breaking away from the Sultan’s rule to form their own new states, the Aromanians had no clear notion of a “national” identity for themselves.
One could readily have predicted that, naturally, along with their own independence from the Ottomans, Greece and Rumania would start to compete for the loyalties of the Aromanians— and they did. (Even if it had occurred to someone to try to create a separate Aromanian state, there were just too few Aromanians to create one with—perhaps a half-million, as compared with a few million Greeks and many millions of Rumanians.)
A bitter rivalry was created between pro-Greek and pro-Rumanian factions within many Aromanian villages in the Balkans and, if Aromanian culture ever does indeed disappear, it will be due in no small part to the hatred and violence initiated in this period (the 1890s until 1945). It seemed as if one had to be either Greek or Rumanian. Only in the 1980s has a distinctly Aromanian cultural movement finally begun in Greece and around the world. Unfortunately, it may be too late to salvage most of us from thinking we are really Greeks, or Rumanians, or even something else.
Mr. Averoff is a well-known Aromanian whose name is associated with the town of Metsovo (called Aminju in Aromanian). He is a leader of the Greek conservative party, Nea Demokratia, and has served as Foreign Minister and Defense Minister of Greece. Although he seems to lavish attention on Metsovo and to relish the old-fashioned ways of this Aromanian mountain settlement, Mr. Averoff is a staunch Hellenist—so much so that he has been one of the few politicians to speak out against the cultural revival of the 1980s in the Aromanian villages of Greece.
There were two particularly ugly episodes of the Rumanian-Greek competition for our political souls: At the turn of this century, Greek guerillas fighting against Bulgarians for control of Macedonia and Thrace were ordered by the Greek government to turn also on the (unarmed) Aromanians involved with the Rumanian nationalist movement. They were seen as a threat to Greek domination of these regions, and dozens of them were killed. We all know about this; impartial Western writers covered this era in some detail, and regularly deplored the violence against the Aromanian nationalists.
What most of us don’t know about, however, is the other ugly episode: During World War II, a number of our people in Epirus, Macedonia, and Thessaly (some of whom were involved in the pro-Rumanian movement) turned to fascism as a solution to their problems, and actually collaborated with the Italian fascists and the Nazis. If this movement failed to equal the atrocities committed earlier against the Aromanians, this was mainly due to the fact that it was, thankfully, short-lived.
Now, I personally happen to have two very basic beliefs about these two episodes:
1) we probably should not talk about them for a generation or so outside of scholarly circles, and
2) one cannot any longer discuss one without the other.
Unfortunately, with this book Mr. Averoff has violated both of my beliefs. In building his story around the Aromanian fascist movement of World War II, he has taken an extremely sensitive question out of its context and placed it in a context he has created—one which suits his purposes as a novelist and as a politician and Hellenist.
This is all the more unfortunate when one considers that there are several works in English which describe the events of 1890-1914, but none (as far as I know) concerning those of 1941-1942. We who are across the ocean thus have had no way of obtaining accurate, useful information on the latter period. This book could have filled this gap, but instead Mr. Averoff has done what so many others before him have done: he has used the Aromanians as a mere device in a game in which the goal is not to help Aromanian culture and dignity, but rather to sacrifice the Aromanians on the altar of some imagined “higher purpose”—in this case, of Hellenism.
Here is the message hidden within the story: All those Vlachs who see themselves as Hellenes are good guys, and those who see themselves as anything else are bad guys. The former operate out of honor, selflessness, courage, and moral goodness, while the latter are motivated only by depravity, greed, fear (or hunger), and moral wickedness.
Here is the story: Nikita Coletti, grandson of a great Greek magnate and patriot, has become an effeminate poet in pre-World War II Paris. Just before the outbreak of the war, he returns to Greece (which he detests as “uncivilized”) to settle his inheritance, and ends up embroiled in events—including the outbreak of war—which do not allow him to leave.
Along the way, he has a sort of mystical “conversion experience” and soon after joins the Greek army during its heroic but ultimately unsuccessful defense against the combined Italian and German invasion in the winter of 1940-1941. When the Greek army disperses, Nikita—now made into a real man and staunch Hellenist by the war—returns to his grandfather’s estate in Thessaly only to find a Vlach fascist movement underway in Larissa.
