Posted: March 7, 2012 in Greece, review

Ashes is a good read, but perhaps it should be read at a time when the reader is feeling optimistic about the world and their life.  

It is a very dark and depressing book, and for me it was  a difficult read as I did not realise how badly the harsh story it would affect me. Ashes is about an arson attack on a house in which, an old man, a young woman and her 3-year old daughter are killed, and a once famous actress Sonia Varika is badly burned and left in a coma. 

The story is told from three perspectives by the victim Sonia [a back story in italics], by Police Colonel Chronis Haldikis, Head of Internal Affairs, and by elderly lawyer Simeon Piertovanis. Despite the fact that the evidence shows that the fire was arson Haldikis is told by his superiors to list it as an accident, because powerful people want it hushed up. Among the reasons for not investigating is that Greece must appear to be a modern successful country with the approaching 2004 Olympic games. Chronis and Simeon had both been Sonia’s lovers in the past, and Chronis recruits the lawyer to a small team to find out who perpetrated the crime and why. 

As the story proceeds we learn that Sonia and Simeon’s lives have been ravaged by alcohol, and that Chronis requires regular topping up with cocaine to function. This is a tale of ruined people, in a country ruined by greed and corruption; sections of  a politically motivated police force, and gangs of anabolic steroid enhanced fascists are working with seedy property developers to make the country a living hell. The book was published in Greece in 2007 just before the wheels fell off the economy, something exacerbated by the level of political corruption. 

“Junta-socialist” was the least offensive nickname for Attica’s Police Chief, a commander ho, after gorging on half a suckling-pig washed down with ten litres of beer, would often argue that the only politicians who had genuinely cared about the country were Andreas Papandreou, the founder of the socialist P.A.S.O.K.  party, and George Papadopoulos, one of the three colonels who engineered the ’67 coup. 

I think that politicians are the people who should read crime fiction books like Ashes, even if they might find it uncomfortable reading recognizing themselves in the narratives or even learning that their policies are the cause rather than the cure for nation’s problems.

………….listened to the 11.00 on the car radio and tried really hard to persuade myself that the fatty, who in a couple of months would become prime minister, was our saviour and would deliver us from financial ruin and corruption.

One lesson that could be learned from reading Ashes is not to interfere in other people’s wars, as you might eventually get the blame when things go wrong.

“Well, you know whose fault it is?” ‘How would I know I am only a civil servant.”

“The ‘Great Powers’. If they hadn’t interfered back then, everything would be alright today.”

“Which ‘back then’ are you talking about?”

“The Battle of Navarino. Wasn’t that when it all started?”

[The Battle of Navarino 1827:when the British, French and Russian fleets destroyed the Egyptian and Turkish fleets during the Greek War of Independence]

A clever book and even if Chronis Halkidis doesn’t do things by the book, an understatement, he is an interesting protagonist coping as best he can in a very damaged society. I shall look out for the next in the series because it will be fascinating to see how Chronis copes with the economic collapse of his country. 

  1. Maxine says:

    I very much agree with your assessment of the book – it is a harsh story set in a harsh place. I liked the way that the protagonist represented the “good” values, but not where his adherence to them drove him by the end. I agree that the next book will be interesting to read. A couple of years ago I read Che Committed Suicide by Petros Marakaris which also was set in Athens in the run-up to the Olympic games, and was about the corruption in the building and other industries connected with that. I’d love to read his next book, which has been translated into other languages but has been severely delayed in the UK, sadly.

  2. Sarah says:

    Interesting review Norman. I have this book on my TBR pile but can’t face it at the moment. As you say, something to read when the world is a bit happier I think. The writer is not well known in Greece which is a shame and the copy of the book that I have was purchased in England. 2004 was a very interesting time in Greece so I am keen to see how the writer portray the period.

  3. Norman says:

    Thanks Maxine. I find the whole Greek situation very sad. I thought Ashes was easier to understand than the Markaris, although the protagonist wasn’t as nice. EU grants have possibly been the cause of more corruption in countries where it was already endemic.

  4. Norman says:

    Thanks Sarah. I haven’t had a chance to ask my relatives of Greek origin about the author, or the situation [one relative is an expert on Balkan crime] because of family health problems, but perhaps will do so in the future.

  5. kathy d. says:

    Based on this review, I think I’ll put this on hold for now. Too much of a downer.
    However, I’m happily ensconced in Vigata, Sicily, vicariously enjoying biscotti, whole wheat bread drizzled with olive oil, fresh coffee and the countryside with Salvo and the gang investigating in the Voice of the Violin.
    It just takes about three or four pages to rev up the endorphins and serotonin levels and start laughing. If only this series would go on forever. My only complaint is that after this one, I only have four to go. Andrea Camilleri: Keep writing!

  6. kathy d. says:

    Off-topic, just to say that says that there are seven more Montalbano books not yet translated into English, so there is a future in Vigata!

  7. Norman says:

    Kathy -Seven more Montalbano books! Off topic but an item of cheerful news on a day of very sad news from Afghanistan. Not only the deaths of six young British soldiers, but on International Women’s Day I read that President Karzai backs the Ulema Council’s statement that “Men are fundamental, women are secondary”.

    What on earth are NATO doing there?

  8. […] here to see the original: ASHES: SERGIOS GAKAS trans ANNE-MARIE STANTON-IFE … Tags: books, crime, even-learning, fiction, find-it-uncomfortable, narratives, […]

  9. kathy d. says:

    I”m with you Norman. What is NATO doing there is a good question. I asked myself this when the first bombs dropped in 2001, and untold numbers of women and children have been killed; when a celebration of International Women’s Day took place about five years ago in Kabul with a “fashion show”; while girls can’t get to school; women are begging in the streets and have the worse maternal mortality rate in the world; and where 8 shepherd boys got bombed a few weeks ago as they huddled under rocks to stay warm while their animals grazed.

    It would be a lot better to build hospitals and schools and housing, send medical personnel, etc.

    Karzai always sides with the reactionaries on women’s issues; there have been some doozies of laws passed prohibiting women’s rights, which have led to protests by women in Kabul.

    On a lighter note, finished Voice of a Violin, which is a gem! One of the best with Montalbano running the gamut of emotions and maneuvers to push back a dishonest police bureaucrat, solve a case, expose a murderer and deal with a personal crisis. And get in some terrific food in the process.

    I’m thrilled about the seven more books, but worried that my life goes into disarray when I read these books, as they take precedence over all else.

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