This was a real movement fomented by the infamous Alcibiades Diamantis of Samarina, who had for some time been promoting the interests of outside powers (Italy and Rumania). With the Occupation, he collaborated with the Axis in attempting to create a separate “Vlach Principality,” consisting of parts of Epirus and Macedonia and all of Thessaly, with himself as “Prince” and a compatriot from Samarina as the head of an army of fascistic Aromanian followers known as the “Roman Legion.” These people went about their disgusting business roughing up both Greeks and Aromanians who wouldn’t cooperate in their plans to dominate the local political and economic structures.
Besides the strictly human damage done, this movement caused tremendous local ill will against any future Aromanian assertion of a separate ethnicity, a state of affairs that has lasted even into the 1980s. It is indeed one of the darkest chapters in our history. Thankfully, some people (both pro-Greek and pro-Rumanian, though Mr. Averoff only shows the former) resisted these fascists and Rumania managed to undo the movement by getting Diamantis to that country and keeping him there—but only because it had realized that Diamantis favored Italy over Rumania as the power to dominate the Aromanians.
This is a dramatic story, one that needs to be told if we are to maintain a balanced perspective of our own history. But Mr. Averoff has tainted it—he has even legitimated this detestable movement—by bending these events to fit his simplistic black-and-white schema. Of course, Nikita ends up resisting the fascists. Of course, Nikita turns out to be Vlach himself, but first and foremost a Greek. Of course, of course, of course . . .
More than anything else, this book is predictable. Now, if there is one thing that art should not be, it should not be predictable. But if the book is not art, what is it? It is baldly and unmistakably a work of propaganda, a vehicle for Mr. Averoff’s political and cultural philosophy to be disseminated to the Greek millions—and not in a bold and forthright way, but couched in the extremely manipulable symbols of a work of fiction. It is as if one wrote a book, knowing the almost universal contempt in which cannibals are held, which simplistically and fictitiously assigned one’s own viewpoint to the forces opposed to cannibalism, and all viewpoints which did not exactly harmonize with one’s own to the cannibals.
Ultimately, that is my greatest objection to this book. Mr. Averoff has clearly low opinion of Aromanian intelligence, culture, and language. His adjectives include “miserable,” “primitive,” “deficient,” etc. In essence, we Vlachs are a bunch of ignorant buffoons unless and until we adopt the more refined, advanced, and beautiful culture and language of Greece.
In the 1980s, however, this argument is less feasible than ever. We are no longer certain that any one culture is superior to another. Greece, ironically, has for centuries been oppressed by Westerners who held Mr. Averoff’s point of view on an international basis. In this view, Greece is a cultural backwater, its development smothered for centuries by Oriental domination, and Greeks are a bunch of ignorant buffoons unless and until they adopt the more refined, advanced, and beautiful culture and language of the West. What nonsense!
It is precisely such arguments which have led some Greeks to discard much Greek demotic music and vivid language for “less Oriental” and therefore more acceptable Western music, as well as for archaic and stilted language. Greece has been the worse for these “refinements,” and is at last today modernizing its own cultural values and asserting them against the onslaught from the West.
In short, Mr. Averoff is on the right side here—the anti-fascist side, for which we applaud him—but for the wrong reasons (nationalistic, not moral). And he is telling the right story, for which we again applaud him—but in the wrong format (a novel, which allows him to manipulate the facts to make it look as if any manifestation of a distinct Vlach identity is as corrupt and ill-motivated as the infamous Vlach Principality).
The approach taken in our day by sociologists seeking to understand fascist movements is to examine the socio-economic, historic, and cultural position of the adherents. This is far more complex than Mr. Averoff’s simplistic schema of “pro-Greek equals good, non-Greek equals bad,” but it yields more useful results. For instance, members of marginal groups within the dominant society are more likely to participate in fascistic movements.
What were those who refused to surrender their Aromanian identity for another (Greek, Albanian, Serbian, etc.) if not a “marginal group”? Of course they were prime candidates for recruitment by charismatic movements. These people also had a chip on their shoulders about the violence used earlier against the Vlach nationalist movement. Does this justify the activities of the Roman Legions in 1941-1942? Of course it does not, but it sure might help us to understand them and to deal with this period intelligently.
Which brings me back to my belief that these issues are too divisive, they cut too deeply, for us to be able to just play around with them in novels any way we might want to. We have not been able to resolve these questions for a long time now. Perhaps we ought to stop focussing on them and to leave them to our intellectuals for a generation or two, and in the meantime maybe the rest of us can get on with saving the little that is left of our culture? Burying the hatchet may indeed be our only hope.